For the Love of All Things Holy…

by Kari Swanson

For the love of all things holy, breastfeeding is not sacred.   It is simply a fact of anatomical structures, physiological processes and biological circumstance that female mammals produce these nutritional substances we call milk to sustain the lives of their offspring through infancy, preparing them in uniquely appropriate ways for their future existences.  While I certainly appreciate the wonder that is nature, whether it was designed by some Intelligence or not, I do not think it serves women or infants particularly well to proceed down the rabbit hole that is defining what should be a commonplace, normal, and natural part of child-rearing as a sacred activity that requires devotion on the scale of a full-fledged religious experience.

Milk is the liquid substance produced by the mammary glands of female mammals upon which young mammals feed.  For each species the quantity and quality of the life-sustaining substance varies to support the specific needs of that species.  Like other mammals, human females produce milk from their mammary glands in what some might describe as a complex, yet elegant process.  Except in cases where glandular tissue is insufficiently developed, all human females possess the anatomy and physiology to produce milk.  Quality and quantity are dependent on numerous factors (e.g. the woman’s nutritional status, stimulation of supply from suckling, etc.), but the capability is there simply by the existence of the glandular tissue itself and exposure to the cascade of chemicals that result following pregnancy and childbirth.  Whether or not there was intelligence in the design it is a factual characteristic of our membership in the class Mammalia that we as human females can and do produce milk.  Given the right circumstances it can even be stimulated in females who have never given birth.  Yet despite the decidedly universal nature of this capability among all mammals we are arguably the only species that both maligns and elevates this activity.

It is the elevation of this somewhat mundane activity that is my primary concern here.  The term sacred is variously defined by Merriam Webster to include, that which is “dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity”, or that which is “worthy of religious veneration” or that which is “entitled to reverence or respect” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sacred).  In the profane world in which we live elevating breastfeeding into the realm of the sacred marginalizes women.  Women are not deities.  Setting us apart for special treatment based purely on the fact of our anatomy is a set up for social exclusion and it is a set up for segregating women into categories of those who “do it right” and those who do not.  Dichotomy is not supportive.  It is divisive.  It is a privileged perspective.

Cult-like worship of a biological activity that requires significant social support, in a culture that has largely forgotten that the activity is normal, does little to improve the integration of the activity into the everyday lives of all people.  It also does not present a broad range of what constitutes success, which will certainly not increase rates of breastfeeding.  It will alienate women who cannot achieve the ideal.  Women need to create their own standards for breastfeeding success and they need to be supported in so doing.  It behooves us as supporters of breastfeeding women to provide the kind of support that increases the number of women who breastfeed.  Classifying breastfeeding as a sacred activity does not do that.

Breastfeeding is not a sacred activity.  Breastfeeding is everyday, commonplace, normal, flexible, and beautiful for what it is.  This is breastfeeding:

Woman breastfeeding a child while surrounded by others listening to speakers during an outdoor STFU meeting.

Woman breastfeeding a child while surrounded by others listening to speakers during an outdoor STFU meeting. http://www.flickr.com/photos/kheelcenter/5279315901/in/photolist-93vSFX/

Nothing more.  Nothing less.


kariswansonTLB
 Kari Swanson is a daughter, sister, wife, mother of two, librarian, member of Generation X and an admin for The Leaky B@@b Facebook page.   Kari blogs occasionally over at Thoughts from BookishMama.

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Comments

  1. I’m going to be blunt and say that this post offends me. I don’t believe it is your right to tell me what to hold sacred. As point of fact, I am part of a nature religion that *does* find such natural acts to be sacred. It doesn’t mean that such activities are set aside or worshiped. I also find feeding others to be a sacred thing–that we all share in the nourishment provided by the Divine. To me, all of life is a blessed thing worthy of honor.

    Should breastfeeding and breastefeeders be treated as a normal thing? Yes, just like me eating dinner. But the very fact that the Divine has provided that food to be eaten is a sacred thing. As I pray in thanks for my food, so too do I pray in thanks for my ability to breastfeed. I’ll thank you not to tell me I’m not allowed.

    • Ok, so it is sacred to you, fine. Nobody is saying you can’t experience it that way. The author is simply stating how she feels elevating breastfeeding as sacred can undermine women in society and breastfeeding as a whole. In other words, it can be sacred for you but please don’t promote it as such for everyone as doing so can very easily create obstacles for other women in reaching their breastfeeding goals.

      Personally I don’t find breastfeeding sacred yet I do thank God that I’m able to do so as well as give thanks for the food for my entire family. But no, it’s not sacred. There are many things I’m grateful for that I don’t consider sacred. Even when I experience moments that feel spiritual in the mundane, tender moments of bonding, special glimmers of insight, and overwhelming contentment and happiness still don’t make those events sacred every time for me. But that’s me personally. If it’s sacred for you, great. Kari, the author, shares that it’s not for her and she believes that an emphasis on breastfeeding being sacred could do more harm than good. She’s not telling you what your experience must be. ~Jessica

  2. Well said. Makes me think of the shirts, etc. that have slogans stating breastfeeding is some superpower, and implying those who cannot are less than. Marvelling at the amazingness of how our bodies are made to create nourishment for our babies is one thing, but how does putting people down encourage breastfeeding? The best way to promote and normalize breastfeeding is simply to do it. I choose to use a cover when I am out for my own comfort, but people still know exactly what I am doing – feeding my 20 month old because she is thirsty/hungry/sad/tired wherever we happen to be.

    • I agree. I think those sayings are clever and fun but shortsighted and unnecessarily segregating. Breastfeeding, to me, is normal. It is worth celebrating much in the way birthdays and giving birth is, but it’s normal. Seeing it as such can really help others envision themselves doing it as well because it just is, not because they are signing up for a sacred experience. ~Jessica

  3. @Wolf_Mommy says:

    For the purpose of this post I agree, breastfeeding is just one of those things we do to raise our kids. We feed them. It’s a biological norm, a fact of life, a typical happening in the day an life of a mother.

    But!

    In today’s society it is a rarity, and that often makes things sacred, especially when it comes to our children. As advocates we look at the Mama-Nursling dyad and see a relationship that should not be f’d with, in any way. You don’t take baby away from mama at the birth, you teach a mama to babywearing so she can be close to her food, skin-to- skin to keep the happy hormones flowing, she can nurse that babe in public, no matter that “food and drink are not permitted.” We whisk off their little baby hats, we throw out the bottles, pacifiers and tell MIl to take a backseat and no, don you DARE take that 3wk old out of mama’s arms. Want to help? Do some dishes.

    We move heaven and earth so that the sanctity of the nursing bond is not compromised. In other parts of the animal kingdom, this is a given. Mother koalas aren’t back at their 9-to- 5 job before they wean, no one expects an elephant who just birthed her calf to be separated from it, and in general, if you tried to take a nursling away from mama gorilla you’d be lucky to escape leaving your arm behind, if not your life. Nature respects the sanctity of this bond, in nature, the alternative is death. Breastfeeding is life. It’s sacred. But it is a given.

    And to look at it yet another way, why shouldn’t we think the fact that we (or any mammals) can nurture our young with our bodies long after they are born is miraculous? Frankly, as much as I’m around pregnancy and birth, I still find the whole process totally amazing. It’s the creation and maintenance of life WITH OUR BODIES. It’s amazing to me to see a Cow give birth, or the way a cat sprawls on we back to feed her kittens. Females are amazing creatures. There is nothing wrong in marveling at the wonder and defining the act of giving life as sacred.

    So while I do not exactly disagree with this blog post, I don’t fully agree either. The advocate in me agrees, the mother and woman in me do not!

  4. Rochelle A. says:

    Hmm….I have to agree..and disagree. Breastfeeding is natural…and commonplace…and sacred all at once. One thing I have learned about the sacred…it isn’t the gilded cathedrals or the stained glass windows….it is the dirty, nitty gritty things in life.

    For those of us who are Christians….nothing makes this more plain than Christ Himself. He was born in a stable. He worked as a Carpenter…He died in a fashion reserved for criminals…he was buried in a borrowed tomb. The sacred was NOT the miracles He wrought…or even His resurrection….it was in what He did daily…His reaching out to the unfit…his being willing to be LESS in order that they could be more.

    So…yes. Breastfeeding IS sacred…because it is commonplace. It is natural. It is what was intended to be the food for our children. I would argue that for the mother who can’t breastfeed…her time feeding her child is also sacred. When people’s hearts and minds bond….it is a sacred time and space.

  5. “For the love of all things holy, breastfeeding is not sacred.”

    OMG, this cracked me up. :)

    I just bought a belly dance for birth DVD. I know that some belly dance moves have helped me deal with cramps in the past, so it seemed logical. I also know that a lot of people like to take belly dance and hang whatever beliefs they like on it. The star of this particular DVD wore a bindi and talked about chakras. Gosh, I hope she’s a practicing Hindu and not just appropriating someone else’s culture.

    “Place your hands on your belly,” intoned the star, “And tell your baby whatever you want.”

    “Hey kiddo,” I said. “You don’t understand English yet.” She kicked me in the bladder, which promptly cramped. I’m so glad we had that conversation.

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