I spent my 30th birthday in bed, moaning in pain from a knock-out case of mastitis. Mastitis is an infection you get from breastfeeding, except it affects the whole body. It’s like the flu, if the flu was trying to kill you. My incredible mother-in-law Debbie used an entire week of leave from her job to stay in town and care for me and my kids, since my husband had to work and I could not get out of bed. It was the sickest I have ever been; at one point Debbie was spoon feeding me applesauce as I deliriously cried in her arms, unable to lift my own head. I hadn’t showered in three days, I was sticky with breastmilk, sweaty from my fever, and could not stop weeping. It was quite the birthday party. And also, GOD BLESS MY MOTHER IN LAW.
I have had a baby at my breast for most of the last 4 years. I have taught myself and three newborns how to nurse, I have kept three children alive with my milk, and I have suffered greatly at times in order to do so.
Breastfeeding seems like a normal, easy task when you see other women doing it. They sidle their baby up to their chest, an invisible transaction occurs, and then they both go back to their lives. I love nursing my babies, but it is most certainly not the easy task I once assumed. It demands physical and emotional sacrifices that can’t really be explained: I can tell you that it hurts to have a baby learn to suck on my nipple, and I can tell you that when my milk comes in a few days after birth I can’t sleep from the pain of engorgement, and I can tell you that setting aside all other responsibilities every two hours all day long means that I lead a life of constant disruption; but none of that makes sense until it’s your own baby, pressed tight to your own chest, trying to drink milk from your body.
The complications of breastfeeding often feel like the hidden shame of new mothers. Because we’ve seen so many depictions of it happening so freely, when problems arise (when, not if) we wonder why we didn’t know how hard it would be. We wonder why everyone else nursing looks like an oil painting that might be entitled “Peaceful Mother and Baby at the Brookside,” when our own experience looks more like uncomfortable latches and too much milk and choking babies and not enough milk and infant reflux and painful breast infections and tied up tongues, and wanting to give it all up because we are tired.
Damn the brookside, we say.
I’ve never wanted to give up nursing my babies until my birthday bout of mastitis. I wondered why in the hell I was putting myself through such madness. Because there is another way, of course, and baby formula is a remarkable answer to how we can feed our babies when breastfeeding isn’t working. I have no qualms with formula. I’ve seen both sides of the bottle-fed equation: the mom grappling with her guilt over using it, and the happy, healthy babies drinking it. I know there are lots of studies that tell us breast is best, and I think breast milk is a miracle from our bodies, but I also can’t tell a lick of difference between the kids given formula and the kids given milk. The kids are all fine.
I know this about myself- it’s not about bottles versus breast for me. I don’t keep breastfeeding for the baby’s sake; I do it for my own.
I keep nursing because – and maybe this is petty, maybe I shouldn’t admit it- breastfeeding cleanses something in me. That’s why it’s so important. Not because I think my kids will be ruined by formula, or because I want to prove something to someone, or because I think breastfeeding will make an enormous difference in the lives of my kids; I breastfeed because it requires an offering.
Like a lamb on the altar, I offer my body for the sake of a greater cause, and pour out my life to save the life of another. It is a hallowed act, one I find hard to match. There simply aren’t many ways to sacrifice myself so easily. My privileged way of life doesn’t naturally produce opportunities for pure, selfless giving. Even sex with my husband, the most raw and exposed of interactions, can exist in a vacuum of self. I have to be deliberate in that space, be mindful in the giving of myself and accepting of his vulnerability, to become one out of two when I often prefer to just be one, if only for the beige ease of being independent.
Motherhood is a balancing act on the pendulum of martyrdom and selfishness; somewhere in the middle is a meeting, joy in the giving, but also peace in receiving what I need to be healthy. I don’t want to be a shadow of myself, burning at the stake of my children and their future. And I don’t want to be a shadow of a mother, cooly standing in the corners of my children’s lives.
And though I live under a gospel of grace, the law now abolished by love, there is still an essential element of sacrifice in my faith. A sacred transformation takes place when I offer myself on the altar, when I lay down my own life for the sake of another. That’s what breastfeeding is to me- here is my body. Here are my open arms. Here is my time. Here is my life. Let me nourish you. I wonder what would happen if I could find that depth of love for everyone, not just my babies.
This is something that continually draws me towards the Christian faith: the fact that though my salvation is complete, and God has finished all that is required to forgive me, there is still a wholeness yet to come. We will be made whole. He is writing love into me, circumstantially and holistically, through pain and suffering of every weight, through the mundane and the grand. So though the work of being saved is done, there is still a great work being made in my life to reveal the goodness, the completion, the truly loved and realized version of me. That’s beautiful. And it is unique to the God I worship- no other god or religion makes this distinction. There is no earning anything from the God of the Bible. There is only grace. Only sacrificial love, righteous justice. And there is no perfected version of human on earth, no priest or holy woman or prophet above anyone else, because we are all being perfected until the day of Christ Jesus. I love that.
We can’t be perfect. I can’t. I can barely manage to be kind of good, and only on a few odd days. But I can pay attention. I can look for ways to be softened, to be humbled. I so badly want to be made whole. And if I know anything, it’s that being made whole only comes after being taken apart. For me, right now, breastfeeding takes me apart. It makes me pause. It makes me give up time and space in order that a baby might live. And in that time, in that space? On my couch, on a park bench, in a public bathroom, at church, at the booth in the restaurant, in a class that I’m teaching or a group that I’m leading, I sit with a baby at my breast and offer my body up to another, humbled and amazed.
When I pray outside my house at night, under the hazy stars of a suburban neighborhood sky, muffled street sounds a block away, breathing in the air of home, I always ask for more of God. And over the roofline, across the horizon, settling like dew on the windows to the rooms which hold my sleeping children, I always hear these words come floating right back:
Pay attention, dearest.
I’m right here.