Father Knows Breast: Men have breastfeeding angst, too

I’ve been re-reading Joan Wolf’s book, Is Breast Best: Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the New High Stakes of Motherhood. The first time I read it I was doing so in order to review it for this site, and also as research for my own book; this second reading is simply for enjoyment. And I have to say, it is a damn good study. If anything, its downfall is that it is too comprehensive; she covers so many issues so thoroughly that it almost gets overwhelming. But that’s a pretty good fault to have, kind of like when an recruiter asks you what your faults are and you say “Huh…well, um, I guess I’m a perfectionist…”

Anyway, one of the (many) arguments she makes is about the gender-specific nature of the breastfeeding-begets-bonding rhetoric. How come we never consider the “bonding” behaviors of fathers in regards to infant feeding? It got me thinking… we seldom discuss the male POV here on FFF, and maybe it’s time we did.

On the few male-written blogs on breastfeeding I’ve seen, the blogger always refers to the “myth” that breastfed babies can’t bond with their fathers, and how this wasn’t true for him/didn’t matter if it was true for him because nature designed it that way and it was all worth it in the end. These guys usually talk about how it makes them even more in awe of their wives; how they were able to help out in other ways (diapering, cleaning the house, bringing the baby to their wives in the middle of the night); how “real men” support breastfeeding.

Most of these sentiments are really beautiful, and I don’t doubt that all of them are 100% true. For some men. But just as with women, I think it’s unfair to assume that every man’s experience with breastfeeding is going to be identical.

I’m sure there are men who do feel left out, when only their wives can provide the comfort and food to their new infants. Babies don’t do much but eat (and poop, but changing a diaper isn’t much of a bonding activity) at the beginning; with first babies, most willing and able dads will be involved in breastfeeding because it takes time for their wives to get the hang of it (I know my own Fearless Husband was quite adept at maneuvering my nipples into my son’s mouth by the end of the first week). But after breastfeeding is established, dads don’t really get to do much in the way of feeding unless pumping and bottles are involved. I’m not saying this is a “reason” to bottle feed, or an indictment of breastfeeding, but I also believe we should feel free to voice any and all feelings about individual experiences with breastfeeding. It is an intimate experience, like birth, and sometimes it helps to tell our stories- even if that means saying things that are politically incorrect.

These are tricky subjects, in even trickier situations. We can’t censor ourselves for fear of appearing anti-breastfeeding. I actually think that in some ways, doing so is anti-breastfeeding – because if we aren’t honest about our experiences and feelings and challenges and concerns, how the hell will breastfeeding ever become the “norm”? “Norm” meaning normal, right? Normal things can be made fun of; looked at analytically; debated. Normal means that we can talk about the uncomfortable truths.

So, just in case anyone with a penis should ever stumble across this blog, I want to make a few things clear, since it’s highly unlikely anyone with actual authority will have the balls to do it:

  • It’s okay to feel left out.

  • It’s okay to feel a bit squeamish that a body part which was once an integral part of your intimate, sexual relationship with your wife is now simply a feeding tool /public domain, being seen, discussed, and manhandled by a myriad of medical professionals and lactation consultants.

  • It’s okay to wish that you could do “the most important thing for your baby”, that you could shoulder some of the responsibility for his/her future health and intelligence.

  • It’s okay to question whether this “most important thing” is really all that important, and if it will have that much impact on your child’s future health and intelligence.

  • It’s okay to feel confused about how best to support your wife when she is crying over bleeding nipples/insufficient supply/frustration/pain/mastitis/spilled milk, when part of you just wants to give the kid a damn bottle and tell her to quit already, she’s been through enough; it’s okay that you aren’t sure whether she really wants to quit or needs you to be the rock and push her through this roadblock.

  • It’s okay to feel concerned about your baby’s welfare if your wife is having trouble breastfeeding or is telling you she simply doesn’t want to do it. When every parenting book and birth-prep class you took has informed you that formula fed babies are sickly, emotionally stunted and stupid, how could you not worry?

  • It’s okay to feel uncomfortable when you see your wife’s friends nursing. Two months ago if you’d seen their boobs it would have been a federal case; now you’re supposed to think nothing of it…?

  • It’s okay that you can’t understand why your wife cares so much about what other people think of her and what she is or isn’t doing with her breasts.

  • It’s okay that you feel resentful that fathers are barely acknowledged in all the talk about infant feeding and early development, especially if you are a gay, single, or primary caregiving dad. It’s not right, it’s out-and-out sexist, and it just sucks.

We can’t leave fathers out of the conversation, because they inevitably become part of the conversation. Yes, breastfeeding is a woman’s issue, but it has become a social and medical issue revolving around babies. Babies who often have both a male and a female parent, and sometimes only a male parent, or two male parents. The physiological act of lactation is exclusive to women; feeding babies is in the purview of both genders. I hope more fathers start to weigh in on how the pressure to breastfeed is affecting them, as well.

Oh – and also – while writing this, I couldn’t help but think: First we ask men not to fixate on our breasts as sexual objects; then we ask them to fixate on our breasts as a means to a healthier, wealthier child; a healthier, wealthier nation. Either way, the attention is all on the breasts.

Paging Dr. Freud….

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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