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Taryn DeLong recommends that discouraged new moms seek solace through Saint Zélie Martin.

I was firmly in the “fed is best” camp before I had my daughter. I knew women who used formula, I knew women who pumped, I knew women who nursed, and I knew women who did some combination of feeding methods. They were all good moms, and their kids were all healthy. 

When I encountered my own breastfeeding struggles, however, I felt so much guilt and shame. It was partly due to the fact that I hated breastfeeding; because of the particular problems my daughter and I had with breastfeeding, I dreaded each time I had to feed her, and I felt so guilty for feeling that way. When we finally (I say “finally,” but it was only six weeks!) decided to end the breastfeeding journey, I felt relief—and I felt like a terrible mother. 

That is, until I remembered that one of my favorite saints also couldn’t nurse some of her children. One of those children was another favorite saint, and she is a Doctor of the Church.




“Christian Service in the Family”

“The holy spouses Louis Martin and Marie-Azélie Guérin practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocation of their daughters,” said Pope Francis when he canonized them in 2015. Louis and Zélie were the first married couple with children to be canonized together. Their youngest child was St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus. 

Zélie and Louis are saints because of the way they lived their vocation to family life. They were sanctified by being spouses and parents. And it wasn’t easy. They both were turned away from religious life, which they had initially felt called to. They lost two sons and two daughters in early childhood. Zélie owned a lace-making business, and her letters are full of complaints familiar to working mothers today—she felt she did not have enough time either for her business or for her family. After a challenging but fruitful life, she died of breast cancer at the young age of 45, when Thérèse was only four years old.

“My Poor Darling”

Zélie could only breastfeed her first three children. In a time before formula, there weren’t many other options. Zélie and Louis were able to pay a wet nurse, and they did so for their subsequent children. Of course, not being able to feed your child can be painful. Zélie had the added pain of having to send her children to live with their wet nurse. 

In 19th-century France, more women were working in factories. As a result, there was a shortage of wet nurses—and a surplus of bad ones. The Martins’ seventh child, Marie Céline, almost died of neglect by her first wet nurse, who preferred to get drunk rather than care for the baby. Their eighth, Marie Mélanie-Thérèse (they named each daughter after Mary), did die. One week after they brought her back home, she had begun gaining some weight, but it was too late. 

“Perhaps if my poor darling had continued to be breastfed she would have been able to get better,” a heartbroken Zélie wrote to her brother, “but I looked everywhere and found no one to help me.” She told her sister-in-law, “Oh! I would like to die, too!”




Neither a Virtue nor a Sin

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, canonized saints “lived heroically virtuous lives, offered their life for others, or were martyred for the faith, and who are worthy of imitation.” 

I have read three biographies and many articles about St. Zélie. Not once have I read, “and she repented of not nursing her children.” Not once has the Church said that her sainthood is in spite of having used wet nurses to feed her infants. Not once has it said that we can imitate her life except for how she fed her children. In fact, the “heroically virtuous life” that led to her canonization was her life as a mother. Because the way you feed your baby is neither a virtue nor a sin. 


Click to tweet:
The way you feed your baby is neither a virtue nor a sin. #CatholicMom


Zélie did not nurse Thérèse. Thérèse didn’t even live with her mother for a year of the four years she had with her. Yet, Thérèse later wrote about her with great love and respect:

God gave me a mother and a father more worthy of heaven than of earth. I have had the happiness of belonging to parents who have no equal. 


If you are struggling to breastfeed your baby, or if you use formula to feed him or her, pray for St. Zélie’s intercession. Her prayer and her example can give you peace.



Copyright 2023 Taryn DeLong
Images: Canva