The Daddy Dilemma: How much say should fathers have about breastfeeding?

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?

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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8 thoughts on “The Daddy Dilemma: How much say should fathers have about breastfeeding?

  1. Chris and I have had the conversation about a dad's say in in whether his child is breastfed or not many times. Of course, for us, it is always hypothetical. I'm sure if it were an actual conversation about our kid it, it would get ugly.

    And, really, he (and FH, and ANY guy who thinks he should have a say in his child's early nutrition) is right. Fathers should get a say in what happens to their child in utero and beyond. But, as you say, it's a slippery slope.

    I think what it boils down to is that we owe it to the dads to hear them out, REALLY listen to their concerns, and keep them in the loop with out decision-making process.

    But, ultimately, when it comes to reproductive and feeding rights, they are ours. Because, like it or not, we are talking about our bodies, as well as our children's.

    In that respect, it's kind of crappy being the dad. But then again, they aren't burdened with the enormous pressure of being the deciding factor in these matters. So scary.

    In short, I totally get what you're saying, but I have no insight or answers for this dilemma.

  2. yeah, pretty much what Megan said.

    I've discussed this with my husband too. While he didn't have strong opinions wrt to feeding our sons, he does believe men should have a say in matters concerning the welfare of their children. And I agreed with him…but there's that slippery slope.

    I was lucky in that my husband didn't believe that formula was poison, and as such, was more concerned about MY mental health when I was trying to BF. He was quite sure the boys would be fine if they ate formula exclusively, but if I went off the deep end, that wasn't good for anyone.

    However, if a man truly believes there is no substitute for breastmilk, and that he's only trying to ensure that his child gets the best, then he might encourage his wife to breastfeed even if it's against her wishes or bad for her health. This is where the “breast is best” campaign that misleads people into thinking that formula fed babies will be stupid, fat and poisoned really do people a disservice.

  3. I think that my husband walked the line almost perfectly. He did a lot of research with me during my whole pregnancy about what we did or didn't want to do. We talked about everything. We really were a team, and it was wonderful.

    We never felt that formula was BAD. I mean, we'd both been formula fed and we were fine. But I was going to be a SAHM and it made sense that I should breastfeed. I wanted to, my husband thought it made sense… he was encouraging and wonderful.

    When it got bad though, when it got really bad… my husband made the decision for me. He took me son from me and gave him a bottle and when I finally came out of the bedroom the next morning my husband said we weren't breastfeeding any more. Some may say that what my husband did was wrong, or unsupportive, or even misogynistic… but it wasn't. My husband knows ME. The only way he could have made me stop before I hurt myself or before our child got sick was to make me stop. Once I put my mind to something I refuse to give up until I am forced to. So my husband did an extremely hard thing and he took the stand.

    I think that it's one of those things were there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Ideally both partners in a relationship will discuss things and compromise and research together and agree. But ultimately I do think that it has to be a woman's decision. And hopefully she is fortunate enough to have a supportive partner in her life to help her.

  4. Thank you for this post. I'm a first-time, full-term mom-to-be who left the hospital breastfeeding class stressed to the point of tears. The more I read about breastfeeding, the more freaked out I get. My husband is pissed off that I don't want to breastfeed after the initial colostrum. Afterall, his mother and sisters did it, what the hell is my problem? It's “natural.” We're struggling with this issue on a daily basis. I'm equally dreading breastfeeding and the long-term resentment if I selfishly choose not to.

  5. I'm actually wondering about the same thing, but from the other direction. I would like to breastfeed our second child (if we have one), and my husband is pretty much against it after what we went through last time.

    At this point, we've agreed that I will try to BF, but if my health interferes or it becomes too much of a strain, we will at least supplement without guilt or fear.

    Interesting article!

  6. This is such an interesting topic. Before our son was born my DH pretty much left the decision to breastfeed or not up to me, but was supportive either way. I was the one who did the “research,” or bought into the propaganda, however one wants to look at it. I would be curious to know how many dads search for their own information or just rely on their partner's knowledge? Although maybe the “lack” of information and indoctrination is good. DH pointed out to me that much of my guilt when we switched to formula was having bought into the 'breast is best' arguments through all my reading to the point where I wasn't open to the formula option any more. His perspective was actually much more balanced and far less emotionally charged. I have overheard him on the phone with family several times since we switched to formula that he prefers it because he knows the baby is getting enough and he can help with feeding him.

    With that said, when I was struggling with what to do, he flat out told me that the final decision had to be mine, since I was the one who had to live with myself after the fact. Now I appreciate this, although in the moment I wanted him to rescue me and make the judgment call. I agree with the article and comments that it is really tough to know where the line is. Maybe it is different for every couple.

  7. I definitely think its individual to each family. My relationship with my husband and his role in the family is unique to us. Some women are the sole care-taker for children in the family and the father defers decisions 100% to the mother. Other husbands are complete control freaks and the mothers are subordinate to what the father says – on everything. Is it “right”? If the mother and father are happy with the way their relationship works, and everyone is healthy, who am I to say.
    Personally, my husband and I both work outside of the home. We pull in pretty much equal salary and both have equally demanding careers. We didn’t design it that way it just is. We both have the same desire to raise our children and to be equally involved. Some fathers probably look at my husband and think he takes on too many “womanly” roles. He wouldn’t have it any other way (at least that’s what he tells me ;)) I know for a fact, that many women look at us and think that I am so lucky to have a husband that “does all that.” I admit it I am very lucky! But really, it’s not luck. It’s the mother/father working as a team and doing what works for us. What does this have to with BF? A lot! I think that his wanting to be equally involved with the caretaking of our children made the decision to formula feed (after going through a not so great experience BFing) a bit easier. He also has great respect for me and my well-being, and included my needs/health, with the overall decision to switch; not just the needs of our daughters.
    @ Anon: I am sorry you are having such a difficult time with this decision. I am not sure what you are “freaked out about” and it really doesn’t matter. Hopefully you can get the support & information you need to make the right decision for you. This is just one of many parenting decisions you are going to have to make together. I hope that you are able to figure out how to work through it together, because it’s an important precedent for things to come!

  8. It's not a problem I had with my husband. We discussed my birth plan and my preference for feeding our unborn son and he supported my preferences for a natural birth and breastfeeding.

    17 hours into labour that had started when I went to bed (no I had had no sleep), they broke my bag of water and suddenly every contraction was agony. An hour later, my husband reasoned me into getting an epidural. I was exhausted and in excrutiating pain, and we had no idea how long this was going to last, he said. If I kept this up and ended up being too tired to push, then I would need a c-section, and it would be even worse. He was right. I got the epidural and slept for 5 hours straight, until it was time to push. 5 pushes and my son was out. I don't regret it one bit.

    Then came breastfeeding. At the beginning my son either wouldn't latch or bite my nipples off. It was awful. They first night we were home, he found me bawling because I was in pain and couldn't feed our son, and he suggested exclusive pumping or formula feeding. I ended up being able to breastfeed for a while, but my supply crashed after our son was hospitalized for a UTI at 12 weeks. It took us a while to figure out what was wrong because he was screaming but wouldn't latch, but after a few weeks of this, my husband gave our son a bottle of formula and he gulped it down and promptly fell asleep. Again, my husband was the voice of reason. If I wanted to keep nursing, no problem, but we had to supplement. The nursing-pumping-formula making soon was too much for me and our son was weaned within a month. Again, I don't regret it. It was the best for our son.

    Bottom line, my answer to the question : “Does dad have a say?” My first answer would be that they're not the ones giving birth and breastfeeding, so no. As a partner, I think the husbands' job is to support WHATEVER decision his wife makes in regards to birth and feeding. However, I don't think he should be a passive supporter and say “whatever you want” and leave it at that. As a partner, an observer to the birth and feeding process, he is in a position where he can make sure his wife is not endangering her own health (and ultimately the child's) by holding on to an ideal that may not be attainable. My husband was right to tell me I should get that epidural and that we should give our son that bottle. He wasn't the one in pain and flooded with the hormones and guilt, so he was in a much better place to make decisions!

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