I recently added this icon from Uncut Mountain Supply to my collection. It’s a Russian icon of the Theotokos the Milk-Giver, and it reminds me that birthing and caring for Jesus was how Mary answered God’s call and that there is more than a little of the divine in the messy, embodied experience of being a postpartum woman.
Two months after I gave birth to my baby, I went to a church convention, where we gathered to worship and pray and vote on church business. The theme that year was ‘women in ministry,’ and I was looking forward to a celebration of all the ways women serve God and the church.
It didn’t entirely turn out that way, at least not for me. I cried through one session’s opening prayer and sobbed during the next day’s lunch break. Not because I was away from my baby, although I’m sure the hormones coursing through my body had something to do with it, but because I was a nursing mom. Being at the convention meant I had to pump every three hours, but being a woman in a man’s world meant there was no space–literally or figuratively–to do so. So I pumped in the busy bathroom, in the stall furthest from the door I could find, sitting on the toilet seat. And when I was done, I accidentally knocked over the milk while trying to disentangle myself, and I cried. I cried the way only new mothers can. I cried out of exhaustion and humiliation and shame.
After twelve months of nursing and pumping, I no longer have any fucks to give about all of this. In fact, at a recent event at the same location, I told them I’d need to use a conference room during breaks and just pumped there with my trusty nursing cover and a book to pass the time. When I was interrupted by two male staffers–neither of which had clearly seen a pump before–I calmly told them I would be done in fifteen minutes and they could have the room then. But two months in, all I felt was embarrassment about my unruly postpartum body and the process of making milk, this thing my body did, this thing that everyone says is so important yet receives so little support. That day, when I went back into the room where all the clergy and lay people were singing an opening hymn, I didn’t join them in song. I was too upset to sing. I stood there with tears in my eyes as I told myself that the men surrounding me, who I could only see just then as the gatekeepers of the church, those men had drunk from their mothers. That they may be powerful now, but that their mothers had once done for them what I was doing for my child. And it suddenly struck me that Mary mother of God had lactated. Mary knew what it was like to have milk leak from heavy breasts, to feel your body respond to the needs of your child, to feel the pins and needles of milk letting down and the ache and even pain that comes when you are away from your baby for too long. I stood there and I reminded myself it was a holy thing I was doing. And my tears turned to tears of fury that this was happening during a convention meant in part to celebrate women.
I cried–sobbed, rather–again that day and the next, as one way or another there was no space for me and I received the message that this was something to hide. When I left a gathering so I could pump before the evening session would start, someone asked if I was headed back to the main space early. I didn’t actually get a chance to answer, as someone else–a man, which matters, I think–told them not to ask what I was doing and that I would be back. I think about that often. I’m not naming him because he meant well, I think was trying to protect me as he could tell I felt embarrassed and uncertain about it all. But at the same time, what I heard in that was that this was something to surround with shame.
Time and time again I have learned that breastfeeding is something we like to valorize but also like to pretend doesn’t happen. It’s part of a larger message the culture sends, that women’s bodies are only there to be sexualized and are not allowed to be anything other than perfect. That our only concern post-birth is to bounce back, to lose the baby weight, to erase any sign that our bodies created and nurtured an actual human being for nine months and sustained them beyond that too. That any problems after birth are women’s issues to be hidden and talked about among ourselves, costs we ought to bear and prices of admission we ought to pay gratefully if we can, and silently in any case.
Breastfeeding came at an enormous cost to me, and my therapist often gently asked me if it was time to wean my daughter. Every time I answered that I wasn’t done yet, it wasn’t time yet, that I recognized how much this was costing me but it wasn’t something I wanted to say goodbye to yet. But I am no longer embarrassed by the milk my body produces for my daughter. I will say the word ‘pump’ in mixed company, will take up space when I need it. And that little sentence from that tear-filled day, that acknowledgment that Mary lactated, has become a shorthand for myself. It is a reminder of the lengths women go to for their children and how different this is my body, broken for you sounds after childbirth. It is a reminder that it was precisely with her expanding body and the pain and mess of childbirth and the hormonal fog that comes after, and yes, even with her leaking breasts that Mary fully served God. It is a reminder of the beauty of the incarnation and how God works through our bodies, not around or despite them. And it’s a reminder that while I was created female and I chose to become a mother, it’s up to me to determine what that means and I refuse to allow any space for shame.