Modesty and the Breastfeeding Mother

IMG_0541I have been beyond my own breastfeeding days for several years but I often find myself in an advocate role on behalf of Breastfeeding Mothers in a variety of settings. It’s a passion of mine and, honestly, I’m tired of the judgements, accusations and, frankly, so much ridiculousness that has come to swirl around this topic in our culture, and, especially, within churchianity.

Inevitably the attack argument comes down to this:

Of course a nursing mother has a right to breastfeed, but I have a right to not be offended. If her breastfeeding in any way offends me then she’s doing it wrong. It’s really an issue of modesty and if I’m uncomfortable (or aroused) she must be immodest.

It might be worded all manner of ways – some more eloquently and magnanimous than others – but it’s the same argument. So I want to respond to it by sharing some things that I have learned over the years that I hope will encourage some and challenge others.

I somehow got the idea, growing up in the church, that humility meant making myself as small as i could be and taking up as little space as I could. There was this idea – especially and specifically attached to women – that the smaller I could make myself the more I was honoring God.

This inevitably meant laying aside the gifts and talents He had put into me so that I didn’t cause men to feel that i might be wanting to usurp their authority. It meant silencing my voice and trusting that God would take care of me when those around me didn’t see the need. And the more I suffered the more God was being glorified because when we are weak then He is strong.

Then I learned the understanding of the Hebrew words addressing ‘humility’ and not only was my mind blown but my life was forever changed.

Humility means that we are taking up exactly the amount of space that God created us to take up

Humility means that we are taking up exactly the amount of space that God created us to take up – no more (as that is being arrogant and trying to steal the space that God gave to someone else) AND NO LESS (as that is false humility that says God did not create me to be who I am and I must give more of my space to others because they deserve it more). Both taking up more space and taking up less space are BOTH a violation of God’s intended purpose and plan for our lives.

Revolutionary! Life altering! No going back!

This meant that living a life of humility really means:

  • exercising the gifts and using the talents that God gave me in the situations in which I find myself for the good of the Kingdom and the glory of the King!
  • not allowing others to steal my space, and when they try to I can trust God to be my defender and know that vengeance is His and it is actually Him that they are violating
  • And, this is important as it pertains to the issue of breastfeeding and modesty, when I am feeling offended it is because I believe myself to be entitled to space that was not given to me.

Modesty is the manifestation of our humility in our words, deeds, and presentation of ourselves to the world.

The way this relates to modesty is this . . . modesty is the manifestation of our humility in our words, deeds, and presentation of ourselves to the world.

Think about that for a minute.

If we believe ourselves entitled to more space than we deserve we will make a show of what we have and even attempt to create the illusion that we have more.

If we believe ourselves to be unworthy of what we have then we will present ourselves as less than and either give everything away or try to hide that we have it.

Both of those are immodest. One draws undue attention to ourselves and the other tries to give away something that God intended for us.

Modesty is about being experienced by others as an authentic and whole person who is not seeking to manipulate how the world experiences us.

Modesty that the Bible speaks of is living out healthy humility – it is about us simply being who God created us to be and doing what God created us to do without any extra effort to steal someone else’s space, or refusal to step up and fill ours. When this is expressed in dress, and all of the ways we present ourselves to the world, it is not about meeting some checklist of criteria for “modesty.” Rather, it is about being experienced by others as an authentic and whole person who is not seeking to manipulate how the world experiences us.

Here’s where I share how this relates to breastfeeding and as I do I want to point out 7 things I have learned about this issue in our culture today.

1) Because every person was created by God to take up a certain amount of space in this world, when a mother has a baby the amount of space that she will take up has increased to reflect the addition of another person (or more if she has multiples). Her taking up more space is not immodest and does not reflect a lack of humility or a desire to take space away from others and draw undue attention to herself.

2) Very often, it is the act of becoming a mother that provokes a woman to stop trying to stuff herself into too small a space while the men around her manspread themselves into any space she is able to be pressed to relinquish. The presence of this baby in her life – this person for whom she has been entrusted by God to care for, protect and nurture – is one of the things that the Rabbi’s wrote about causing women to intuitively and experientially learn things that men would need to study to learn. When this happens she often realizes she must find her voice in order to accomplish the responsibilities newly given to her and when she finds her voice for her baby she often finds her voice for herself. If she did not already have her voice, the experience of finding it may be challenging and she needs incredible grace for the missteps she will have. A healthy community wants women to have a voice and needs to support them in learning how to use it.

3) I know it changes a man to become a father, but it’s not the same thing and when you really look into the fully systemic changes that a mother experiences as she grows a life within her and then labors to bring that child into the world, the oxytocin cocktail of love hormones that she is flooded with when that child is born and they gaze into each other’s eyes, the experience of producing milk to nourish the child and providing them sustenance from her own body, regulating their breathing and body temperature as they sleep beside her, or on her. Every act of mothering is an act of walking out self sacrifice for the sake of the other. Every act of mothering is learning what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

4) Being uncomfortable does not mean someone has wronged you and does not mean someone is sinning. Our culture seems to worship the idol of personal comfort and anything that makes us uncomfortable must be wrong and needs to be eliminated. Except we have become the princess and the pea and we simply cannot get a good night’s sleep if even one legume is present anywhere in our lives! We need to look to Scripture to determine if something is really a sin before we even dream of going to another person and speaking about it with them. Even then we are instructed, according to Matthew 18, to go and talk to them about what they are doing that is a sin and how it is affecting us. This is not a power play and we do not get to demand anything of anyone.  Any effort to shame them for what they are doing or blame them for our own struggles is an expression of our lack of humility, our immodesty, and we are sinning against them.

All too often women, especially breastfeeding mothers, are being held accountable for someone else’s sins of lust.

5) All too often women, especially breastfeeding mothers, are being held accountable for someone else’s sins of lust. Breastfeeding is not a sin. Lusting after a woman is. The appropriate application of Matthew 18 would be for the breastfeeding mother to sit down with a man who is leering at her and confront him about his lust issues and how they are violating her and her baby. If he does not acknowledge the issue and make action to change, then she would be right to call in others to go with her and help her make her case to him. Eventually, if a man continued to gawk and leer at her, it would be appropriate for the church leadership to step in and speak with him about his sin issue and how he is wronging women by how he is using them and refusing to show them the respect they deserve as fellow believers and fully participating members in the community. If they insist they are helpless in this area of their life or refuse to acknowledge that they are wronging the women of the community by their refusal to address this area of sin then they might need to be removed from the community until they are ready to take responsibility for this sin issue and seek to be free of it without blaming others for their struggles. He is free to censor his own life and capable of leaving the area if he is facing the moral struggle lusting and coveting. If a man knows he has a struggle and he is working to be free of it and surrender it to the Lord, and is taking responsibility for this being his issue and not trying to blame others for his struggles, he might choose to go to a woman and share that he has a struggle in this area. By owning the issue and not blaming the woman for his struggles he is honoring her and exercising modesty and humility – he is not trying to steal her space for himself or asking her to shove herself into less space for his comfort. I do not know a woman who, if approached in such a sincere way, wouldn’t act in sensitivity to the man before her. Perhaps he will suggest she let him know if she is going to be nursing so that he, being the one with the issue, can leave the room. Perhaps she will offer to nurse away from where he is. By humbly sharing his struggle with her and asking her to support him in his efforts at righteousness, he has honored the space she was given by God to take – and the space her baby was granted by the Creator – and given her an opportunity to act in love for him as other as well, without it being a burden and without the implication that his issues are in any way her fault or responsibility.

6) If you are offended by what a nursing mother is doing as she breastfeeds her baby then it is you who lacks humility and is at risk for being immodest. If you find her breastfeeding to make you uncomfortable or you feel as though she is trying to take space you believe was intended for you, then it is you who is mistaken about how much space you were created to fill. Healthy boundaries mean you get to decide what you will and won’t do – and that you have no say at all in what another person does or how they do it. It may be that the woman before you is being immodest and has an agenda and is trying to steal space not intended for her and/or her baby. That does not mean you have to give it. If you are uncomfortable you have a beautiful opportunity to practice humility as you avert your eyes. If you do struggle with lust then do not gaze on something that is provoking you to covet or lust. If you are prideful and arrogant then it may be that your emotional response is revealing this to you. Develop the discipline of staying within your space and not trying to steal space from others.

7) Mothering and caring for a baby – even while breastfeeding – is not inherently immodest and no mother should be asked to put the needs, much less the WANT of comfort, of every adult in the community ahead of the very real needs of her baby. When you truly love your neighbor as yourself you will not put your personal comfort above theirs, you will not blame them for your sin, you will not try to steal the space God created them to occupy, and you will want them to care for that new baby in a way that honors and nurtures their arrival in your community. That mother and baby are your neighbor.

I know that becoming a mother feels like taking the weight of the world upon your shoulders, but it shouldn’t come with an expectation that you will actually be responsible for everyone around you in a way that hinders the real responsibility of caring for that new person.  My journey of mothering that started as a breastfeeding mother means I am raising children who are becoming adults in this world and if my daughter and future daughters in law have babies I want them to have an experience free of having the baggage of others projected onto them. I know I can’t create that completely, but I can do what I can to make it a little bit better. It will happen as God changes one heart at a time.  Thankfully, He can do that!

Comments

  1. Very well written, Crystal. Thank you.

  2. A. Hartman says:

    I breast fed allthree of mine. One day we were playing games with friends who had a new baby the same age as ours. He had several bottles through out the afternoon. His dad asked, doesn’t your son ever eat? I had fed him every time the other baby had a bottle. I slippped him just under the edge of my sweater and no one knew he was being fed. I don’t quite get the idea of taking up space. God designed us to be able to nourish a baby. It isn’t necessary to expose our self to feed a baby. I fed mine in restaurants, church,the airport,the doctor’s office at the dining table with my father-in-law present,anywhere we went. Nobody knew but me and the baby.

    • Crystal Lutton says:

      You were taking up space — if you feared what you did in it you wouldn’t have fed your child. You fed your child. Most of the time when I would breastfeed people would have their face down near the baby asking why they wouldn’t look at him before I could tell them I was breastfeeding. They had no idea.Modesty has nothing to do with how much skin is showing. It’s an attitude.

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