Some years ago, when I was living in Dallas, a Latin American immigrant woman found herself in a world of trouble when she had a photo her husband had taken of their young toddler nursing at her breast developed at a drugstore. The photo developer thought she was looking at child pornography, and called the cops. The poor woman and her family were dragged through the criminal justice system, before finally being cleared — all because they come from a culture that sees breastfeeding as normal, and tolerates doing it longer than many, perhaps most, Americans would.
Pope Francis just stood up for that woman today, in principle. Here’s David Mills:
And now Pope Francis has encouraged mothers to feed their children at Mass. (Which, somehow, his critics will hold against him because, well, he was speaking.)
This seems definitive but it is also counter-cultural. If the Catholic teaching isn’t enough reason to breastfeed for as long as is good for the child, there’s another reason, and one that explains why even those of us for whom it’s no longer a practical matter might find ourselves lactivists. That is, that the alternative is a prime and paradigmatic example of a deeply human practice being technologized and commodified and these we should resist. Starting in the 1950s, many natural human activities were treated as primitive and replaced with un-natural substitutes, because money could be made that way. Even doctors, who are far more malleable creatures of their society and economy than we’d like to think, colluded.
He goes on to say how Experts™ of the era told women that formula was better for their babies than mother’s milk. My mom remembers telling her doctor before she went into labor with either me or my sister that she wanted to breastfeed, but the hospital gave her the shot anyway to dry up her milk — this, while she was in recovery from childbirth anesthesia (they used to knock a birthgiving mother out in those days). I also often wondered as a child why my mom was so skittish about food from the garden, preferring canned and pre-packaged foods — until as an adult, I ran across advertisement from the 1950s that presented industrialized food as safer and more hygienic than what you could grow in the garden. They literally frightened many people into turning on commonsense food traditions.
So it has been with breastfeeding. My wife breastfed all three of our kids. Oddly enough, it was easier to do that in heathenous New York City than in God-fearing Dallas. More than a few Texans reacted as if it were barbarous, and regarded the possibility that they might catch a glimpse of a mother’s exposed breast, even with the nipple safely tucked away in the mouth of a nursing baby, as an act of public eroticism.
I especially appreciate that the Pope told Catholics that they should not be afraid to breastfeed even at mass. That will go a long way, I think, towards de-eroticizing breastfeeding in the imaginations of many, and in turn remove the moralistic stigma against doing what women have done for their babies for all of human history. I’m not saying that breastfeeding mothers need not be sensitive to the culture around them. I am saying that a culture that stigmatizes breastfeeding in public ought to reconsider whether it is morally right to do so.
Breastfeeding is one of the marks of a crunchy conservative, I wrote in my 2006 book Crunchy Cons. Many conservatives think it is a sort of hippie, countercultural thing to do — but as David says, that is no reason not to do it:
If we begin not with what we think we can do but with what the Church asks of us, we find an alternative lifestyle pretty much required. That, I think, just looking at my family’s own fumbling and inconsistent attempt to live a Catholic life, will bring blessings you don’t expect, as well as sacrifices. Those blessings might begin with a mother feeding her child.
This is how I started down my own crunchy-con path, out of mainstream conservatism and into something more traditional. Without knowing exactly what we were doing, my wife and I, both religious and political conservatives, began to place what the Church asked of us first, even if it put us outside the mainstream of our own culture and political tribe. We did this not in spite of being conservative, but because of the kinds of conservatives that we were.