“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isa. 49:15).
This was always one of my favorite verses. I pictured the deep bond between a breastfeeding mother and her baby, her delighted love for her child, the profound intimacy of nursing: mother and baby in life-giving relationship.
But then I had a baby, and I began to breastfeed.
The Pain of Parenting
At first, nursing was agony. Neither I nor my daughter knew what we were doing. Both of us were frustrated and distressed. I’ll never forget one nurse’s comment, delivered kindly, but like a knife to my heart: “My observation about this baby is that she is very hungry and very tired.” I felt desperate.
Gradually, we got the hang of it. But then came the real test. The frequency with which my baby needed to feed was exhausting. Some nights, I would hear her cry, and long from the depths of my soul not to go to her. I was more drained than I ever imagined. I felt like a climber scaling Everest, wanting nothing more than to lie down in the snow to sleep—too tired to heed the consequences. But I knew my baby needed me. So, I got up, crawled through my exhaustion, and went to her.
Can a Mother Forget?
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?” Isaiah asks. At times, she certainly wishes she could. Weary, frustrated, and lonely from the night watches, her body aches from giving birth, and her mind rolls to the edges of despair. To be sure, there are joyous, mountaintop moments with a newborn. But these are interspersed with suffering.
Whether or not she breastfeeds, every mother knows the ongoing sacrifice required to care for an infant. Like climbing in the death-zone, mothering can look easy from the outside; but every small step takes physical and psychological strength, drawing on an oxygen tank that is running out.
Whether or not she breastfeeds, every mother knows the ongoing sacrifice required to care for an infant.
Last weekend, I drove past a hospital with signs advertising a newborn “safe deposit.” I imagined how desperate a mother must be to drive to a hospital and leave her baby there, knowing she couldn’t care for him or her.
I remembered how difficult it was in the early weeks with my first child, despite all the support I had from family and friends, and I felt great compassion for the women who make this choice—not to lie down in the snow, but to stagger on to the first point of safety and pass her baby over the line, into the care of strangers.
God’s Maternal Sacrifice
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you.” God’s love for us is no Hallmark sentiment. This image is not primarily a celebration of our newborn cuteness: “God could never reject such lovable little creatures as us!”
Rather, this verse reveals God’s hard-won, self-giving, dogged commitment to our good, a refusal to let us go—however frustrating we become, an insistence on seeing his image in us—and a painful provision for our most desperate need.
Motherhood metaphors for God punctuate the Old Testament. “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut. 32:18). “I will cry out like a woman in labor; I will gasp and pant” (Isa. 42:14). “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (Isa. 66:13).
God’s love for us is relational, and it is sacrificial. We see this most clearly in Jesus’s bloody death on the cross for our sake. By his sacrifice, we are united to him.
God Who Can’t Leave
I am currently pregnant with my third child, and the vulnerable experience of carrying another human within my body reminds me of our safety in Christ. When he died, we died, and our life, like an unborn child, is now “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
Yes, God loves us with all the affection of a mom for her infant. We are his blood-bought image-bearers, and he delights in us! But breastfeeding taught me that his care is more than just affection.
When I fail and frustrate my Lord again and again, he nonetheless gets up in the night to meet my needs. Though a desperate mother may forget—or at least give up the fight of caring for her child—he will not forget us.
“See,” says the Lord, right after his breastfeeding metaphor, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:16). Babies leave wounds on their mothers’ bodies. We’ve also left wounds on Christ.
But, like a tender mother, he will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5).