In her recently published book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote of her struggle to balance work and family commitments, saying, “I have breastfed two children and noted, at times with great disappointment, that this was simply not something my husband was equipped to do”.
I thought little of this quote, or breastfeeding in general, until I had a baby of my own. I had no concept of how breastfeeding would affect my life. Our now six-month-old daughter was less than an hour old when I first fed her, and I’ve done so every three to four hours, on average, ever since. Luckily I enjoy breastfeeding and haven’t experienced any real setbacks, but sometimes I lament that its solely my parental burden – and pleasure – often saying to my husband, “I wish you could do this too.”
So why can’t he?
Physiologically, it is possible. There have been numerous documented cases of male lactation – as far back as the 1850s and as recently as 2002, when a Sri Lankan man made headlines for breastfeeding his two children after his wife passed away.
As anthropologist Professor Patty Stuart Macadam pointed out in 1996, “a breast is a breast.” Female milk production is stimulated by hormones that increase during pregnancy – but it’s not the only way to do it. In 1997, Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond wrote of a future in which men could and would lactate, saying, “Soon, some combination of manual nipple stimulation and hormone injections may develop the confident expectant father’s latent potential to make milk.” He added that it would not surprise him to see some of his younger colleagues nursing their children in the future. Slate.com writer Michael Thomsen documented his attempts to lactate in a 2011 article. He used a breast pump every three hours for two months to stimulate production of the hormone prolactin. And while artificial stimulation didn’t work for him, a hungry infant’s sucking reflex is all it took for the Sri Lankan widower.
The benefits of breastfeeding are numerous and well-documented – for both baby and mother, so why not the father too? It enables a unique type of bonding that, until you have experienced it yourself, is hard to articulate. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to share that with our partners? And wouldn’t it be fantastic to share this often overwhelming, tiring task more equally? For mothers with mastitis, an incredibly painful bacterial infection of the breast, having another set of mammaries available would be a Godsend. Hell, for mothers who just want to go out and have a few drinks after nine months of sobriety (without the hassle of expressing or preparing formula), having Dad breastfeed would be incredible. And in the most unfortunate of circumstances, like those of the young family in Sri Lanka, babies could still be nursed by a biological parent. Wealthy women used to pay wet nurses – usually strangers - to breastfeed their children, so why not fathers? Could it be the step we need to become more equitable parents – sharing middle-of-the-night feeds, alternating daytime feeds and even allowing more women to head back into the workforce quicker and with less guilt?
Male nursing has been a crucial step toward equitable parenting for the Aka pygmy tribe of Central Africa. American anthropologist Barry Hewlett, who lived with and studied the tribe, noted that the men and women shared nursing duties and therefore had egalitarian parenting down to an art. Aka fathers are within reach of their infants 47 per cent of the time – more than any other cultural group on the planet. While the Aka still have some traditionally gendered labour division, there is no stigma in swapping roles if necessary. “Aka fathers will slip into roles usually occupied by women without second thought, without any loss of status,” says Hewlett.
And there’s the rub. The issue of status and the equal valuing of men’s and women’s work is key. It may be possible for men to breastfeed (and yes, their milk is nutritionally similar to womens’), but it’s seen as a bridge too far in the gender divide, and so not taken seriously, encouraged or explored. When I mentioned the idea to friends, the invariable response was laughter. But why is the concept deemed so absurd? It’s 2013. We expect men to be competent, capable fathers who do their fair share, just as women have always been expected to do. The assumption that women should ‘naturally’ have a greater interest in parenting and all the tasks that come with it is an outdated one. While pregnant, my husband and I often joked that since I alone had carried the baby for nine months, he should carry her for the next nine – and if he could have breastfed her, he would have.
The Aka have figured out that it doesn’t really matter who does the parenting work, as long as it gets done. Meanwhile Australian stay-at-home mums overwhelmingly outnumber stay-at-home dads (426,700 mums compared to 39,300 dads), and even when both parents do work outside the home, it’s still mainly mum who does most of the housework.
That this workload leaves little time for formulating alternative, more equitable arrangements is an irony not lost on even the weariest new mum – and encouraging men to breastfeed may be at the end of a long list of more achievable compromises, if it makes the list at all. But if we’re determined to share the work – and pleasures – of parenting equally, perhaps it should.