When I became a mother, I was surprised at how painful breastfeeding was and how much it drained me physically. I would have given almost anything to have a little bit of time without a person hanging off of me. Over my year of nursing, I came to see it as a profoundly spiritual act, a sacrament, a means of grace.
But I never felt the joy and peace of the mother with her babe at the breast. Instead, I soldiered through, giving my son the best of what I could. I have wondered in the months since if it wouldn’t have been better for me to stop a little bit earlier. If I might have resented Atticus a little bit less if I had some space for myself. Breastfeeding is, after all, not the only way to experience grace.
Growing up in church, I was taught not to trust my feelings. After all, they could be Satan leading me astray. The Bible spoke to all of our circumstances and we prooftexted our answers from its pages. The one place we let our feelings lead was during worship music. I learned quickly to memorize the words of songs so that I could sing them with my eyes closed and look like I was really into it. I learned which way to raise my hands up in worship: cupped in front of me during a slow, moving song and held high during faster songs.
I focused on my actions, hoping that they would give me the feelings that everyone around me seemed to have. They looked desperate for God, laughing or crying as they reached heavenward. I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the music or my own desperate loneliness, but never by the presence of God. I imagined that it was a warm glowing feeling in my heart, or a heaviness in my limbs that would make me fall down like the people around me.
In graduate school, I found solace in a different kind of church. It was here that I learned some new things about worship. Instead of a praise band, there was an organ. Instead of speaking in tongues, there were responsive readings. There were words like liturgist and acolyte and quiet places in the service with no words at all. I breathed in the silence and the structure. I learned that my feelings do matter. Throughout the whole service, and in my whole life.
Worship doesn’t look the same for all of us. You might dress up, or sing lustily in a church service. You might stand up and quietly take it all in. You might play an instrument or doodle or teach the children. I nursed my son and it brought me to the end of myself. I would never ask you to do the same. I persisted with nursing just as I have persisted with going to church, despite my lack of warm fuzzy feelings. If my feelings matter, the actions I take when I don’t feel anything seem even more holy.
It was my own kind of worship for me to give my son the best of what I could do even though it did not make me feel like an earth mother madonna goddess. It was a sacrifice, my good gift.