I never thought I'd be breastfeeding in my clerical collar. Come to think of it, I never thought I'd be wearing a collar, but that's another story. Home from church between a funeral service and a lunch reception, there I was, in my son's nursery with my black clerical shirt hiked up and my infant son enjoying a meal.
"This is weird," I said to my husband, who was patiently awaiting the baby hand-off. "And holy and wonderful," he said. (Can you see why I married him?)
At first, motherhood seemed like just one more vocation to add into our already filled-to-the-brim lives. I was thrilled when we discovered I was pregnant, but I felt a lot of trepidation about how a baby—however much loved, however much wanted—would fit into things. Yet I didn't imagine that one simple, daily act would anchor my son and me to the Lord through it all: breastfeeding.
I suspect the mention of breastfeeding elicits a response among many readers, as it has become another significant foothold in the "Mommy Wars." While reasons in favor of breastfeeding are well documented, for some, nursing is not possible, yet the pressure to do it can be overwhelming. From New York mayor Michael Bloomberg's much-debated "Latch On" program, to social pressures chronicled by The Atlantic's Hanna Rosin, these days not breastfeeding can be isolating.
Yet the way of the "Mommy Wars" is not the way of the cross, and as other writers have rightly noted, Christian women have a unique responsibility to model love when it comes to these tender topics. "Breast" may indeed be "best," and surely Christian mothers can encourage one another in our nursing efforts, but the last thing I want to do is stir things up by adding one more benefit of breastfeeding—and a Christian one at that.
Plus, as moms know full well—and KJ Dell'Antonia writes in the New York Times' Motherlode blog—breastfeeding isn't "free." Plus, places to nurse or pump, while often federally required, can be tough to find, to say the least. Moms must invest their bodies and time into feeding our little ones, often sacrificing hours spent at work, checking email, running errands, and a myriad of other things to pumping or nursing. So then, why? Why did breastfeeding—something that cost me time, money, pain, and some real logistical nightmares—help me find God in the midst of new motherhood?
Like many type-A, motivated, do-it-all kind of women, even my pre-motherhood life didn't have those extra hours. I sped through each busy day, and becoming a minister did not help my frenetic pace. I spent late nights at church fiddling with a sermon, going over curriculum, or sending just one last email. This wasn't only during crises or busy times like Holy Week. I worked this hard all. The. Time.
Then my son was born, and all my sprinting ground to a halt. During maternity leave, I finally stopped. I had to. My body was spent from the pain of childbirth. My mind was ragged from lack of sleep. So for two months I cocooned with my little boy. We sat still together. We napped together. We saw the sunrise and watched the squirrels in the yard and then got front row seats for the sunset. The only email I sent was our birth announcement. Maternity leave was fantastic.
My first day back in the office, I was tempted by my old nemesis. There was so much to do! I felt behind in every way; stress was pounding at the door. Yet I couldn't escape one simple thing: my son needed to eat, and I needed to feed him. Neither my body nor his would let me forget this. And these feedings and pumpings took time. I couldn't skip a day because I was too busy.
Nursing became a constant reminder that I had to slow down. A daily, almost hourly reminder. I chafed against this at first. I melted down after two weeks back in the pastorate, exclaiming to my husband, "I just don't have time for this!"
But like an increasing number of moms, I was still committed to breastfeeding. I wanted to bond with my son. Allergies run in my family. Formula costs so much. Plus, I wanted to feed him what God had created in me for him. So I prayed one of those utterly exasperated kinds of prayers. The Anne Lamott kind. "Help me, Jesus. Help me, help me, help me."
And he did. Not by helping me cram more into a day, but by helping me to slow down. It wasn't what I wanted. It was what I needed. Eight or ten or twelve times a day, baby Lincoln would eat. And to ward off the steely fingers of stress, I would pray. Thus began God's nursery school of discipleship. Soon I wasn't breastfeeding anymore. I was "rest-feeding."
In the book of Isaiah, the Lord speaks to the people of Israel. Busy, harried, hurried Israel. "Only in returning to me and resting in me will you be saved," he says. "In quietness and confidence is your strength" (Isa. 30:15, NLT). Not in perfectionism. Not in busyness. Not in doing it all, and doing it well. Our strength is in quietness. Our salvation is in resting in our God.
Over time, the time spent nursing began to feel holy, not harried. As my son drank deeply, I did too. Breastfeeding became our version of "praying the hours." Lincoln and I woke up in the middle of the night together. Matins. He nursed for breakfast. Prime. He nursed between meetings, I pumped before counseling appointments, he nursed after I locked the church for the night. Sext. Vespers. Compline.
Each time, I stopped. Each time, I prayed. For my son. For my husband. For my church. For myself.
Much has been written about how the time spent breastfeeding our babies can hurt working moms—reducing their earnings for years after and damaging their career trajectories—but for me, as a minister and as a Christian, it pushed me to healthier rhythms and better work-life balance. I believe these benefits are there for all who embrace their slowed-down lives as nursing moms. I certainly didn't expect that I'd be more rested now that I was a new mother. But, then, I don't worship the God of the expected.
Now that Lincoln is a big, six-month-old boy, he nurses less frequently. My days at church are more full. The old idol beckons. But God's lesson has taken root in my heart. When I am tempted to run, I walk. Or at least jog.
In the stillnesses, I'm learning that God can feed me, too.
Courtney Belcher Ellis divides her time between mommyhood, ministry, writing, and watching cheesy '90s movies with her husband. She lives in the Madison, Wisconsin area and is a recovering type-A personality who is learning the discipline of stillness. You can check out more of her words at glutenfreejesusfreak.blogspot.com.
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