Thursday, May 26, 2011

Does the “Breast is Best” campaign alienate fathers?

“Breast is best.” The message is simple, rhetorically effective, and aesthetically pleasing (it's alliterative, short, and rhyming). The message, or some variation of it, was also largely responsible for the swing back towards a breastfeeding norm in America. And that, in turn, has given way for research on the benefits of breastfeeding, laws supporting breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, greater acceptance of public nursing, and even a call-to-action from the Surgeon General promoting breastfeeding. (Though we all know that none of these things is without problems: there’s a backlash against the benefits of breastfeeding, working mothers still struggle against discrimination, and public nursing doesn’t sit well with everyone).
Overall, the message seems to be working, and—as a fulltime working, nursing mother of a six-month-old—I think that’s a great thing.


But I also wonder if the message that “breast is best” might be damaging to another parenting cause that is equally important to me: equally shared parenting and the freedom for men to assume caregiver roles.

Picture from babble

In absolutely no way am I suggesting that women shouldn’t breastfeed because men can’t breastfeed. And I’m also not suggesting that breastfeeding and its necessary mother-centeredness is a threat to a man’s ability to father. But I do think that the bombardment of images and messages that tout breastfeeding as one of the most important parts of parent-bonding can be damaging.

Consider this Time article that summarizes a study showing breastfeeding mothers bond with their children better than formula feeding mothers.

I’m not arguing the veracity of the study (though the sample size is pretty small for any broadsweeping conclusions), but what does publishing it say to men about their ability to bond? And can it be setting men up for an excuse for not bonding?

Another example—one that bothers me the most—is an image advertising Medela breastpump supplies. I can’t find a picture I can embed, but you can see it on their website here.
In it, a man cradles an infant in one arm and feeds the baby from a bottle. He’s sitting cross-legged and the floor below him shows a reflection—a mirror image of a mother nursing the same infant. I’ve seen this picture in Medela ads on websites with a tagline that says something like “Be there, even when you can’t be.”

What. The. Hell. No. You’re not there. The baby’s (presumable) father is. And, you know what, that’s fine. No, wait. That’s better than fine. It’s great. How wonderful that a baby has two supportive parents to love, cuddle, and feed him/her. We do not need to diminish the father’s role as some pseudo fill-in for the absent mother.

There’s also less abstract evidence for the phenomenon I fear might arise from this rhetoric. Take a look at this Slate article by Michael Thomsen about his attempts to stimulate his breasts to produce milk through a fenugreek binge and a rigorous pumping schedule.  (To be fair, I had a hard time taking much of the article seriously after I read the line “My nipples aren't accustomed to regular stimulation, and though I felt like I was defying the natural order, pumping was surprisingly pleasant. Nipples are filled with nerve endings, after all, and the gentle upward tug of the pump was both comforting and erotic.” Erotic? This machine of hard plastic and tubing? What pump are you using? But I digress.)

I don’t think this would be an article at all if there weren’t some truth to my fear. Obviously, some men are driven to contemplate their inability to breastfeed, and some are even driven to try to rectify it. Though I find that attempt a little odd, I think that the motivation is a great one: to bond with your child.

Thomsen ends his article with this reflection:

“Maybe one day I'll try again to climb over the gender wall, this time risking the mortification of a swollen breast and the ominous side effects of hormone-boosting pharmaceuticals. It would be nice to have a better reason than curiosity, I think. Perhaps a little baby—someone in need of sustenance and intimacy, searching for a breast to nuzzle. Yours or mine could do.”

Thomsen also mentions how breastfeeding has been used as a pawn against gay marriage and gay couples adopting children. This New Yorker article by Margaret Talbot looks at the court case where an attorney declared “We can also agree that men can’t breastfeed, and breastfeeding clearly has benefits for children in that it provides sources of immunity that are beneficial to children.”

But that line of reasoning is not just damaging to gay rights. It is also, in my mind, damaging to feminism.

See, for me, feminism cannot just mean that women are free to break from gender roles and step into previously male-dominated roles. Do you know why? Someone still has to feed the children. Someone still has to do the dishes. Someone still has to do all of that work. So feminism also means that men are able to step outside of their traditional roles and pick up some of those tasks.

And I wish we could find a way to support and promote breastfeeding without risking alienating fathers. Breast may be the “best” food for infants, but it’s surely not better than having a great dad.


  1. (Long time lurker here!) I'll be returning to full time work after 3 months, and my husband quitting work at our 1st child's birth. I plan to be pumping milk for him to feel our child with out of a bottle. We are both thrilled with this - that he gets to feed the baby too. I have been surprised by the dichotomy people/institutions promote - either breast, or, bottle-fed-formula. I find this incredibly frustrating for similar reasons - there is a real benefit to bottle feeding breastmilk, a) if it's the only way for baby to get breastmilk, and b) if it includes other important people in the baby's life. It irritates me that it's either "wonderful breastmilk straight out of the breast", or, "well, I guess you'll be bottle feeding formula then". Argh!

  2. Glad to hear from a long time lurker! And you're so right about that polarization of the argument. It extends to practically every parenting debate, too.