spiritual practices with newborns: feeding

With a summer baby we slip into bed while the sun is setting behind the hill and we wake up when the sky is already bathed with light. And still we haven’t slept a solid stretch. Because all night he is nursing.

All day and all night and all the hours in what feels like the one long day since he was born.

Feeding the baby is a full-time job.

On the surface it seems a simple response to a simple need. You hear the hungry cry. You offer breast or bottle. But nursing newborns has never been easy as pie for me.

Sam had to get a hefty dose of antibiotics right after birth and wound up with a raging case of thrush that we passed back and forth for four months. (My whole body still shudders to think about it.)

Thomas started off with a terrible latch that led to all kinds of bleeding and crying (mine, not his).

And poor little Joseph came into the world tongue-tied. So we’re still waiting to round the corner to that magical moment where every feeding ceases to be Toe-Curling Pain and becomes Smooth Sailing, clear skies ahead.

But no matter what bumps we encounter along the road to keeping babies well-fed, it’s the all-consuming-ness that can feel most overwhelming. How often newborns need to eat. How long it takes to feed them. How their needs never follow a neat schedule.

It’s no exaggeration to say that baby’s hunger sets the pace for the rest of life spinning around it.


When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.’ (John 21: 15-17)

This is Jesus’s pastoral charge to Peter, of course – to lead and to serve. But it’s also a commission for each of us. Feed. Tend. Feed.

Sometimes we can generalize how we interpret Scripture’s commands – care for those who are hungry in the spiritual/emotional/symbolic sense. But sometimes we have to take the words at face value, too. Jesus is speaking about feeding after he cooked breakfast for his friends, after all.

Feed my lambs. The youngest. The neediest. The ones who cannot feed themselves.

To feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty are the first two Corporal Works of Mercy in the Catholic tradition. And we all know food and drink are the most basic of human needs. We cannot survive without them.

So feeding these smallest and weakest among us?

The teeth-gritting early weeks of learning to breastfeed? Or the tired task of warming up bottles for a screaming babe in the middle of the night? Searching for the right formula, cutting out dairy to fight fussiness, dealing with engorgement or mastitis or low milk supply?

These are spiritual practices, too.

Feeding the hungry. Caring for the least. Giving to those in need.

Scripture’s full of stories of God feeding us. Manna from heaven and bread from the table. John’s resurrection story of Jesus feeding his friends – with fish, then forgiveness – and asking them to do the same. It matters how we feed others.

And when we back up from the bleary-eyed bumble of feeding baby day and night, we can start to see that we are literally sustaining this little one’s life. That we are nourishing another human being while giving deepest comfort. That we are building up their bones with the knowledge that they are heard, loved, and cared for.

Even when baby starts to eat solids, and feeding begins to feel like just another cooking-and-cleaning chore, we can choose to remember that these acts mean more than three-square-meals-a-day. Because this is how we love in the body.

So maybe this is exactly the work we’re meant to be immersed in, day after day. Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep.

It’s all he asked of us. Do you love me?

what’s the soul of a parent?

When I was a child, I got obsessed with figuring out what we all had in common.

Call it the curse of Catholic school. All those lessons on how we’re all made in God’s image. I remember riding home on the bus, swinging my skinny legs off the sticky vinyl seat, trying to figure out exactly what that meant – what magical thing we all had in common that made us reflect God.

First I decided it must be eyes. Everyone had eyes, I figured. And you learned a lot from someone by looking at their eyes. So maybe that’s what we all had, that made us in the image of God.

But then my grade school self remembered pictures from National Geographic of people with disfigured faces, people who might be born without eyes, or might have eyes that didn’t work. That didn’t seem very image-of-God-like. I scratched eyes from my list.

Next was arms. I was pretty sure everyone had – nope, then I remembered that man on TV with no arms, playing his guitar for the pope. He had to be made in God’s image. Arms were out.

Ditto legs, hands, hair, teeth, feet, ears. Any physical attribute I could think of was crossed off the list. Even as a first-grader I got frustrated: how could there not be a single thing that every human being shared? How were we all supposed to be made in God’s image if we had nothing in common?

This was my first inkling of soul. Of the spark of Spirit within each of us.

Because, I studied seriously, chewing on the end of my pigtails, if there had to be something of God about us and it wasn’t outside us, then it had to be inside us.

God had to be within.

. . .

When I became a mother, I became obsessed with figuring out what parents had in common.

One late night when my first son was a few weeks old, I stared out his bedroom window, trying to stay awake while he nursed. As became my practice, I thought of all the other parents awake at that hour – across the street, across town, across the globe – doing all the things parents do that keep them awake at wee hours: rocking babies, soothing sick kids, keeping vigil for curfew-breaking teenagers.

I remember rocking in the nursery, swinging my feet off the glider, trying to figure out exactly what made us parents.

Was it birthing a biological baby? Definitely not. Plenty of people I knew became parents through adoption.

Was it caring for a child full-time? Not necessarily. Grandparents and babysitters and daycare providers often watched a child for more daylight hours than their parents ever saw them. But that didn’t make them parents.

What was the core of parenthood exactly? I knew it but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought about legal definitions and cultural redefinitions and variations on a theme. And that’s when it hit me:

It was the same dilemma I puzzled over on the school bus that day, wanting to define the essence of a thing.

It was the same searching that led me back to the idea of soul.

. . .

What is a parent? Does what we do make us who we are? If we are so wildly diverse, how can we all be the same thing? What is common to this complex calling?

When Sarah at Fumbling Toward Grace first blogged about her frustrations with breastfeeding and how harshly she felt judged as a mother for feeding her baby with formula, her honesty struck a chord with many of us. So when she invited me to participate in the “No More Mommy Wars” series that sprung out of the deep resonance of her post, I started mulling over this question.

What makes us the same as mothers, even though we make such different choices for ourselves and our children? Where can we meet in the soul of parenting?

Today I’m posting at Fumbling Toward Grace about my experience of extended nursing. If you had told me a year ago I’d be writing on such a subject, I would have laughed in your face. But the winding road of this parenting journey twists in ways I never expect.

This story is one of them.

Please click over to read the rest. And check out the rest of Sarah’s wonderful blog while you’re there!

praying the particulars: nursing an older baby

A Prayer for Nursing An Older Baby:

God of nurturing love,

Trying to nurse this squirmy worm of a growing baby has become a daily wrestling match.

Each time we snuggle into the rocking chair together, I grow frustrated with how quick he is to push away, holler in protest, lunge towards anything more interesting than his mother. Long-gone are the sleepy newborn days when he would curl contentedly in my lap. As he begins to crawl, the world is his to explore; he can’t scoot out of my arms quick enough for his curiosity.

Help me to give of myself with love and patience.

Turn my eyes from the clock to my child, from my chronos schedule to your kairos moment. Let me rejoice in his eagerness; let me celebrate his growing. So many adventures await him – let my love for him be a reflection of your great love for us, steady and faithful no matter how far and wide we roam.

Thank you for the gift of nursing him. When my frustrations grow high and my temper grows short, let me remember mothers who wanted to nurse but couldn’t, or who feel guilty because they never tried, or who persevere through painful complications. Transform our anxieties into assurance that every mother’s gift of self is life-giving, sacrificial, enough.

God of goodness, each day you offer everything I need: love, patience, forgiveness. Each day I push away from your embrace in search of what seems more pressing, interesting, important. Help me, too, to rest in your love, to drink in what I need most, to be grateful for the simple ways you sustain my life.

In patience and humor, I pray –

An exasperated mama