8 Jewish Values I Learned From Breastfeeding

Hineni.  

Here I am, ready to nurse my last child for the last time. 

My mind is like a vortex for the countless nursing-related moments we have shared. The first time he nursed after his birth, tears streaming down my face. Nighttime feedings by the light of the moon. A feverish little baby pressed up against my skin comforted only by my milk. Long morning feedings in bed extending my sleep just enough get through the day ahead. The habitual way he furrows his little fingers into my belly button while suckling. Hysterical tears stopped on a dime. Nursing with intermittent laughter while inverted in a “downward-dog pose.” The time he announced before his entire preschool during Shabbat sing-a-long that the thing he was most thankful for was “my milk.” Books read. Lullabies sung. Conversations had. Prayers recited.  

Here I stand on the precipice of weaning my third child as he approaches his fourth birthday. I nursed my three children for a total of seven years and have also had the painful experience of having my milk come in after three consecutive late-term miscarriages. While I am not an internationally board certified lactation consultant, it is fair to say that I have had my fair share of breastfeeding experience.  

As I move ever closer to nursing my not-so-little son one final time, I am reflecting on the profound ways that nursing has been the conduit for affirming the Jewish beliefs I cherish most. The following eight values are, in a sense, an ethical will of my breastfeeding years. Far beyond the physical sustenance the milk provided, these values express a kind of spiritual transmission that simultaneously took place — a transmission that oscillated back and forth, between mother and child. As Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid (mid 13th century) was known to teach: “A mother should begin nursing her baby on the left side first, for that is the place closest to the heart.” As I nourished my children with milk, they simultaneously filled my heart with wisdom.

1)  Kesher (Relationship and Connectivity)
“It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). We are meant to live in connection with others. I have found, over time, that there is nothing more important than the relationships in my life. Whether family or friends, finding others who understand me, nurture me, and whom I can trust, is the greatest gift of all. I pray that our experience “in relationship” through nursing has shown you that when you express your needs, someone will respond to your call. You have taught me that when I have the courage to call out, others will hear my cry. The many hours we spent staring into each other’s eyes will forever remind me of the power of looking into the eyes of the other. We are wired for connection with other human beings. We need it to grow. At a time in which people think about connectivity more in terms of technological devices and social media, there is nothing like sharing our souls with one another.

2)  Ahavah Rabbah (We Are Beloved)
You are beloved. I am beloved. The Torah teaches that humanity was created in the image of God. The Ethics of our Fathers adds that because of God’s love for us, we know this to be true (3:14). I pray that our time together cuddling and nursing reminds you of this fact. Not only do we love each other, but we are forever enveloped in God’s love.

3)  Ahavat Ha’guf (Love of the Body)
When you were born, within a matter of seconds, the nurse placed you on my chest. Skin to skin, you made your way to nurse and began your life as an embodied soul, capable of experiencing warmth and nourishment outside the womb. We live in a world in which we are often encouraged to forget that we live in our bodies. But our tradition wisely teaches that the body is miraculous in design, working in the most complex ways to sustain us. Through the powerful and infinitely complex biological and spiritual process of nursing, I have come to experience my own body in a totally new way. I am awed by its wisdom and feel grateful beyond words for the way it has sustained you and healed me.

4)  Tzniut (Modesty)
Nursing is about abundant love (hesed), but it is also about setting limits (gevurah).  As your mother, I have figured out how to nurse you in ways that allowed the two of us to feel comfortable and to show concern for those around us. I am proud that I found a way to nurse you wherever we went — whether on a plane, in synagogue, at a store, or in a parked car. I have learned that there are things I can share with the world, and other, intimate things, reserved for more private settings. You can set the limits and parameters for what feels modest for you, just as you have taught me that I can set my own limits without compromising my love.   

5)  Menuha (Rest)
Before you and your siblings were born, I found it incredibly difficult to simply stop, sit still, and settle into the moment without any particular goal in mind. Nursing the three of you taught me the value of taking out time to pause multiple times a day. Whether I nursed you while singing, reading a book, staring into your eyes, massaging your sweet growing bodies, praying, breathing, resting my eyes, or reflecting on things sacred or mundane, I have loved the practice of stopping to rest. You have given me a million “mini-Shabbatot” and I hope you remember to give yourself that gift as you go forward in your own busy lives.

6)  Arevut (Responsibility)
We are all in this together. As you go through your life, I hope you know that we are not alone and we are responsible for helping those around us. Thanks to nursing, I had the chance to share my milk with two other mothers. When I handed them my milk, I looked into their eyes and felt a bond of friendship, sisterhood, humanity, and love.  Whatever you do in life, I hope you will give of yourself generously. Never forget that we all have times of need and no one gets through life without the help of others.  

7)  Mesirut Nefesh (Devotion)
There are indeed things worth fighting for. Nursing you was a wildly successful and meaningful endeavor for me, but it was not without its challenges. From clogged milk ducts and mastitis, to frequent night awakenings and adherence to a dairy-free, soy-free, and gluten-free diet for many, many months — it was no walk in the park. I worked hard and fought to nurse you these many months. Every single discomfort, inconvenience, and sacrifice was worth it. I pray you find things to devote yourself to and that the reward far outweighs your effort. It is a gift to be engaged in meaningful work in which devotion — body and soul — wins the day.

8)  Emunah (Faith)
Nursing is all about trust. From the very beginning as I waited for my milk to come in, I trusted I would make enough to satisfy you. I trusted you would consume exactly what you needed. I trusted that the milk would enable you to grow. I trusted that it would taste just right on your tongue. I trusted that you felt my love with every feeding. I trusted that you would wean at precisely the right time. I have had my share of doubts and disillusionment about all kinds of things in my life, but above all, nursing taught me to be deeply faithful in what I know to be true even when I cannot see or measure it. As you find your own truths in life, trust your heart to know what is good and right. Have faith that no matter what challenges you face, you will find your way. And when it is time to move through difficult transitions in your lives, remember how I weaned you in love.

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