We were admittedly a fairly crunchy granola couple, and we never thought it was going to be a problem. It was better for the children, and it was the natural thing to do, and the thing God intended, and a lot easier than the technological solutions, and a lot cheaper too, and our peers all did it.
There was no downside . . . except the number of people who acted as if we’d just urinated on their front lawn. There were times I suddenly thought, "There are really silly people in the world." (I thought “idiots,” actually, to be honest, but I was younger then, and had stronger reactions to human silliness.)
I’m talking about breastfeeding, or in the less graphic term used as a euphemism, nursing. (“Breastfeeding” has the word “breast” in it, which makes people think of breasts. So some people say “nursing.”) It’s not a live issue for us anymore, but I thought back to our years as young parents when a younger friend, a New Testament scholar you would not have pegged as a crunchy granola type, posted this hilarious video, Four Reasons Women Should Never Breastfeed in Public. (The speaker, Kristina Kuzmic, puts the point more colorfully than some readers may like.) My friend was surprised to find himself a “lactivist.”
Breastfeeding is a third rail subject, because people who disagree with you can go ballistic in about a tenth of a second. To be accurate, families whose mothers don’t breastfeed their children can go ballistic in about a tenth of a second. Families whose mothers do just get annoyed when challenged or, as sometimes happens, patronized. The default position for anyone speaking about the subject is to say that whether to do it is a personal decision, families differ so much no generalizations can be made, no one can say which way is better, etc.
Which isn’t, for the Catholic, true. It isn’t a subject on which much authoritative has been said, but what has been said speaks on the side of the parctice, at least as a strong urging if not a directive. As Pope Pius XII said back in 1941, “except where it is quite impossible, it is most desirable that the mother should feed her child at her own breast.” John Paul II cited this approvingly when speaking to a conference on breastfeeding at the Vatican. "In addition to [its] immunological and nutritional effects, he said,
this natural way of feeding can create a bond of love and security between mother and child, and enable the child to assert its presence as a person through interaction with the mother. . . . One hopes that your studies will serve to “heighten public awareness of how much this natural activity benefits the child and helps to create the closeness and maternal bonding” so necessary for healthy child development. So human and natural is this bond that the Psalms use the image of the infant at its mother’s breast as a picture of God’s care for man (cf. Ps 22:9).
And now Pope Francis has encouraged mothers to feed their children at Mass. (Which, somehow, his critics will hold against him because, well, he was speaking.)
This seems definitive but it is also counter-cultural. If the Catholic teaching isn’t enough reason to breastfeed for as long as is good for the child, there’s another reason, and one that explains why even those of us for whom it’s no longer a practical matter might find ourselves lactivists. That is, that the alternative is a prime and paradigmatic example of a deeply human practice being technologized and commodified and these we should resist. Starting in the 1950s, many natural human activities were treated as primitive and replaced with un-natural substitutes, because money could be made that way. Even doctors, who are far more malleable creatures of their society and economy than we’d like to think, colluded.
Some years ago I was talking to an older woman who’d had her children in the fifties. She described how the doctors and nurses ordered the new mothers to give their children formula from the day of their birth. It was the only thing done. And then she stared out across the yard and spoke of one young mother in the maternity ward who insisted on feeding her own child, and how she wished she’d known to do the same. But the experts said “formula,” so formula she chose. The young woman persevered through abuse and neglect. The woman admired that, after it was too late for her.
That particular example of commercial subversion of the created order has faded in effect somewhat. (Though some companies turned to exploiting markets in the developing world.) Breastfeeding is now more acceptable, even in public. But still, if what some young fathers have told me is true, outside crunchy granola circles, it’s still thought eccentric and disfavored if practiced beyond the first few months of the child’s life.
It still requires, except among the very successful, a somewhat counter-cultural life. (And for the working poor, it can be a luxury good they can’t afford.) When we were younger, in conversation with other parents one of them — usually the father — would say that ideally, of course, breastfeeding for more than a month or two or three would be a good thing, natural and all that, but it just wasn’t practical. Wish it was, but it’s not. No, I thought, it isn’t practical — if you want to have the house you have, and the cars you drive, and the vacations you take, and the meals you eat out. Not practical at all, if that’s your baseline. But if you have another baseline, as practical as potatoes.
If we begin not with what we think we can do but with what the Church asks of us, we find an alternative lifestyle pretty much required. That, I think, just looking at my family’s own fumbling and inconsistent attempt to live a Catholic life, will bring blessings you don’t expect, as well as sacrifices. Those blessings might begin with a mother feeding her child.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.