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Mother's Milk, Mother's Faith

Mother's Milk, Mother's Faith

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"Because You drew me forth from the womb, and made me secure on my mother's breast (Psalm 22:10)."

It took me a couple of weeks to realize that I could put away my nursing undergarments. It's been two years. Two years of holding my son close to my heart and feeding him from the milk that flowed forth from my body. Two years of sleepless nights and exhausted days. Two years of gazing down at my beautiful baby and delighting in the smile he flashed up at me. Two years of being needed and feeling needed.

No one can take away the closeness and the bondMy mother nursed me until I was two and a half. I don't remember what it was like breastfeeding. I don't think my son will remember either. But I do hope he feels the same connection that I feel with my mother. No one can take away the closeness and the bond from nine months of sharing a body followed by two years of spending time together physically connected as well. These are experiences that simply cannot be replaced or imitated.

In the beginning it was difficult, and it hurt. I also felt so afraid to step outside of my home. I worried about the logistics and where I would nurse my son and how. I had always assumed that that breastfeeding would be a piece of cake. After all, nursing is so natural. But like everything in life, learning how to nurse takes time and patience, and so to a baby doesn't learn to walk in a day and a toddler doesn't learn to talk in an hour. My mother told me, "Give it six weeks. You'll soon be a pro." She was right. It took me at least a month and three visits with a lactation consultant until I finally started to get the hang of it.

Why did I decide to nurse my son? I had read all the facts. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends that babies be fed solely with breast milk for the first six months of life and say that it is better to breastfeed for six months and ideal to nurse for a year, or for as long as the mother and baby want. A miracle of miracles, mother's milk has just the right proportions of fat, sugar, water, and protein needed for a baby's growth and development. It also contains antibodies that help infants fight against disease, infection, viruses, and protects against bacteria. Breast milk is also easier to digest than formula for the majority of babies and when suckled straight from the breast is always sterile. In addition, studies have shown that touch and physical contact is essential to newborns and enables them feel more secure, warm and at ease.

While not easy in the beginning, after a month or so the benefits for mothers who nurse are evident as well. Breastfeeding saves times and money. No measuring, mixing, washing bottles or buying formula. Nursing burns up calories, making it easier to shed the pounds put on from pregnancy. It also helps the uterus return to its original size quicker and alleviates any bleeding a woman may have after giving birth. Breastfeeding may also lower the risk of breast and ovarian cancers, and possibly the risk of hip fractures and osteoporosis after menopause. Sounds pretty convincing. But there is something more, something different that I realized after breastfeeding my son. Nursing your child infuses him with faith and security.

We had another motive for not wanting to nurse any longerOriginally my husband and I had talked about nursing my son for only a year. A year seemed like a good time and we had another motive for not wanting to nurse any longer. Before having my son, I had a problem with ovulation and conception. As I nursed, my menses still did not return and the anxiety of not knowing whether my lack of ovulation was due to my initial infertility or due to breastfeeding was very great. It took us nearly four years to conceive my son and we feared another long wait. We therefore wanted to start trying to conceive as soon as possible.

As the year approached its end, I struggled with mixed emotions. I didn't want to stop nursing. I loved the feeling it created between my child and myself and he certainly wasn't showing any signs of wanting to stop either. We know from the Midrash that Sara weaned Isaac at two. In the end we decided that since both me and my baby wanted to continue, we would. After all, there was no guarantee that I would become pregnant if I did stop or that I couldn't become pregnant while nursing. And what we do have is a healthy, vibrant son, and the best thing for him would be to keep nursing. We realized that we needed to believe that the same G‑d who granted us the gift of one child, could easily grant us the gift of another.

I was explaining our situation to another mother who I met in the park. She remarked, "Wow, you have such faith, to continue nursing." Her words repeated themselves over and over in my heart. I never thought of my nursing my son an act of faith.

"I swear that I stilled and silenced my soul, like a suckling child ("gamul" in Hebrew) at his mother's side, like the suckling child is my soul. Let Israel hope to G‑d, from this time forth and forever (Psalms 131: 2-3)."

The Midrash and commentators on this verse explain that just as the suckling child is totally and completely dependent on his mother, so too is man dependant on G‑d. I marvel at breast milk and the fact that its composition changes as the baby grows to perfectly fit the child's needs. Other commentaries concur with the translation of the Hebrew word gamul as a suckling child, but adds that this word in Hebrew is cognate with the word gomel, to perform kindness, for the mother does a great kindness to the child by supplying it with her milk.

It's hard to acknowledge that things are not in your controlNursing my son taught me that everything that's supposed to come really does come, but only at the right time does its arrival actually fulfill one's needs. The mother supplies her child with the perfect nutrition. Does that mean that G‑d will supply me with what I need as well? It's hard to acknowledge that things are not in your control and as much as you want to control them, you can't. Can I allow myself to be like a suckling child who feels the security of knowing that everything needed will be provided for him?

Maybe it's this initial act of kindness that ignites the close bond between mother and child. That unconditional love that you give to your child in the beginning when all they can do is take and all you do is give. But what about if you can't nurse or when you stop nursing? Will the connection be there, will it continue? Can I feel security in G‑d even when I don't see Him giving me what I think I need?

The commentator Radak writes that the word referred to here is really a child who has already been weaned as the Torah refers to the word in several places. A weaned child is somewhat independent and yet still hovers close to its mother for security, comfort, and love. More than nursing, I see the love that I infused in my son is what continues to draw him near. We still cuddle and we still snuggle. I shower him with kisses and hugs and stroke his face and hair. I nurse him with my faith and my love.

We've entered a new phase in our relationship and I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to nurse him for two years. It was hard to let go, but I'm also happy that he's weaned as this act of letting go draws us near. I also realized that I didn't wean him - I never will. With all my capacity to love and give I will never stop infusing in him that love, faith and security. I also realized that G‑d won't ever wean me either. He just let's me go to grow on my own.

Originally from northern California and a Stanford University graduate, Elana Mizrahi now lives in Jerusalem with her husband and children. She is a doula, massage therapist, writer, and author of Dancing Through Life, a book for Jewish women. She also teaches Jewish marriage classes for brides.
About the artist: Karla Gudeon is not merely an artist, but a storyteller. Each of her prints are hand-watercolored over dry-point engravings. Her artwork can be found at select galleries around the country and through her website.
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Susan K Stone Alexandria, Virginia November 9, 2011

A Jewish lactation consultant's perspective Elana - Thank you for the sensitive expression of your experience with breastfeeding. I was very touched by your insight from a Jewish perspective,but was also taken with how you wrote about the physiological benifits. We live is such a highly mobile society, often far away from our families. In addition, many of our mother's did not nurse or were not able to. As a result somethimes we feel isolated when we are trying to make decissions surrounding breastfeeding. Turning to friends from shul or seeking the advice of a board certified lactation consultant can be very helpful. Wether it is the basics of how to breastfeed or there are special circumstances when additional support is needed we are a phone call or e-mail away. Again, thank you for sharing your experience with us. Reply

Dana Tucson, AZ November 11, 2009

Thank you Thank you sooo much I needed that. I sit here thinking about how many times my father tells me that i should be done already with nursing my son (he is only 3 and a half months old) I already had it in mind to do so until a year old but I will let him wean himself I missed out on my first son and now live with regret. with no help experience or books and younger i had no chance with out people like you and the mothers that helped me this time around at the synagogue I don't think i would have made it through this far knowing that I can go until he or I are ready to stop is a nice thing to think about. that smile is so......... well there are no words but tears of gratefulness. I am doing something good for him and for myself. Its love that we share and now i can understand a little more on the love that G-d shares with us if we only try. Reply

Anonymous Raleigh, NC November 9, 2009

Why stop at two years? There really is no need to stop at 2 years old. You are giving up a wonderful tool to get through the third year of life and even beyond. My daughter is almost 2 1/2 and I see no reason to set a date to wean her. I feel it is better to let the child self-wean.

I do understand your concerns about having another baby. I lost 8 before having my little girl, but I would not stop her nursing just to try for another one.

It is wonderful you nursed to a year and even listened to your baby and yourself and continued past one year. Reply

Anonymous Menlo Park, CA November 17, 2008

Beautiful, thoughtful words What a beautiful testimony to nursing Mothers...thank you for your wonderful words and insight, I can relate to everything you have said here...your thoughts, insight and comparisons are lovely and thought-provoking. Reply

Susan Fayetteville, North Carolina August 3, 2007

Beautiful! La Leche League couldn't have said it better! Reply

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