It’s fascinating to me how perspectives vary from culture to culture, region to region, or even from person to person; how you can discover that you have so much in common with someone who lives half-way around the world, or surprisingly opposite views with a close childhood friend or family member. I’m not sure how much of the way I see the world fits with each of the different cultures (and subcultures) I’ve been a part of – French, American, family, conservative christian, liberal christian, secular university, classical music, etc. It is a complex tapestry of many sources and I won’t try to unweave it here to show where various threads find their origin. I wish to simply share some of the impressions, memories and thoughts that come to mind when I think about breastfeeding.
The first memory that pops into my head is that of a church potluck in France, where I grew up. This particular gathering happened to take place in my backyard. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny, not too warm, and we had plenty of shade from the trees we had in our yard. Lunch was over and my Sunday school teacher’s baby girl communicated it was her turn to eat. A short asian woman, her mother was my teacher throughout my middle school years, and was always so full of wisdom. In the most relaxed way, she just put her baby to her breast and met her baby’s need in what struck me as a very natural, unceremonious way. I was very aware, in my junior high state, that breasts also serve sexual purposes, but in that moment they were intended for something much more meaningful.
I am aware that my mother breastfed all 4 of her kids, but being the third, I have virtually no mammaries – sorry, memories – of it. Sorry, our neighbor across the street has made mention of a certain man’s club nearby (I refuse to associate the word “gentleman” with it) called Memories, and every time he does he slips up and says “Mammaries” instead, which, ironically, while pointing out just what type of club it is, also completely desexualizes it for me.
As I was saying, one of the only memories I have of my mother breastfeeding happened a couple of days after my little sister was born. Back then, in France, kids were not allowed in Labor and Delivery, but my Dad figured out a way for us kids to meet our newest sibling. My mother’s room was on the ground floor and looked out over a grassy area right outside her window. I remember the ground having steep hills, but perhaps they were steeper to me as a 5 year old than they would be for me now. Steep grassy hills would be something that would stick in a young child’s memory. So we walked quietly up one of the hills, admonished by our father not to disturb the other patients with loud voices. When we arrived at the top, we approached an open window and looked into a white room where my Mom was sitting up in bed, holding a bundled baby to her chest. I was afraid to get too close, acutely aware of how unwelcome I was at the hospital. The room seemed very uninviting to me, all white, sterile, with a hint of pink which must have been the blanket my little sister was wrapped in. My mother looked very tired and happy, gently holding our newborn in nursing position. Perhaps seeing my little sister breastfed contributed to my positive views on breastfeeding, having it modeled in such a comfortable environment by people I loved and trusted.
Oh to be sure, I also developed a “healthy” sexual view of breasts as well. They are one of the most obvious physical differences between men and women, and I think it’s in those differences that our fascination and curiosity with the opposite sex start. My wife, Jessica, and I have had many conversations about why men have such an obsession with breasts. For brevity’s sake, I’ll share just a few of my thoughts on the matter. The aforementioned obsession appears to be an American one. Nowhere else in the world does there appear to be such a preoccupation with body image. We could spend all day listing off examples (like how I am assailed by images of perfect bodies every time I visit the grocery store). Breasts are primarily and almost exclusively perceived as sexual in the US. In complete contrast, Jessica mentioned an article where some women belonging to an African tribe where women don’t cover their breasts were interviewed, and they laughed out loud at the thought of grown men being into breasts, the idea being so foreign to them, in fact, that their reaction was to picture men wanting to breastfeed like babies! I place myself somewhere in between these two extremes.
Seriously, our culture has this sexual-only view of breasts so ingrained in its psyche that I wonder how our babies would survive if formula suddenly disappeared! What a major adjustment that would be in our way of thinking!
When we had our first child, Jessica and I discussed what we would do to feed our baby. Though breastfeeding seemed the natural choice to me, I was also acutely aware that it was Jessica, not me, that would be the one to sacrifice her time, her convenience, her desire for solitude and privacy, in order to give of herself physically to her baby, facing discomfort, frustration at times, and even pain. I realized that the benefits would be hers as well, the closeness and intimacy, the cuddles, the many many moments that would become beautiful memories, and more. But as I wasn’t equipped to make that sacrifice myself – that commitment, if that’s a more comfortable term – I was in no position to demand that she do what I thought was best. Fortunately, we live in an era where there are other options available. (It just now struck me that if formula weren’t available, there really wouldn’t be much of a decision to make for most people!) As to the view that her breasts were “mine,” if they cannot fulfill both functions in the same season (I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you that this isn’t a problem for many women!), assuming that they are meant for both, then to me it comes down to pitting the distinct benefits of breastfeeding for our baby (and for her mother too!) – her NEED – against my desire to enjoy her breasts for my pleasure (and hers too!) – a WANT. Need VS. want. Need I say more? After arriving at that conclusion, it was just a matter of deciding how long Jessica would breastfeed, a decision that I felt was Jessica’s to make, and which she has reassessed with every baby. My role has been to support these decisions and provide encouragement in every way I can.
I had planned to write something light and sweet, but I guess I have some pretty strong opinions on the matter! But I’ll finish with light and sweet. My favorite part of Jessica breastfeeding our babies, health benefits and all other arguments aside, is how darn adorable they are together. The sweet communion they share, those tender cuddles (I admit I am a big fan of cuddling!), the milk-heavy smiles; those moments they share where they obviously draw into each other a little further, getting closer beyond the skin to skin, in those moments, when I take a moment to observe, I feel myself getting drawn in as well, to both of them, and it. is. beautiful.