It’s the Christmas season, and this means that religious people will be inundated with images of baby Jesus nestled in the lap of his mother, the Virgin Mary. For pregnant women, Mary can be an intimidating role model. Not only did she get pregnant without even trying and remain a virgin for the rest of her life, according to tradition she did not experience any pain during childbirth. And, despite delivering a child without a midwife, anesthetic, or even a bed, she is consistently shown serenely embracing her child without a hair out of place. Kate Middleton’s postpartum photographs look positively disheveled by comparison.
Many of the images of the Virgin depict her suckling her newborn infant. It’s an image that can also obscure the emotionally and physically painful difficulties that many new mothers have when nursing children. And apparently it isn’t a model for all Catholic women. A new study published in the BMJ Global Health journal reveals that in Ireland, breast-feeding rates are higher in areas where there are fewer Roman Catholics. Ireland has notoriously low breast-feeding rates in general: Recent statistics show that only 56 percent of Irish women breast-feed, and that that number drops to 50 percent by the time an infant is six months old. Compare this to the almost 90 percent rate of women nursing their children in Canada.
Dr. Jonathan Bernard, a lead author on the study, in part attributed the causes of the discrepancy to religious culture. He told the Irish Times, “According to our findings, the large cultural influence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland may act as an underlying cause that can explain, at least partly, why Ireland reached such a low rate in the 1970s and why since, despite health policies, the rate increase hasn’t been faster relative to other Western countries.” Cultural forces, he explained, can affect whether and why women breast-feed.