Feed My Sheep
By Andrea Nease
I grew up in the south, the Bible belt. I went to a myriad of churches growing up, mostly Baptist, with some Pentecostal and non-denominational mixed it.
In my teenage years I fell very much in love…with a very devout Catholic. This wonderful man made it clear that he would never marry a non-Catholic. Lacking maturity, and having a more relativistic view on religion, I agreed to become Catholic (just to get married). I went through the RCIA classes, and was confirmed in Easter of ’07. We were married that December.
Through the entire process, I never really believed much of what the Catholic Church taught, aside from the basics we had in common. My husband’s reverence for the Eucharist is amazing, and this subject was commonly talked about when religion came up in conversation. There were many things I was out-right opposed to. One item in particular was infant baptism. However, the Church’s teachings on the Eucharist did not bother me, although I was really indifferent about the whole thing. “So what if it’s Jesus’ body? It doesn’t matter to me if it is or isn’t. You say it is? Okay, fine,” I thought.
Then we had kids, and I started to take things a little more seriously. I really wanted to do right by my kids. My husband wanted to baptize our infant son, and this bothered me. During that time, we made a compromise that our son would be baptized as an infant, but we were not going to circumcise him. My husband got what he wanted, I got what I wanted, and my son….well, baptism certainly wasn’t going to hurt him, even if it wasn’t “real”.
Adjusting to motherhood was difficult for me. I was extremely exhausted, had never changed a diaper in my life, had no support or family close to me, and had a very unhappy baby, which I now know would be defined as “high needs.” We had some problems with breastfeeding in the beginning, but because of my innate stubbornness given to me by God (and also to my first child), we stuck with it. I truly did not enjoy breastfeeding at all. I looked forward to when I could wean at the 1 year-mark. I was pressured by pediatricians to minimize my son’s nursing sessions early on, and let him cry-it-out so I could actually get some sleep (which didn’t work, by the way). During these times, I was always encouraged to wean whenever I expressed hardships with nursing by family and my husband alike, but we persevered.
When my son Stanlee was 8 months old, we started cosleeping because I just couldn’t take being a walking zombie anymore. I nursed him back to sleep at night when he woke, which was frequently, but I still tried to limit his nursing during the day. My periods came back at this time, even though I was still nursing every 3-4 hours during the day and at least every 2 hours at night.
When Stanlee was 12 months old, I slowly started introducing goat’s milk in a sippy cup to start the weaning process. My son didn’t really care for that, so I started researching how to wean on the internet. On accident, I stumbled across a Christian article that talked about what the Bible had to say about weaning. I learned that the Bible referenced nursing a three year old, and this surprised me. I then started researching nursing older children, and found out that it’s natural and healthier. I also started reading comments about “nursing on demand”, and how women nursed their babies whenever the baby wanted, and didn’t count feedings or watch the clock.
I decided to continue nursing and let my son self-wean. He was right at the age where he started to point to express his needs, and started pointing at my chest when he wanted to nurse. This was a turning point for us, because before I never really knew what his cries meant. This was a clear indication he wanted to nurse. God magically put all the pieces together, right at the same time, to help me understand.
The same day I read that article, which was the same day my son started pointing at my chest to nurse, I started nursing him on demand. He never sucked his thumb from that moment forward. He had been sucking it since he was 3 months old (around the time I started trying to stretch out his feedings). I instantly knew that I had failed him. I hadn’t nursed him when he needed me- I had left him to himself to take care of his sucking needs. Of course it wasn’t intentional; I was just an uneducated mother trying to figure things out by myself. Looking back, I wish I could have changed many things with my first child. But I am so grateful God gave me Stanlee first. Stanlee is exactly the baby I needed to teach me some valuable lessons. Had I been given a less intense, easier going baby the first time around, I probably would have weaned at one year or earlier, and missed out on some great lessons.
I was barely getting the hang of things when I found out I was pregnant with our second child, Isaiah, when Stanlee was 19 months old. Stanlee had just gone through a random nursing strike (during the day time) for a couple weeks. I thought he was self-weaning. Wrong. He was back to nursing 24/7 after those couple weeks. I’m not sure if my cycles before this were anovulatory or not, but I think it’s possible the nursing strike caused my fertility to really return and conceive again. I had started practicing ecological breastfeeding with Stanlee from 12 months old on; it may have kept my fertility at bay until the nursing strike.
Anyway, the anticipation of a new child brought unresolved religious issues back to the surface. Would we do infant baptism again? I still wasn’t comfortable, but knew it was non-negotiable for my husband. I needed answers. Not only on this issue, but others we disagreed on. We couldn’t both be right. I spent several months digging deep, researching, and trying to find the right answers.
Long story short (and sparing you the details of some shouting matches between my husband and I), I recognized the authority of the Catholic Church and had a major conversion. I stopped going up to receive the Eucharist because I hadn’t gone to confession (not even before I was confirmed). With 2 years of nursing under my belt at that time, I knew what a major sacrifice giving your body to another person is.
I finally “got” the Eucharist.
I don’t just symbolically feed my babies at the breast. It is my actual body, in direct contact with my child’s body. This gift of my body helps grow and nurture life according to God’s will, not mine. In the Eucharist, I also have a real, tangible, physical relationship with Him. It took me a long time to appreciate nursing, but I finally got there. Once I stopped withholding myself from my baby, and nursed him whenever he needed, I saw how much happier he was. He cried less and started growing better physically and developmentally. His growth had slowed when I had used CIO methods and restricted his nursing to a schedule. Over time, he started trusting me more. Nothing really changed, except I put myself in my son’s shoes, and realized how important nursing was to him. How happy it made him. How much he needed it. How it helped him grow. Nursing was still difficult from my end and a sacrifice, but it was worth it to see him happy, and to see how it benefitted him. Now we had lots of giggling, playing, and bonding at the breast instead of a countdown for him to get off of me.
Knowing how difficult it can be to nurse a child, and how difficult it can be nursing two children as I am tandem nursing both my boys now, it blows my mind how Jesus sacrifices His own body for millions with the Eucharist. Willingly. I complain about nursing, and His sacrifice puts me to shame and keeps me humble. I’m not indifferent about receiving Holy Communion anymore. I AM NOT WORTHY.
I look forward to going to Mass, so I can be “nursed” by Jesus through the Holy Eucharist. I need Him. There are times I need to go to Confession before I can receive. Confession still terrifies me so unfortunately I tend to put it off. Whenever I am in a Eucharist “drought”, everything seems to go wrong and have a horrible snowball effect. When I’m able to receive the Eucharist, I can see His grace working in my life. Helping me grow spiritually, just as nursing my children helps them grow. The Eucharist brings me a sense of peace, as nursing my children helps them calm down and feel safe and secure in my arms.
When children go through a growth spurt, they increase their nursing. When we need to increase the graces we receive, and grow more spiritually, receiving the Eucharist more frequently can help us with our “growth spurt”. I would love to be able to go to daily Mass, but it has been a struggle just to keep myself going every Sunday after years of only going when it suited me.
It’s really hard to put into words what the Eucharist does for you. People outside the faith struggle to understand it and question why it’s so important to us Catholics. Actually, even some Catholics themselves don’t understand the Eucharist well or “get it”. Those of us who know are drawn to it. Crave it. We look forward to when we can get it again.
In the same way, our little children need to nurse “just because” and can’t always explain to us why they need to nurse. Sometimes I get frustrated with how often my children want to nurse. I’ve asked my oldest several times in the past WHY he wants to nurse. Is he hungry? Is he thirsty? Is he sad? Does he miss me? Is he tired? I go on and on, but never figure out why he wants to nurse most of the time. My son can’t explain it either, but nursing just brings him peace and satisfies him. Sometimes we don’t even know consciously we need it, but once we receive it, things have changed. Nursing can make a screaming toddler turn into a sweet, giggly, happy child. Mom too, for that matter! Sometimes our children are so upset and overwhelmed with their emotions, it is simply a job too big for them to handle on their own. In these times, our nurslings look to Mom to be there to help them. After I’ve thought about my sins, and how I need to be more holy, and I’m walking up for communion, all that is going through my head is “I can’t do this by myself, Lord. I need Your help. I need You. Help me!” Jesus is there for us, and comforts us, just as a nursing mother comforts her child.
I often see young mothers my age, who do not nurse their children, really struggle with dealing with their little ones. Now, parenting is never easy for parents, and some children are more difficult than others. Nursing mothers do not have perfect children by any means, nor are they perfect parents. However, nursing mothers have a wonderful blessing and an extra tool in their toolbox they can use to parent their children through the nursing relationship. Before I nursed my oldest on demand, he was always upset and I was constantly trying to do things or find objects that would make him happy all day long. Car rides, walking, rocking, singing to him, toys, strollers, food, snacks, drinks, cuddling, reading, etc, etc. Nothing really helped him until I started meeting his nursing needs. Of course there are children who are easier to pacify than others, but still there is something special about nursing that sets it apart from any other “trick”, that provides something special none of those other things can. I’ve witnessed when children have lost their pacifiers and become hysterical and the mother is unable to console her child. I’m so glad I cannot misplace my breasts. Now that my oldest is almost 4 years old, I can’t imagine getting through the toddler years and tantrums without having the option to nurse! In a similar way, if I did not go to a Catholic Church, and was not able to receive Communion, no matter what church I went to, it would not be able to give me the comfort the Eucharist can provide. I still may hear a good sermon and have good fellowship, but it is lacking and incomplete.
During Mass tonight, I tried to think of some more similarities between nursing and the Eucharist. We usually sit in the back, so it can be a slow walk up to the front, which seems to last forever. It reminded me of how nursing babies have to work a little harder to make our milk let down, instead of it flowing freely from a bottle. Even if you sit up front and don’t have a long wait in line, we still have to work and do our part by making sure we are worthy to receive and go to Confession if needed beforehand, which can be a lot of work, and showing up to Mass. We have to cooperate with God and do our part.
Once I get to the priest, I focus all my attention on the Body of Christ, and feel relief and peace as soon as I receive the Body. This reminds me of my nurslings too. My boys can be quite active and distracted at the breast at times, but they are always focused on me the moment my milk lets down and they start swallowing, even if they start wiggling and playing after the let-down has subsided. They usually look up at me, into my eyes. This reminds me of when the priest is consecrating the Body and Blood and raising it up for His children to see. At that moment, we look up to Jesus, the Shepherd feeding His sheep. Jesus and His bride (the Church) feed us, the lost sheep. But nursing mothers everywhere feed His sheep, too, in the home- the domestic church. They prepare His children to receive God’s message by providing trust and love which helps them grow in Christ.
Most mothers reading this will know the natural age of weaning is 2-7 years. In reality they never really wean, as usually soon after they wean from the breast they reach the age of reason and commonly partake in their first Communion. In Hebrews 5:12-14 we read about how it’s necessary for us to learn the basics (the milk) before we can learn the meatier truths of the faith (the solid food). Mothers everywhere have an incredibly important job in nursing their babies and building a solid foundation so their children (God’s children) can grow, be holy, and be part of the Body of Christ. Nursing mothers are reminded during the Eucharist that their hard work and sacrifice they make are not in vain.
Now, I understand and listen when my husband excitedly talks about the Eucharist, and he better understands why nursing is so important now that we can see the similarities between the two. I am happy to report my husband no longer recommends me to wean when the going gets tough with nursing. He also says I never have to worry about someone saying something to me if I’m nursing in public because he will “take care of it”. I also half-joke with him that he is under strict orders to practice male lactation in the event of my death. Strangely, he doesn’t confidently say he’ll take care of that one!