This last weekend I went to church with my family. My churchgoing these days is always in honor of someone else: I go to services with my husband on high holy days; I go to mass when visiting my grandpa.
They are not my traditions, but I like these occasional encounters with religious practice. I crave more opportunities to slow down, unplug, and reflect, and I appreciate the energetic groundswell of a community of people brought together in reverence for something greater than themselves. I’m sure I make plenty of mistakes, but I do my best to be respectful when I show up, through my dress, my participation, and my comportment.
This time, I spent the service in the crying room (a glass walled room at the back of the church, with the service piped in over intercom. You can see and hear everything; the congregation can’t hear you).
I wasn’t sure if nursing was appropriate in plain view, so I pulled a rocking chair next to the changing table in the windowless closet, and stared at a wall while I fed my baby and listened to a homily on the value of family.
I hid in service to my son while I listened to scriptural explanations for how I have no identity separate from my husband and read, on endless loop, the admonition taped to my wall:
“This is NOT a nursery or a playroom. Adults and children MUST BE ATTENTIVE TO MASS.”
Out of respect, I hid in a closet to carry out perhaps the most foundational act of mothering while a man on a stage who has never had a family spoke about its centrality.
His words made me feel invisible, like a utility to be used but not seen. I learned that I am of one flesh with my husband, except when my flesh is provocative. Except when my flesh is actively prioritizing family in the most fundamental way. Except when it dares to perform in ways my husband will never be able to match or manage.
If I’d tried to come up with an image to represent the invisible work of women and the hypocrisy of ‘family-friendly’ policies, closet nursing during a sermon on the role of the sexes and the primacy of the family would have been far too overwritten and obvious to use.
And yet here we are.
Then I realized how complicit I was in my own invisibility. I dragged my own damn chair into that closet. Not knowing the etiquette, I overcorrected out of imagined respect to those who would happily force my hand in becoming a mother but shame me for publicly fulfilling that contract.
I breastfeed in public all the time—I am purposefully not shy about it—and here I was, submitting, out of a ‘respect’ that was anything but reciprocal.
The second time my son wanted to nurse, I stayed put in my glass box, in full view. No one said anything. Maybe no one noticed. I was probably just as invisible, still contained by the architecture of a protective patriarchy.
But at least I could no longer see the sign scolding me to stay in my lane.
Photo: tgraham via flickr.