Did you hear the one about the rugby star who dared be filmed bottle-feeding his baby daughter as part of a New Zealand anti-smoking campaign, and found himself the accidental poster boy for the breastfeeding backlash?
There’s no punchline, unless you can find some sort of dark humor in this egregious comedy of errors. Piri Weepu, who is supposedly somewhat of a folk hero for the Kiwi set, was shown feeding his kid in a PSA, and the images were cut after LLL, the New Zealand College of Midwives and a local health organization called Plunket decided that they would be “contradictory” to the nation’s breastfeeding initiatives. An uproar ensued. Twitter exploded with people defending Weepu; the rugby star himself spoke his mind (and made himself a bit of a hero in my eyes, too, as he stood up for formula feeders everywhere); arguments flooded the feeds of nearly every bottle-feeding- and breastfeeding-related Facebook page – including my own.
Some folks pointed out the breastfeeding advocacy groups were maligned unfairly in the press. Others said that the critics were overreacting; that this was simply a case of one public health campaign infringing on another. More than a few explained that showing an image of a father bottle-feeding would harm efforts to normalize breastfeeding and perpetuate a bottle-feeding culture. After all, they could have shown Piri bathing or cuddling his child if they wanted to make it clear that he was a doting dad – was the bottle really necessary?
I’ve heard lots of good points during the past few days, but no one has been able to clearly answer what I believe is the real question: Exactly how is showing a MAN feeding his baby sending a message that WOMEN shouldn’t breastfeed?
Yes, it is true that men can induce lactation, but in most cases, men are clearly incapable of providing breast-to-mouth nourishment for their babies. They must feed their children pumped milk from their partner’s mammary glands, or formula. Both of these substances must be fed through a bottle (cup or syringe-feeding, while less controversial methods of feeding babies in the breastfeeding advocacy camp, are certainly feasible alternatives for short-term situations, but they are not practical for most people and regardless, I’d think they are still “contradictory” to the normalization of breastfeeding if we’re operating on that assumption). In other words, if you are male, the only choices are a) feed your baby with a bottle or b) don’t feed your baby at all.
I understand that the fear is that an impressionable young woman who sees this ad will think “oh, look, a big time sports hero is using bottles – bottles are cool!” and this would make her not want to breastfeed. But I think this argument would be a lot more plausible if it had been a supermodel, actress, or female sports hero with bottle in hand. And what about the positive influence this image could have? What if we have an impressionable young man in place of our hypothetical young woman – maybe he’d get the message that real men take care of their children.
But, wait. Breastfeeding is supposed to be a family affair, right? Men should be helping their female partners lactate, not demanding that they take part in feeding themselves. What if that boy watching Weepu grows up, has a kid, and talks his wife out of breastfeeding because he wants to take part in the feeding?
I guess that could happen. Still, isn’t it a less hysterical interpretation to think that he’ll still support breastfeeding (if that is something his wife wants to do), but that he would ask her to maybe let him feed a bottle of pumped milk every now and then (or god forbid, a bottle of formula, if they are combo-feeding)? Frankly, I think that is 100% within his rights. Men should not be deprived of the feeding experience just because they don’t produce milk. Once breastfeeding is established, there is no medical reason that pumping a bottle or two a day is going to disrupt the breastfeeding relationship. (Not to mention that for any woman who goes back to work before her baby can use a sippy cup, bottles are probably going to come into play.)
I doubt that this incident would have caused such fury had it been a woman holding that bottle. I think most rational folks would understand that if the government is promoting breastfeeding, all government programs should be on the same page. But this is beyond ridiculous, and all it has served to do is provoke a massive breastfeeding backlash – something that we have been seeing more and more of in the past three years. When I started blogging, Hannah Rosin had just made headlines for her courage to to speak up when no one else would. Then Joan Wolf took it to a whole new level. A whole bunch of us have followed suit, some more radically, and some more moderately, than others.
I believe in breastfeeding, and the last thing I want to see is a backlash so extreme that it ends up discouraging women from nursing. At the same time, if raising breastfeeding rates means losing all modicum of common sense, engaging in censorship, and throwing us back into the dark ages of gender discrimination… well, I can’t say I want to see that, either.
So please, powers that be, take a breath and see where your actions are taking you, before you do more harm than good. I know it’s hard, but man up.