Lately, I’ve seen more discussion about the roles fathers (and partners) play in supporting breastfeeding. But I fear that there’s something missing in this discussion, a rather large elephant in the room that everyone is stubbornly ignoring despite the odor coming from the large pile of elephant dung in the corner.
Having a supportive partner is absolutely fantastic when you’re trying to breastfeed. But what does being supportive really mean? Does it mean being a breastfeeding cheerleader, reminding your partner of the benefits and imploring her to keep going? Or does it mean stepping in when you see her emotionally disintegrating before your eyes? How do we help our partners truly support us – by indoctrinating them on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, or by educating them on postpartum mental health, and the importance of the emotional stability of the family?
My husband struggled with this. It’s something I’ve talked about before, but probably not to the extent that I should have. In our case, he took the breastfeeding classes and was entirely convinced that formula was NOT an option for our family. Plus, I’d told him I wanted to breastfeed. This meant that he believed his role was to keep reminding me of these things; every time I burst out in tears, wanting to quit, he’d say “this is what we decided” or “I have to think of FC, and what’s best for him.” As I was already halfway down the rabbit hole of PPD, these were not helpful statements. I resented him, and felt even more like a failure when things didn’t work out.
Six years later, Fearless Husband can’t even discuss what I do for a living. He’s still drowning in anger about it all; he feels like he was manipulated, which led him to put his wife’s emotional health (and his son’s physical health) at risk because of what society and the “experts” told him was absolute truth. I can look at my own experience with perspective; the passion I feel about this topic is no longer personal, but about feminism and justice and truth. For him, it’s still personal.
Our partners can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. They can’t win. They are doomed if they push us to keep going when we really need to stop, or if they push us to stop when we want to keep going; when they don’t have an opinion either way, or when they have too strong an opinion. So what can we do to help them help us?
I’d love to hear your ideas, and to collect them in a post that can be shared with concerned fathers and partners. Leave them in the comments below, or on the FFF Facebook page.
To start this conversation, I want to share a unique submission I received from Jeff, a father who is dealing with this exact Sophie’s choice of a situation. I am grateful to him for sharing his thoughts, and for supporting his wife in the best way he can.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
We wanted to breast feed our baby for six months. We were committed to it. In fact, I was worried that as the dad, I wouldn’t have enough to do in the first months to care for our baby. And it hasn’t worked out that way…
I am completely fed up with what breastfeeding – exclusive pumping – is doing to my wife. Some background – our baby is 7 weeks old. We had a normal, uneventful delivery, and she’s healthy, gaining weight, and a perfect angel! But she just won’t latch. Let me tell you – we have tried. For hours, doggedly and desperately. Nipple shields, syringes and tubes, pillows, massage, hand expression, “lactation cookies”, lecithin, goat’s rue, countless cups of tea, rain dances and magic invocations… The few times she did latch, she did not get enough milk to satisfy her. After weight loss, dry diapers, and a lethargic baby, we started supplementing with formula. Our stress level went down, and our baby sprang to life!
We have seen four lactation consultants (two in the hospital, and two since we got home). They gave us terrific support – hours of individual attention and lots of moral support. They are wonderful, encouraging, and compassionate people – and I would not say we’ve felt bullied into breastfeeding. I’m very thankful to our insurance (Kaiser Permanente) for providing the support, because we didn’t want to give up. Our pediatrician and an ENT specialist checked for tongue-tie, and found nothing amiss. They also worked with us on the pump, so we’ve really given this an honest effort. We just don’t know where the issue is.
Both baby and mom have been in tears after attempt after attempt – robbing them of pleasurable bonding time. I’ve watched my wife in tears over the pain of engorgement and plugged ducts, a bout of mastitis, and the frustration and embarrassment of being hooked up to a pump while I get the pleasure of holding and feeding our baby. We haven’t had to supplement with formula much after the first week, but it’s come at a huge personal cost.
So, my wife became an exclusive pumper. Maybe our experience is atypical, but pumping takes forever. She spends close to an hour per session, many hours a day, just to keep abreast (pun intended) of the demand. It takes at least half an hour before she gets any flow. There simply are not enough hours in the day for her to pump, sleep, and hold the baby. So in the name of “breast is best”, our baby is being deprived of the comfort of her mother’s arms.
We blindly subscribed to the “breast is best” philosophy. Since these problems stated, however, I went back and read the primary literature on breast milk versus formula (I have a PhD in immunology, and my wife has a MPH and worked for the World Bank in the nutrition hub). I was surprised at how weak the evidence for breast milk over formula was! The most convincing evidence I can find is that breast milk protects babies from GI infections, which makes sense if you don’t have a clean water supply as a basis for your formula. That’s not a significant concern in the developed world, however. For nearly every study I read, the differences in IQ and every other measure are less than the test-to-test variation seen in individual children. (i.e., the difference seen between a breast fed and a formula fed baby is less than the difference seen if you tested the same baby twice.) Even if you believe those differences, the link between intelligence and breastfeeding is confounded by the many other variables that cluster with extended breast feeding, especially socioeconomic factors.
I’ve reached the conclusion that this is not serving my wife or our baby’s best interests. So, I am going to tell my wife tonight that I think she’s done a fantastic job giving our baby nothing but breast milk for the first 7 weeks, but that I am concerned that “extraction” of breast milk is dominating their relationship to the detriment of both of their health. I would rather see my daughter held in the arms of her happy mother drinking formula than look across the room at my wife’s teary eyes while I feed the baby breast milk sucked from her body.
I still support efforts to encourage breast feeding, but we have to be wise enough to recognize when it isn’t serving the best interests of the mother or baby. Public health recommendations are based on large groups of people – they cannot (nor do they try) to predict the best action for all people in all situations. If breastfeeding works for your family, that is wonderful and I’m genuinely happy for you. Please respect that it does not always work, despite desperate desires to the contrary. We didn’t want or choose this outcome, but I don’t feel bad for making a decision that protects my family’s physical and emotional health.
That’s why I think it’s time to support my wife and baby by suggesting she’s done enough, and that it’s time she put down the pump and picked up the baby.
Want to share your thoughts or story about infant feeding? Email me – firstname.lastname@example.org.