This week, the winners of the inaugural ‘Man-Centred Design Awards’ ‘Meaning-Centred Design Awards’ were announced in London. According to the word salad on their website, “Meaning-Centred Design Awards celebrate the best brands, organisations, services, apps and products which have managed their own meaning or that of the category/sector they live in. The Awards celebrate design that generates social impact and inspires cultural change.”

The top prize went to a ‘male lactation kit’ created by product design student Marie-Claire Springham. This kit, which is still at concept stage but possibly available within 5 years, includes domperidone (a gastric medication which is widely used off-label for its side effect of stimulating lactation), oxytocin spray (for inducing the milk ejection reflex), a breast pump, a compression vest, and what I hope to heck is a mock NHS pamphlet. Men wanting to use the kit would also need to undergo hormone therapy in order to develop milk ducts and breast tissue.

The Awards Jury Chair, Julie Jenson Bennett, commented: “The chestfeeding kit deserves particular attention because it challenges the fundamental meanings of male and female, father and mother, parent and child. At a time when we increasingly use hormones, medication and technology to change the life options available to us, Marie-Claire’s design concept goes right to heart of our taboos.”

Springham has been quoted as saying “”I was trying to create an empathy tool, something that could really help when a mum was struggling to breastfeed and could help a dad be of practical use”, and that she hopes it will break down barriers of fathers feeling left out when it comes to looking after their baby.

Because as we all know, when new mothers are exhausted or struggling to breastfeed, the solution they really need is for their baby’s father to step in and say ‘Oh dear, move over, I’ll do it’? And breastfeeding struggles are such that women who were born in possession of the equipment can’t seem to get it right, but with a commercially produced kit, any dude could totally nail it?

One has to wonder if Ms Springham, or indeed if any of the people involved in judging these awards, has actually had any contact with a breastfeeding mother, or even bothered to google how breastfeeding works (hint: hungry newborns are rarely if ever interested in challenging the fundamental meanings of male and female).

I mean, good on them all for managing to work out that too many mothers struggle to breastfeed and that medical and research advances are needed. But apparently it’s possible to be so woke that you’re asleep, because instead of being motivated to use her creative talents to enable women to overcome breastfeeding problems, Ms Springham saw an opportunity “to provoke a profound debate about the meanings behind gender in parenthood.”

Well you know what, I have a debate that I would like to provoke too. I would like to provoke a debate about why anyone in their right mind would waste time and energy helping men to lactate, when women are failing to meet breastfeeding targets globally to the point where an estimated 20 000 women annually die from causes related to not breastfeeding. That this ‘chest feeding kit’ could take out a major design award without anybody even asking about the impact on the lives and wellbeing of women and babies is evidence of just how deep the misogyny runs. 

Because erasing women in the name of ‘helping them’ is nothing new. Nor is seeing a marketing opportunity in devaluing the role and work of breastfeeding mothers, or ignoring the complex interactions between a mother and a newborn (not least the fact that for a mother to have a milk supply, the baby needs to be feeding AT HER BREAST as frequently as possible). And in all the frothing about equality for dads has anybody stopped to consider the potential erosion of legal protections for mothers – what happens to the right to maternity leave and lactation breaks if anybody could be breastfeeding instead?

Babies, too, are shoved aside in the fervour to make sure dad gets a turn. Completely lost amidst the hype, is the fact that we know almost nothing about the composition of male breastmilk, or the impact of artificial hormones on the infant. The babies who will be on the receiving end of all of this would essentially be guinea pigs in a study where the primary ethical concern seems to be male feelings. And it should be noted, as I have commented previously, that once again domperidone is apparently being handed out like lollies to men who want to have a red hot go, when women who would truly benefit from use of the drug are routinely denied access to it.

And let’s not forget that the entire premise of this kit rests on the age-old marketing tactic of undermining breastfeeding (some women just can’t! be prepared!) and then slotting your product into the gap you created. We already know that women who are targeted by formula marketing when they are pregnant have lower confidence levels and are less likely to achieve their breastfeeding goals. Yet the makers of this kit expect families to start injecting dad with hormones during a woman’s pregnancy, in order for him to be able to save the day ‘just in case’. Can you imagine the impact this would have on a woman’s confidence in her body and her milk supply? Or the pressure a woman might feel to make sure all his hard work and breast development wasn’t wasted? And this is even before we consider the potential for abuse and coercion, which we surely must given the fact that women are a significantly increased risk of family violence in pregnancy and early parenthood.

The truly galling thing about all of this is the way in which breastfeeding is being positioned as little more than a vehicle for getting milk from an adult into a baby. As if mothers are interchangeable* as opposed to the reality, in which breastfeeding is a complex physiological and emotional interaction between a woman and her infant, a continuation of an interdependent relationship which began in utero.

When it comes to fathers feeling left out of looking after the baby, creating innovative ways for men to hijack their partner’s breastfeeding relationship is not the solution. Mothers struggling with breastfeeding do not need their partner to make it all about him or to prove his masculinity by rescuing them – they need someone who can hold space for them and assist in finding knowledgable and evidence based breastfeeding support. So, dads – go to a good breastfeeding education class with your partner while she’s pregnant. Find out the details of your local breastfeeding support group, and the number of the breastfeeding helpline in your area. Take as much leave as you can, take on as many household tasks as possible, and if your partner is having a hard time with breastfeeding, help her work out what her breastfeeding goals are – and move heaven and earth to give her what she needs to do in order to reach them. And if somebody suggests you invest in a chest feeding kit, tell them where they can shove it.

 *Ah, you ask, but what of cross-nursing and milk sharing, or lesbian mothers who co-breastfeed? Well, mothers have been breastfeeding each other’s babies for millennia, and the power dynamic is completely different (not to mention the various factors influencing milk supply). Seriously, if the Awards Jury are really so keen “to go right to the heart of our taboos”, perhaps they could invent something to make breastmilk banking more accessible, or maybe that’s all a little too icky?