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Spiritual Mothering

posted Mar 30, 2015, 12:16 PM by Carolyn Honea, IBCLC, CLC   [ updated Apr 16, 2019, 8:14 AM ]
Although the case for breastfeeding can easily be made from observable science, many religions also contribute to the topic of breastfeeding. The Quran, for instance, strongly encourages Islamic women to breastfeed at least two years. During my first year of motherhood, I realized that although I had been a Christian my whole life, I'd never really looked at the Christian Scriptures to understand how God views motherhood. My ideas up to that point had been shaped by the climate and culture in my peer group and the church I grew up in. Most of what I had heard emphasized was the importance of discipline, parental authority and training even young babies to be submissive to their parents. Deep in my soul I started to question whether these ideas were a true reflection of God's heart for mothers and babies. As I searched the Bible cover to cover for references to motherhood, I was very surprised to find breastfeeding referenced 26 times, in addition to many references to mothers caring for their young children in ways that didn't bear any resemblance to the values I had heard emphasized. Here are some of the passages that changed my perspective:

Mary & Jesus
“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice greatly with her,
all you who mourn over her.
For you will nurse and be satisfied
at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply
and delight in her overflowing abundance.”
For this is what the Lord says:
“I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of nations like a flooding stream;
you will nurse and be carried on her arm
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you;
and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 66:10-13

Paraphrase: God comforts his people like a nursing mother. The picture painted in poetic language is a mother comforting her baby by breastfeeding, a baby that is fully satisfied and happy, and carried near to her mother in her arms and lap. This divine image of motherhood stands is stark contrast to a strict, unattached mother limiting her baby's feedings to a restrictive schedule, viewing comfort nursing as a bad habit, and training her baby to be content away from her. Isaiah 66 gives a glimpse of what God thinks of when he envisions a mother with her baby. Further, he honors the act of nurturing by describing himself in a maternal role. When we nurse, comfort, and snuggle our babies we are modeling God's love for us. What a beautiful way to introduce our children to the true meaning of Christianity.

My next favorite comes from Paul, one of Jesus' followers who was writing a letter to a church he had started,

But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
1 Thessalonians 2:7-9

Paraphrase: Paul described himself as gentle, giving of himself night and day because of his affection...just like a nursing mother caring for her little ones. Again, we get to glimpse the real Christian portrait of mothering. Its no doubt that there is sacrifice involved in caring for young children, which is probably part of why Paul thought to connect his sacrificial care for the church to a mother's care for her children. Ultimately, we are proclaiming the Gospel to our children by the way we quite literally pour ourselves out for them in the act of breastfeeding. This gentle, affectionate posture is in contrast to emphasis on training babies not to disrupt their parents at night and to fit the baby's needs into convenient intervals for the parents. Rather, our interactions with our little ones can be fueled by our affection for them, resulting in a gentle nurturing while resting in God's care for our own physical and emotional needs, even during those long, hard watches of night.

Scientific studies have confirmed over and over that when a mother has a nurturing style of interacting with her young children, it results in better physical, behavioral and emotional health for the child later in life. Now that is not to say that teaching children boundaries and appropriate behavior is not important. There are plenty of examples in Scripture and in scientific literature that confirm developmentally appropriate discipline is important for children to learn as they get older. But the foundation is one of a loving and nurturing relationship that is established in that first year of life.

Icon Mary Breastfeeding Jesus

Finally, there is something reassuring to know at the beginning of the world when God was designing creation, he thought to make a group of creatures, called mammals, with the capabilities to produce milk for their young. Its a system intelligently designed by the one who holds the universe in his hands. All embarrassment and false modesty about breastfeeding goes out the window when we consider not only did God design breastfeeding, but that even Jesus was breastfed by his mother Mary, as depicted in hundreds of historic works of art: 

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” Luke 11:27

This Easter, I hope you will be encouraged to listen to the soft, still voice within that whispers to hold your precious baby a little longer, and a little closer. Nursing and nurturing your baby is building the foundation of love and security that all the later years of childhood are built upon. And if you are searching for a faith community that will not bat an eye at breastfeeding during a gathering and honors your role of mother, I would like to personally invite you to my spiritual home, Church of The Good Shepherd in Cornelius, NC: