Outwardly, I’m sure it looked as if I was listening intently as the assisting minister read from Isaiah. Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Inwardly, I was counting the number of hours since my daughter had last eaten, worried that my breast pads would not hold and that I was about to step into the pulpit and demonstrate the irrefutable truth behind this metaphor.
After years of infertility, testing, treatments, loss, and nine months of vomiting, I have entered new territory in my life: I am a nursing mom. A nursing mom-pastor, to be exact. I read someplace that we only encounter those “seventh and eighth weeks of Epiphany” lessons about once every twenty years, which seemed right for me – that the congregation and I are entering this newness together, a place we have rarely trod as a church. My male colleague has a daughter also, but she’s eighteen, and I doubt he ever worried about leaking onto his alb.
It seemed a little much for me to preach on those nursing texts at the moment. Too vulnerable, private, and intense for public reflection. Several mom-pastors reminded me of Heidi Neumark’s wonderful story from Breathing Space, about the time she letdown so forcefully that the color began to run from her stole onto her alb, but this is the sort of story you can only tell after the fact. Long after the fact, if then. So, no, I didn’t preach on the image of a nursing God.
But I carry it with me, especially at 2:00 in the morning when the house is quiet, my child wakes to eat and my husband is snoring blissfully. I curse him briefly, but the truth is, there is deep holiness in that night feeding. In every feeding, actually. I am grateful for the opportunity to do this. Breastfeeding was hard for us: painful, at the beginning, so much so that I nearly gave up after four weeks of it. We finally realized that our girl was tongue-tied, and once that was treated, it got much better (slowly). I struggled with the clear fact that we needed to supplement her with formula, since she wasn’t able to gain weight correctly until the tongue issue was resolved.
All those voices in my head repeating the mantra over and over again – “breast is best, breast is best” – they haunted me at night, during the day, each time I scooped the powder into the bottle and shook it up until it frothed and foamed and she gulped it as if she had been starving for days. Was I not enough for her? Was my body, so long a failure at reproduction, now destined to be a failure at feeding as well? Can a woman forget her nursing child?
Now we are into the rhythm of breastfeeding, and it has taken on a life of its own. Every two hours or so, my body reminds me that there is a child who is probably hungry – even when she is nowhere near. I can be counseling a divorced couple, managing a staff conflict, searching frantically for the remote control that turns on the TV in the youth room, presiding at communion and, bidden or unbidden, the milk comes. My body is not my own.
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. The breastfeeding class teacher told us it might be hard in the beginning, but I had no idea how hard it could be. The pain level was nearly intolerable – and she ate 10 times each day. I bit my lip, gritted my teeth, cried hot, salty tears while my child wept her own frustration. We had to learn together, she and I. We were not naturals at this at first. Our relationship was not easy in those early days, the way you imagine mother-and-child-at-breast to be. It turned out that breastfeeding needed a community of support: my mother, friends, sister-in-law, and the merciful and gracious lactation consultants who would show us the way. They did not forget us.
It sounds like such a beautiful image, this “God as nursing mother.” Paired with the psalm for the day: “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast,” we read together, while I remembered the feeding session before church that morning. She was squirming, pulling, popping off the nipple to look around the room, latching back on to nurse forcefully for another 30 seconds before yanking off again to give me an irresistible smile. Not exactly the sort of “quieted soul” I believe the psalmist wanted me to envision.
They are messy, vulnerable, imperfect images. Of hard, painful, sometimes impossible realities. For there are costs to this life-giving work: interrupted sleep, pain, disrupted schedules, unpredictable needs, slow weight-gainers and poor latches and sharing such a private part of your body with another. It does not come easily. Even though you think it should, and consequently worry that something is wrong with you when it doesn’t.
Not so different from faith, perhaps. Which also interrupts, an impossible reality in the midst of your day. Bringing with it others who have unpredictable needs, difficulty learning the way, who make increasing demands upon your deepest self. Who are far from the ‘quieted souls’ we imagined pastoring in the early days.
And so we take our nourishment from a life-giving God. Who nurses us, despite the pain, the sacrifice, the disruption and interruption, the constant demands. Who responds with love, as if there were no choice – as if love simply poured from God like milk, let down because it cannot be stopped. Who will not, cannot, forget us, no matter how far we run. Who knows each time we cry, each time any child cries, for love cannot refuse to flow.
Can a woman forget her nursing child? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a child who needs to eat.