When I was pregnant with my first child, my husband and I attended independent birth and baby care classes run by a local doula. Ten years later, I don’t remember much about the classes, but I have a firm picture in my mind of one of the other couples who attended with us. This couple kept very much to themselves – during the tea breaks they would actually leave the building and go and stand on the sidewalk until we were called back inside. The mother didn’t introduce herself or talk very much, and I remember noticing that she avoided eye contact.
At one point during the class, the teacher went around the group and asked about their breastfeeding plans. The male partner of this particular couple immediately responded “She is going to express milk and I’ll do the feeds, then she can rest and I’ll bond with the baby”. The teacher gently probed this and asked the mother how she felt, but dad wasn’t having any of it. The atmosphere in the class became a bit awkward as this man spoke over both his partner and the teacher, insisting loudly that this arrangement would be fine and it was going to be his way of helping to look after the baby.
When I’m talking to mums about their breastfeeding or baby care challenges, I am sometimes reminded of this man and the fact that the dynamic between a mother and baby is part of a broader family context. One of the first things I often ask, after listening to a mother about what’s been happening and what her breastfeeding goals are, is about her support network. What is her family situation, is her partner available or supportive? This is because research has clearly demonstrated that the more knowledgeable and supportive a woman’s partner is about breastfeeding and normal baby behaviour, the more likely she is to be able to overcome barriers to breastfeeding and meet her breastfeeding goals. If I am going to be able to help a mother develop her breastfeeding plan, it is crucial that I understand her situation and if solutions which depend on her partner are realistic. Some mums will outright say that their partner is unsupportive or thinks they should stop breastfeeding. But far more often, it’s subtle. So when I hear a mum say things like ‘he thinks he should give baby a bottle at 10pm so I can sleep’ or ‘we moved the baby to the other room because my partner couldn’t sleep’ or ‘he wants to have a go at feeding the baby too’, those are little red flags which suggest I may need to ask a few more questions or help her to connect with other sources of support beyond her home.
So when I read Nathan Popper’s recent New York Times op-ed, “What Baby Formula Does For Fathers”, well didn’t those little red flags just start going up all over the place. In this piece, Popper describes bringing his newborn son home from the hospital when his wife “had been struggling day and night to get the breastmilk flowing”. They tried experts, they tried contraptions, and after worrying about whether or not the tins in their cupboard contained Slow Release Asthma and Diabetes Poison, Super Dad stepped in and saved the day by feeding his baby a bottle of formula. From that moment on, he embarked on a magical journey of discovering that a biased reading of evidence supports whatever you already think, that baby formula is the secret to confident and competent fathering, and that breastfeeding is just a big conspiracy to make mothers bear (and resent) the burden of parenting so thank goodness a man with a bottle is here to finally even things up.
Popper’s article is a heady mix of privilege, entitlement, and narcissism. His wife and child are sidelined, their experience and voice completely absent as he centres himself and his feelings. Never mind that his wife is now at increased risk of reproductive cancers and postnatal depression, bottle feeding is so nice for Popper that he reckons it would have been “a little unfair if only his wife had gotten to enjoy it”. The real kicker is that when his wife gave birth to their second baby, Popper isn’t even embarrassed to declare that he actually hoped she would fail to breastfeed for a second time, because “I didn’t want to miss out on all those endless hours of providing my baby with exactly what he needed.”
Dude. Pull yourself together.
Unsurprisingly, Poppers wife was again unable to establish breastfeeding with their second baby. Although sadly we will just have to imagine just how wonderful it was for him to have the opportunity to keep validating himself, because the article ends at this point, leaving the reader with a series of links to “more views on feeding babies”. Because hey thanks New York Times, who needs objective reporting when we can have lots of conflicting advice and individual stories masquerading as breastfeeding information and support?
Which is, of course, exactly what we do have, and ever increasing mountains of it. I’ve seen a few commenters wondering out loud if Popper’s piece is paid formula shill, a ‘storymercial’ or ‘advertorial’ of the type increasingly favoured by formula marketers as they attempt to increase their market share by subtly normalising stories of breastfeeding ‘failure’, minimising the health differences between formula and breastfeeding, and promoting formula use as easy and emotionally satisfying. I haven’t seen evidence of any ties between Popper and formula companies, but he certainly wouldn’t be the first parent to do the marketers work for them without even needing to be asked.
What is certain, however, is how effective this story is when told from a male perspective. Oh sure, one has to completely shove women and babies to the side of their own lives, but what a fresh chance to employ some time tested anti breastfeeding tropes without all that icky female emotional baggage. When women debate infant feeding we have too much skin in the game; who better than a man – who never planned or tried to breastfeed, and therefore never ‘failed’ – to be a morally neutral saviour figure, coming to our rescue with a bottle? And who could possibly argue against a dad wanting to bond with his kid?
Never mind that there are countless other ways a man can enjoy spending time with his baby that aren’t dependent on destroying the breastfeeding relationship. But the fact is, this whole thing works because the standards for ‘good fathers’ are so pitifully low that men who even attempt to perform the most basic baby care tasks are showered with praise, meanwhile if mothers aren’t publicly flogged for not being perfect at the same tasks, we are meant to do that ourselves too.
A perfectly timed example of this has come with the US launch of the Dove Men+Care Pledge for Paternity, a
cynical marketing stunt from a multinational company fuelled by palm oil stunning and brave initiative which encourages men to take their full entitlement of paternity leave and to call on officials and employers to endorse and improve paternity leave policies. While this is obviously an important cause, in the absence of advocating for the majority of women in the USA who have no right to paid maternity leave at all, choosing to champion men “who aren’t able to take time off during this important life moment” is staggeringly short sighted and deeply rooted in a version of parenting in which babies exist for the benefit of adults and the care of mothers and fathers is interchangeable.
We know Dove REALLY CARE because the Pledge for Paternity is accompanied by the Dove Men+Care Paternity Leave Fund, a $1 million commitment to fund paternity leave for “real dads” (yep) in the form of $5,000 grants. The application website is extremely vague as to the eligibility criteria – there is no information, for example, on whether applicants must act as the primary carer during their leave, a crucial detail if a postpartum or breastfeeding mother must return to work in order for “real dads” to be able to access the scheme. And when you do the maths, this “commitment” is going to be able to assist 200 dads over two years, in a country where nearly 4 million babies are born annually. Real game changer you have on your hands there, Dove. But who cares about serious, lasting impact when you can get an instagram feed full of cute daddy-baby snuggle pics for so much less than the cost of a nation wide advertising campaign?
At the end of the day, we must always be asking, what is best for mothers and babies? The evidence is overwhelming- mums & bubs thrive when they are in an environment in which they are physically and emotionally nurtured, where mum can properly recover from pregnancy and childbirth, and have adequate time and space to establish breastfeeding and overcome early breastfeeding challenges. The behaviour of partners can be the make or break factor in whether this happens. As I’ve written previously, we desperately need to involve fathers and partners in this process, but the fundamental work of men in breastfeeding is to continually and tirelessly ensure that the mother and baby is centred and that their needs are being met. If paternity leave is accessible – and it should be universally accessible and normalised – that time should be spent holding space for the mother-baby dyad, not trying to insert yourself into it. If your baby’s mother is struggling to breastfeed, ask her what she wants and fight your arse off for her to be able to get there. And no matter what happens next, if you ever find yourself tempted to write an op-ed bleating about how you so enjoyed formula feeding that you hoped your wife wouldn’t succeed at breastfeeding – go make an appointment with a therapist, because you really need to deal with that.