This letter was written on behalf of an acquaintance who was facing challenges from church leadership to her decision breastfeed “in public” at church (meaning that she did not excuse herself to the Mother’s Room). I spoke at length with her about the situation before I wrote my letter. Out of respect for her request that this situation not become public, I have held this letter for many months. Now, I feel comfortable sharing it.
Given that today is the first day of World Breastfeeding Week and a breastfeeding in church situation just came up again, I feel like now is an especially appropriate time to share this.
While it is addressed to the members and leaders of my faith, the same principles apply to members and leaders of all religious congregations and to members and leaders of the community at large.
Our Little Miss is now 22 months old and still breastfeeding. I still nurse her in public if she needs to. My hope is to encourage people everywhere to support women who breastfeed so that they and their babies can have the benefits of breastfeeding until the physiologically normal age of weaning.
Dear members and leaders of the church,
I am an LDS mother. I have a beautiful almost-5-month old girl. From long before she was born, my husband and I have been making decisions with her best interests at heart. We have had long, intense conversations about the choices we are making.
It is important to us to give Monkey everything she needs to grow up healthy and strong and smart, with a conversion to the gospel and reliance on Heavenly Father.
One of those keys for us is breastfeeding her.
My husband and I have had long conversations about breastfeeding “in public”, which means anywhere from an intimate dinner with friends to during a trip to the mall. Somewhere between these two is attending church.
After those conversations, we have decided that not only is it appropriate for me to breastfeed M in church – in the chapel, during Sunday School or Relief Society (or during Young Women’s if I got called to serve our young sisters) – it is valuable to more than just M and me.
When Little Miss was born, breastfeeding was not easy for me. Like many modern women, I had not been exposed to it the way my grandmothers were. I had to learn how and I nearly gave up. I wish I had known someone in my ward who could help as my family is all far away. I wish I had grown up more exposed to breastfeeding (and since I am the oldest of four and my mother breastfed all of us, I was exposed to it some and it was still not enough). I wish that it had not been so foreign to me.
Ultimately though, when I breastfeed Monkey in public, my goal is not to offend. It is not to make a statement. It is not to educate others. It is simply to feed or comfort my baby.
When I do not “excuse myself” to another room, I do it not to throw my beliefs in someone else’s face. I do not wish to make others uncomfortable. I simply want to be a part of whatever else is happening or be blessed through participation in church and still do what is best for my baby.
We live in a world that is increasingly sexualized and our exposure to human bodies increases while our comfort level with our own bodies decreases. This is especially new of women and new mothers.
Like me, few women instinctively know how to breastfeed and there are many, many barriers to doing it. Unfortunately, one of these for LDS women is a culture that discourages us from any sort of familiarity with our own bodies. In an effort to stay “morally pure” we are not given the skills we need to be good mothers. This is tragic.
It has long-reaching consequences for the young men in the church as well. They are taught (as girls are as well), that “sex is bad, until you get married”. At the same time, they see semi-nude images almost everywhere they go.
For many, the taboo nature of a woman’s body in the LDS faith coupled with the sexualization of her in modern culture leads our young men to be curious. Some of them turn to parents or church leaders for answers while others, sadly, turn to friends and peers and the internet. This natural curiosity leads some of them down dark paths of addiction to pornography that takes excruciating work to overcome.
When leaders of the church ask women to cover up while breastfeeding their babies at church (or worse, go to another room), they reinforce these world-created narratives of a woman’s body and add barriers to something that is already not easy. They create secrecy or shame where there is none and they alienate women who often need the church interaction the very most.
Church leaders and other members would do woman an incredible service to every member of the church if they actively supported breastfeeding moms who care for their children (sometimes despite personal discomfort or inconvenience and public, cultural and familial disapproval) in the way their children most need. Sometimes this means uncovered at an unclothed breast.
A woman’s body is sacred and should be honored and respected, especially when it is being used to do exactly what our Heavenly Father purposed it to do: provide bodies for His spirit children and nourish and rear them.
Thank you so much for your support of us as breastfeeding mothers.
P.S. This little package – a nursing cover – was delivered to an acquaintance of mine this week. It came from the Young Women of her ward. I am beyond horrified that this lesson is being taught to the Young Women by their leaders. Breasts, like nearly every part of the body, have both a utilitarian and a sexual purpose. This attitude creates shame, fear and unfamiliarity with breastfeeding. It should never, ever happen. Let’s work together to normalize breastfeeding, end the modesty debate and support mothers and babies everywhere!