Breastfeeding and Parenting as Spiritual Practices

 

Every single human being was drummed into this world by a woman, having listened to the heart rhythms of their mother.

––Connie Sauer

When I became a mother, many things in my life changed. I was startled and dismayed by the magnitude in which my free time diminished and one by one many of my leisure pursuits and hobbies were discarded. The time for one of my favorite hobbies increased exponentially, however: reading. As a child I was a voracious reader—my mother had to set a limit for me of “only two books a day.” In college and graduate school, reading for fun fell away and I spent six years reading primarily textbooks and journal articles. In the years following, I began to read for pleasure again and when my first baby was born in 2003, I once again became a truly avid reader. Why? Because of breastfeeding. As I nursed my little son, I read and read and read. This became the rhythm of our lives: suck, swallow, read, and consider.

At first I scoured The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and the Sears’ The Baby Book to try to make sense of my new life and then began to gobble up books about motherhood and women’s experiences of mothering. Reading did actually help me adjust to motherhood. Subtitled “Breastfeeding as a Spiritual Practice,” an article published in the fall 2003 issue of Mothering magazine was immensely meaningful to me. My baby was about two weeks old when the magazine arrived—the first issue I had received after his birth. This article was in it and it was exactly what I needed to read. Breastfeeding can be a meditative and spiritual act––it is actually a “practice” a “discipline” of sorts. The author, Leslie Davis, explains it better:

I realized I’d never before devoted myself to something so entirely. Of course I’ve devoted myself to my husband, to my family, to friends, to my writing, to mothering, and even to God and other spiritual endeavors at various points in my life…I’d completely given myself to this act of nursing in a way that I never had before. Nothing was more important than nursing my son. Nothing was put before it. There was no procrastination as with exercise, no excuses as with trying to stop eating sugar, no laziness as with housecleaning and other chores. Nursing had to be done, and I did it, over and over again, multiple times a day, for more than 800 days in a row. It was the closest thing to a spiritual practice that I’d ever experienced. 

With my first baby, viewing the act of breastfeeding through a spiritual lens like this was a lifeline to me as a vulnerable, sensitive, and bruised postpartum woman trying desperately to adjust my pace as an overachieving “successful” independent person to one spending hours in my nursing chair attached to a tiny mouth. I marvel at the uncountable number of times I spent nursing my first son and then my second son and now my daughter.  The intensity and totality of the breastfeeding relationship is extremely profound—it requires a more complete physical/body investment with someone than you will ever have with anyone else in your life, including sexual relationships. While I don’t like to lump the breastfeeding relationship in the same category with sex, because it feels like I’m saying breastfeeding is sexual, when it isn’t…though, since lactation is definitely part of a woman’s reproductive functions, I guess maybe it is…my basic line of thought was that if you nurse a couple of kids through toddlerhood, odds are high that you will have nursed them many more times than you will end up having sex with a partner in your entire lifetime.

I calculated that so far in my life I’ve put a baby to my breast more than 12,000 times. Even if I only experienced a single moment of mindful awareness or contemplation or transcendence or sacredness during each of those occasions, that is one heck of a potent, dedicated, and holy practice. In the unique symbiosis of the nursing relationship, I recall a quote from the book The Blue Jay’s Dance (1996) by Louise Erdrich about male writers from the nineteenth century and their longing for an experience of oneness and seeking the mystery of an epiphany. She says: “Perhaps we owe some of our most moving literature to men who didn’t understand that they wanted to be women nursing babies.” (p. 148)

I have learned a lot about the fundamental truth of relatedness through my own experiences as a mother. Relationship is our first and deepest urge. The infant’s first instinct is to connect with others. Before an infant can verbalize or mobilize, she reaches out a hand to her mother. I have seen this with my own babies. Mothering is a profoundly physical experience. The mother’s body is the baby’s “habitat” in pregnancy and for many months following birth. Through the mother’s body the baby learns to interpret and to relate to the rest of the world and it is to mother’s body that she returns for safety, nurturance, and peace. Birth and breastfeeding exist on a continuum as well, with mother’s chest becoming baby’s new “home” after having lived in her womb for nine months. These thoroughly embodied experiences of the act of giving life and in creating someone else’s life and relationship to the world are profoundly meaningful.

How many generations of women have pushed out their babies and fed them at the breast without knowing the exact mechanics of reproduction, let alone milk production. There are all kinds of historical myths and “rules” about breastmilk and breastfeeding and even ten years ago we used to think the inner structure of the breast was completely different than what we think it is like now. Guess what? Our breasts still made milk and we still fed our babies, whether or not we knew exactly how the milk was being produced and delivered. Body knowledge, in this case, definitely still trumped scientific knowledge. I love that feeling when I snuggle down to nurse my own baby—my body is producing milk for her regardless of my conscious knowledge of the patterns or processes. And, guess what, humans cannot improve upon it. The body continues to do what the human mind and hand cannot replicate in a lab. And, has done so for millennia. I couldn’t make this milk myself using my brain and hands and yet day in and day out I do make it for her, using the literal blood and breath of my body, approximately 32 ounces of milk every single day for the last seventeen months. That is beautiful.

A simple meditation technique to use while breastfeeding is: “breathing in, I am nursing my baby. Breathing out, I am at peace.

Parenting as a Spiritual Practice

The spirituality of daily life with children is not only to be found in the breastfeeding relationship, but is woven into the warp and weft of the daily tasks of parenting with mindfulness, connection, and love. In this simple little verse from Eileen Rosensteel in the 2011 We’Moon Datebook, she describes it thusly:

My prayers are

The food I cook

The children I hug

The art I create

The words I write

I need no religion. (p. 152)

In the book Tying Rocks to Clouds (1996) the author interviews Stephen Levine, the father of three children and in response to a question about whether serious spiritual development is possible when having relationships with others (spouse, children, etc.) he says: “Talk about a fierce teaching. It is easier to sit for three years in a cave than to raise a child from the time he is born to three years old.” (p 160)

In the book, The Tao of Motherhood (2011) (literally the Tao Te Ching for mothers—a translation of the ancient Tao Te Ching by Lao-Tzu, but reworked slightly so that every “chapter” is about mothering and mothering well) a quote from the end of the chapter on selflessness:

“You can sit and meditate while

your baby cries himself to sleep.

Or you can go to him and share

his tears, and find your Self.”

And, then from Peggy O’Mara’s (1993) collection of essays, The Way Back Home, she raises this question: “Why is it that to rise gladly at 4:00 am to meditate and meet one’s God is considered a religious experience, and yet to rise at 4:00 am to serve the needs of one’s helpless child is considered the ultimate in deprivation?” (p. 19) O’Mara continues by explaining,

One can learn sitting meditation by rocking and nursing a little one to sleep; one can learn reclining meditation by staying still to avoid disturbing a little one who has been awake for hours; and one can learn walking meditation by walking and swaying with a little one who would like to be asleep for hours. One must learn to breathe deeply in a relaxed and meditative manner in order to still the mind that doubts one’s strength to go on, that sees every speck of dust on the floor and wants to clean it, and that tempts one to be up and about the busyness of accomplishment… (p. 19)

I do find that I have a tendency to think about my own spiritual practices as something that has to wait until I am alone, until I have “down time,” until I have space alone in my head in which to think and to be still. On the flip side, as I noted earlier, the act of breastfeeding, day in and day out, provides all manner of time for spiritual contemplation and meditative reflection. I often find it difficult to stay centered and grounded in mindfulness of breath and spirit during the swirl of life with little ones. I’ve done a lot of reading about “Zen parenting” type topics and it seems like it would be so simple to integrate mothering with mindfulness. Then, I find myself frazzled and scattered and self-berating, and wonder what the heck happened to my Zen. Then, I read an interesting article about anger and Zen Buddhism that clarified that meditation and Zen practices are not about being serene and unfrazzled, but about being present and able to sit with it all. And, it offered this helpful reminder:

I used to imagine that spiritual work was undertaken alone in a cave somewhere with prayer beads and a leather-bound religious tome. Nowadays, that sounds to me more like a vacation from spiritual work. Group monastic living has taught me that the people in your life don’t get in the way of your spiritual practice; these people are your spiritual practice. (Haubner, 2012, “The Angry Monk”)

I don’t need to wait to be alone in order to be “spiritual” in this life with my babies. This sometimes messy, sometimes chaotic, sometimes serene, sometimes frazzling, often joyful life is it.

Motherhood is an intensely embodied experience. It is profoundly empowering to know that you can build a whole person and sustain their lives with nothing but the materials of your own body—this is my blood, my milk, made flesh.

Notes: This is a reprint of the following article:  Remer, M. (2012). Breastfeeding as a spiritual practice. Restoration Earth: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Nature & Civilization, 1(2), 39–43. Copyright © The Authors. All rights reserved. For reprint information contact: oceanseminary@verizon.net.

Click here for a typset pdf version of the original article including references/endnotes.

The article was constructed from several of my prior blog posts and also published on Talk Birth, so if you’re familiar with my blog, a lot of the content in this post will also be familiar!

Reprinting here was prompted by reading this recent blog post at First the Egg.

The person leading the service asked the congregation to think about and support, among other groups, “parents and all those whose primary spiritual practice is caring for children.” And I’m so tired–so tired–because we never get decent sleep and we’re always ‘on,’ and I have so little self left over for creativity or meditation beyond the practice that is parenting (one act of care and then the next and then the next) and the practice that is writing (one word and then the next and then the next). And it felt goofy even at the time, but a wave of gratitude washed through me. I felt recognized in a way that I never, ever do outside my household. I felt like I was sitting amongst a community that could see what parenting is and what children are. Articulating that parenting is an intellectual, emotional, spiritual discipline and practice is both powerful and rare…

via parenting as a spiritual practice.


About Priestess Molly

Molly is a priestess, writer, birth educator, and activist who lives with her husband and children in the midwest. She is a breastfeeding counselor, a professor of human services, and doctoral student in women’s spirituality at Ocean Seminary College. Molly and her husband co-create goddess jewelry and birth art at Brigid’s Grove: http://brigidsgrove.com and she blogs about theapoetics, ecopsychology, and the Goddess at http://goddesspriestess.com.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I’ve really liked your writing about preparing for birth as a warrior’s rite. I only wish I’d had materials that prepared me for breastfeeding similarly.

    Despite confirming a “good latch” with the lactation consultant at the hospital, within 24 hours of getting home, I was in more pain than I’d been in for most of my labor. We made over a dozen phone calls trying to get a lactation consultant or someone from La Leche League to come to the house, because I was too anemic to go out — no one returned the calls. Finally my husband started to leave desperate, begging phone messages, and we finally got some good advice from a lactation consultant (pump and use an eyedropper until you can be seen by someone). Lactation consultant #3 gave me a nipple shield, which at least allowed me to continue to breastfeed at all, and when my supply wouldn’t keep up at two months, lactation consultant #4 and #5 diagnosed my son with a posterior tongue tie, which needed to be corrected. We’ve tried to retrain our latch, but not with a lot of success.

    All the breastfeeding books I have told me that nipple shields were bad and if breastfeeding was painful it was because I was doing it wrong. None of them had information on posterior tongue ties. I tried most of the strategies to raise supply (supplements, pumping after feeding, feeding on demand, etc.) and just couldn’t keep it up, because I couldn’t keep my job if I had to be pumping or have a baby nursing on me 18 hours a day.

    But! We are still breastfeeding! And my son is still getting most of the benefits of doing so; it’s just taken a great deal of bloody-minded perseverance. I just wish someone had told me it might be like this. Now that I’m in the midst of it, I’m getting the stories from my friends: “I couldn’t nurse him without sobbing in pain,” “I took every supplement plus prescription drugs and couldn’t get my supply up enough,” etc.

    I’d like to have at least one breastfeeding book out there that supports women in breastfeeding even when it’s hell, and that doesn’t assume any pain is due to some tiny, easily fixed problem. I continue to get the most condescending advice when I talk about this in public — I don’t know how anyone thinks, with the amount of pain I’ve experienced trying to make this work, that I haven’t already tried every obvious solution.

    Anyway, that is all a bit tangential to your post. I do think breastfeeding can be spiritual, though for some of us, it may be an ordeal as much as birth is. I would love to see that acknowledged better in breastfeeding resources.

    • http://goddesspriestess.com/ Molly

      Ooh! I am SO writing about this and *soon*. Thank you for the inspiration/food for thought. I don’t know if you know that I’ve been an LLL Leader for 8 years. I’ve written before that I have much more often marveled that a mother kept breastfeeding than I have wondered why she didn’t! Mothers are amazing and they go through a LOT. Reading your comment made me wonder why I’ve never really written about my own breastfeeding stories in the sense of a hero’s journey—perhaps because the difficult parts, once overcome, then fade into the fabric of that ongoing relationship? Perhaps because of the sheer ongoing *involvement* of breastfeeding, rather than the more discreet, definable *event* of birth? Perhaps because the path can be even more twisty and intimate and embodied and thorough and invested than even pregnancy and birth? Perhaps because, for me, my early breastfeeding stories are very bound up in my overall feelings during postpartum and the struggles I experienced there? Perhaps because for me personally the breastfeeding relationship continues to evolve into toddlerhood and so some of visceral, newborn, early *journey* elements are subsumed into the more habitual and every day? Why have I never written about the bloody, messy, tearful, painful parts of breastfeeding in my own personal motherhood story?! They’re there. And, when I counsel mothers in person I do talk about those parts. I also never tell people that breastfeeding hurts because they’re doing it wrong—I tell them they will read that over and over, but that in reality, most women experience some degree of discomfort and even pain in the early weeks. Where it becomes not normal is when there is blood or blisters or open wounds, but if someone suddenly started sucking on ANY of your body parts 8-12 times a day, I think it is logical that we can expect some adjustment or difficulty or stress or pain in adjusting to that degree of intense, sustained, body contact/involvement.

      I wrote the following at the end of one of my blog posts last year:

      I’m also reminded again, however, of why breastfeeding support holds
      such a lasting pull for me and that is because postpartum is where it is at,
      that is where we are so very, very deeply needed as support people.
      Birth is amazing and exhilarating and women most definitely need us
      there too, but in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day, unglamorous, nipples and
      breast infections, teething, crying, dirty-haired, exhausted, wrung-out
      maternal web of daily being is a very tender and delicate beauty that
      becomes visible only when we’re willing to spend months and months, or
      even years, serving as a listening ear, a medication lookup, and someone to trust with both her laughter and her tears.

      • Sarah Whedon

        Reading this makes me want to learn to do lactation support!

        I think of myself as someone to whom breastfeeding comes really easily, even naturally, because once it’s established I am pretty easy and confident with it and I have kids who have also been very committed to it. But the truth is I fought medical institutions whose design could very easily have entirely shut down the whole breastfeeding process and I’ve had other real bumps along the way. Interesting…

        • http://goddesspriestess.com/ Molly

          Lactation support is very rewarding. Birth is my *love*, but I’ve often thought that breastfeeding work is where the “real” WORK is!

      • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

        Hooray! I look forward to reading more.

        • http://goddesspriestess.com/ Molly

          I’m right in the middle of end-of-the-session grading, so it is going to have to wait a little longer! :)


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