As I mentioned previously, I recently suffered some minor complications with my pregnancy that rendered me unable to travel to my dear friend’s wedding. The reasons were twofold – first, because I was diagnosed with a condition that put me in a “high risk” category; and second, that I started bleeding and cramping a day before I was supposed to leave. The first reason, in my mind, was not enough of one to miss my oldest friend in the world’s most important day; Fearless Husband (FH) disagreed. We argued for a week, him siding with the alarmist perinatologist who advised me to cancel, me with our lacksadaisical obstetrician who said I should absolutely go. Ultimately, my body made up my mind for me; once the more emergent (and painful) symptoms occurred, my mommy instinct kicked in and told me I’d be a complete moron to travel across the country under the circumstances (actually, it wasn’t just mommy instinct that told me that – so did the OB on call, who seemed like a straight shooter and broke the tie between my battling healthcare providers).
I’m rehashing this to illustrate a point about fathers and the relationship they have with their pregnant wives and unborn children. In my non-pissy moments, I realized that the situation must be scary and frustrating for FH. Our daughter is in my belly, not his. It may not be politically correct., but it is a visceral reaction – someone else has responsibility for taking care of his child, and he has little to no control over what that person does or doesn’t do. Even for the most evolved, post-feminist era man, that’s gotta sting. At one point in the week of should-I-stay-or-should-I-go arguments, FH said, “It’s not my decision; it’s not up to me. I guess I don’t even have a say in it. I’m just telling you how I feel.” Although we were mid-fight, I immediately softened. “Yeah, actually, you do have a say. This is your kid too. If you really, truly feel I am putting our child in danger, then of course you have a say,” I told him, feeling like the most selfish person on the planet for even considering taking the trip.
I think that the frustration modern dads feel about where they should draw the line between “controlling” their significant others’ physical lives in regards to procreation, and taking a true and equal part in co-parenting, affects the issue of breastfeeding. We hear talk about how fathers can support the breastfeeding mom (doing other tasks so that she can focus on feeding - bringing her water, changing diapers, etc); on the flip side, there are stereotypical horror stories of how men can feel “left out” from, resentful of, or “turned off” by the nursing relationship. But this is oversimplifying things, I think. The question remains: what rights do male partners have in dictating whether a mother breastfeeds? If they believe that formula really does carry risk, then can we blame them for taking a strong stand on breastfeeding?
In my case, FH started out being the ideal breastfeeding-supportive father. But as things went from bad to worse, his (well-intentioned) Pollyannic attitude began grating on me. He claimed he was being supportive by not letting me give up, but in my dark days, that’s not how I saw it. I recall a message board friend (one who was a staunch breastfeeding advocate, no less) telling me that “until he feeds your child with the most sensitive part of his body, he has no right to tell you how to feel or what to do.” I agreed at the time, and it fueled my anger. What kind of misogynist shmuck had I married? If I wanted to give up, I could give up. He had no say.
But that’s not entirely true, is it? FC was his child; at the time, he 100% believed that by switching to formula, we were putting his health and welfare at risk. In this context, can I blame him for feeling angry at me for considering “giving up”? Didn’t he have a right? Didn’t he have a say? FC is as much his child as mine, after all.
Months later, the man I had dubbed “La Leche Lackey” had done a complete 180. He read the research, looked at the issue with open eyes, and saw how different our lives became once we listened to our child’s needs rather than the alarmist voices that guilted, scared, and divided us. He got angry; he felt cheated.
Still, I don’t think he feels any remorse about acting the way he did. The way he sees it, he thought he was being supportive of what I wanted, deep down; that I was too depressed and frustrated to see clearly. He also thought he was protecting FC, which was his job, as a dad.
I’m not sure what my point is here. I guess it’s simply to say that a dad’s role in breastfeeding is complex, and we need to consider it carefully. As a feminist, this issue is a toughie for me; it’s a slippery slope from what I’m expressing here to a confusing, conflicted conversation about reproductive rights. As a mother and part of a loving, committed, equal relationship, though, I have to hesitate. How can we ask men to be equal partners in childrearing while not allowing them a say in how those children are fed? And yet, if the manner of feeding requires significant embodied commitment on the part of a woman, it does delve into dangerous territory.
This is one of the reasons why I believe that formula is an important option to keep in our society. Breastfeeding is inherently female work (although men can and do lactate – I’m still waiting for some research to be done in that department; that would really be progress. If breastfeeding is all it’s cracked up to be, then how cool would it be for the other half of the population to be able to contribute to our milk supply?); formula allows us to have equal footing. Of course, many women find breastfeeding extremely rewarding; a gift, if you will, that women are given, much like the ability to grow life in the first place. But for those who don’t, it sure is nice to have a way that men can be true co-parents, in every sense of the word.
See? It’s a toughie. Let’s just call it a wash and get to work on the whole male lactation thing, shall we?