Feeding and Loving
The early days after the birth often confound expectations. Many men find it hard to relate to a new baby, often not really being able to be involved until she is sitting up or even walking and talking. Many women find a similar difficulty and society makes it even harder for them with its insistence on the “maternal instinct” which any proper and competent mother is supposed to have. The existence of such an instinct (or any corresponding “paternal instinct”) is very hard to demonstrate but it still gives many new parents unrealistic expectations of their response to the new baby.
Sometimes the surprise is of the opposite kind—as David found out. He was an insurance salesman in his early forties when he had his second child, a daughter. His first daughter was born twenty years earlier, from his first marriage. He described himself as being then a typical traditional father—he’d been out drinking with his mates while she was being born and had been almost completely uninvolved with her until she was nearly grown up. This time things were different. He had been enthusiastically present at the birth and was determined to get involved and make up for all that he had missed first time around.
He came along to several meetings of our fathers’ group and was always a vocal contributor. One evening he turned to me and said, ‘You won’t approve of this but every time I lie with my daughter on my chest, skin to skin, I get these really sexual feelings.’ Clearly, the spectre of incest had raised itself in David’s mind. Fortunately, I was spared the necessity of having to say anything because another father, rather more self-assured than David, immediately said, ‘Yeah, I know just what you mean. It happens to me too.’ A couple of the other men nodded as well, and the tension passed.
As we discussed it further it became clear that many men are quite unprepared for just how physical babies are. It’s easy to be wise after the event and rather obvious when you think about it; all they do is eat, sleep and excrete—all very physical things. If you want to communicate with a baby then you have to do it in a physical way, there is no other. Because many men have difficulty distinguishing the sensual from the sexual (not that there is any hard dividing line, anyway) some will always tend to interpret their own physical response to the baby in sexual terms. It is important to realise that this physical response is perfectly normal and healthy—it should not be suppressed because of fear of impropriety. It would be tragic if a man were to deny his children affection because he did not understand his own responses. The danger arises, not from the father’s response to the baby, but rather if he starts to see the baby as an object of physical desire or sexual gratification.
David's case illustrates yet another of the fundamental changes which seem to have occurred in the last thirty years or so. The more traditional models of fatherhood imply that even a committed father has relatively little involvement with babies - he doesn't take much interest until they are at least old enough to talk. Today, with the shift towards a more active style of fatherhood, men are expected to be involved right from the start. As ever, the reasons for this are complex, and often lead to conflict and anxiety in the new family.
New fathers enjoy the chance to show off their skills with the baby, but they don't often get the chance. One consequence of the separation of the new father from his wife and child after birth is that he often feels incompetent in the early weeks. Not only has she had longer to get to know the baby, but the very fact of his exclusion carries the message that he is relatively less important. Furthermore, he often is less competent than she, because no-one ever bothered to teach him such 'unmanly' skills as dressing or changing a baby.
Charlie Lewis found that many of the men in his sample had little or no involvement in child care. This was partly because they did not feel competent, partly because they couldn't be bothered, and partly because they were excluded by their wives. Of all the child care tasks, bathing was the one least often performed by these men. The following dialogue may help to reveal some of the hidden tensions behind the bare facts:
Actually, in my experience, men often do bath babies. Indeed, it is something which a man can often do better than his wife, because his hands will probably be bigger than hers and better able to support the baby. As the child gets bigger, he will be able to go in the big bath with dad and this is much appreciated.
Even nappy changing is now acceptable. It used to be the symbol of men’s lack of involvement in child care that they could never change a dirty nappy. I know very few men who still feel this way, indeed at one fathers’ meeting I actually heard a man extolling the virtues of nappy changing, suggesting that it was a rather mystical time of communion between parent and child. No-one else present was entirely convinced, but they did agree that are times when changing a baby can be fun—provided there’s no smelly mess to clear up. Babies often seem to be especially alert and attentive when lying on a changing mat waiting for clean clothes. I am also constantly surprised at the high level of expertise displayed by the younger fathers about the different brands of disposables. There is some evidence to suggest that if men are involved in infant care then there will be more use of commercial products (are we more susceptible to advertising?) and this may have a bearing on the interest in disposables. They certainly don’t seem content to leave such matters to their partners.
Nevertheless, matters such as bathing and changing often seem peripheral to many men. Feminist writers sometimes claim that men are not really involved in child care because they do fewer of the dirty, routine and tedious tasks such as bathing, washing, changing etc. Interestingly, more and more men agree that they are not really involved in child care—but precisely because all they do is bathing, washing, changing etc. These tasks are seen as peripheral to the core child care activities such as cuddling, tending, and—most especially—feeding.
Even those men and women who say that there is no real difference between fathers and mothers frequently mention breastfeeding as the one exception. Some men express real regret that they are unable to breastfeed.
Jim and Joan decided before their baby, Simon, was born that they would each work part time in order to be able to share the child care. They also decided that they would keep Simon in constant contact with one or other of them until he was able to walk. From then until he was two one of them would always be in sight, although if Simon chose to leave the room they would happily let him go off by himself. The intention was to promote a strong sense of security and also independence in Simon. He is now five and, according to Jim, is the most self-possessed and independent child in his class at school.
Jim’s commitment to parenting is perhaps extreme, and so was his reaction to breastfeeding. But it was only extreme in its expression. Most of the other men in the group agreed with him that breastfeeding was a real problem for any man who wanted to be involved as a father. Another expression of this longing can be seen in a story which is widely told whenever parents start talking about men and breastfeeding. It is said that a man of forty, living in New York, was so keen so breastfeed his baby daughter that he paid for a course of injections of ‘female sex hormone’ which enabled him to develop breasts and produce milk. He was able to feed his daughter for about three months and she apparently coped well with the experience.
There are various version of this story current, and one of them may reflect a true event, although I have been unable to find any definitive evidence that men can lactate. The point is that it is now an idea which is being openly discussed and even though the vast majority of men and women reject it, they do so with that slightly fascinated interest with which many of them would also approach Playboy or Penthouse. It’s not right, but there is a certain attraction which is hard to dismiss.
So why do women discuss male lactation with embarrassed giggles? Why do men discuss female lactation with resentment and a sense of loss? What is it about breastfeeding which is so powerful? Part of the answer lies, once again, in the uncertainty of paternity. Fatherhood can no longer be assumed as a biological given, but is a relationship which must be continually created by the father. One of the best ways of creating a kinship tie of this kind is for the individuals involve to have some substance in common, for there to something for them to share. The most obvious example of this is the sharing of ‘blood’. We no longer believe that parents literally transmit blood to their offspring, but the idiom is still very much alive. We say that parent and child are ‘blood relations’, that they are the same ‘flesh and blood’, that ‘blood will out’, and so on.
Although blood is the most potent symbol of shared substance which can form a basis for relationship it is not the only one. Shared food can also serve to build a relationship in this way. This can be seen clearly among some of the peoples of New Guinea and the South Pacific. Like us, they use kinship terms in two ways: both to denote ‘true’ kinsmen and also by extension to other people whose relationship is similar to a kinship relationship. Thus we may require our young children to call an adult friend of the family ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, even though there is no blood relationship. Similarly, a union leader may address the workers as ‘brothers’ or a feminist address her fellow women as ‘sisters’. There is no confusion in our minds about who is ‘really’ related to us, and the same is true throughout the world.
What is unusual about several parts of New Guinea is that, although they normally trace kinship through ties of blood just as we do, and although they also use kinship terms for both true and honorary kinsmen, they will also say that a some children not related by blood are true kinsmen. The reason for this seems to be that such a child has shared his father’s food and this is sufficient to make a relationship of true kinship. is sufficient to make a relationship of true kinship. Among the Arapesh of New Guinea this idea is so strong that Arapesh fathers, who are heavily committed to their children and very involved in childcare, do not base their paternal authority by reference to any ties of blood, but rather to shared food. It is this which makes the relationship between father and child.
If sharing food can create true kinship, this is especially true of sharing food with a new-born baby. Women who adopt young babies frequently want to breastfeed them. Although this is never easy, especially if the adoptive mother has never been pregnant herself, it can be done. But it requires a dedication and constant effort which is hard to explain except in terms of the woman wanting to make the baby hers by feeding it with her own life-giving milk. No man—except our fabulous New Yorker—can go this far, but it helps to explain a lot of men’s feelings about breastfeeding. Bottle feeding seems to be more democratic. Both parents can feed with the bottle and so the father is not put at a disadvantage.
It is a painful irony that the very men who are most tempted to want to bottle feed because they are committed as fathers are also the very men most likely to be convinced of the advantages of breastfeeding. They simply can’t win—although more and more are attempting a compromise. This involves the mother expressing breast milk more or less frequently so that the father can feed the baby himself, but without having to resort to infant formula with all its attendant disadvantages. The bottle manufacturers have seized on this as a way of selling more products since sales have been hit by the increase in breastfeeding. Several companies now use slogans such as, A breastfed baby doesn’t have to be fed by Mum; even Dad can do it! or Breastfeeding? Two can play at that game! The infant formula companies have been using the same approach for several years now, informing us that one of the ‘advantages’ of bottle feeding is that men can do it too. Feeding with expressed breast milk may seem like an ideal solution to some and it can obviously work on an occasional basis—it gives the breastfeeding mother a break apart from anything else. But I doubt whether it’s really a good solution for long-term or regular use.
The sucking action needed to get milk from a bottle is different from the suckling action needed to persuade a breast to give out milk. Some babies manage to switch from one to the other without any problem, but others become so confused that they can’t do both. Since it is easier to get milk from a bottle than from the breast (one reason why breastfeeding helps jaw development, and possibly speech development too) most of these babies take the line of least resistance and start to reject the breast. This in turn means that the mother’s milk supply will decline, there will be no milk for her to express and so the baby will end up on formula anyway. In the end, the man who feels jealous of his wife’s ability to breastfeed is simply going to have to accept that his reaction, although perfectly natural, is incapable of being cured and must therefore be endured as one part of the inevitable adjustments and compromises which have to be made by both parents after the birth of a baby.
Other men are in favour of bottle feeding for much the same reason as they are fascinated by the machines and fetal monitors during childbirth: it is more “scientific”. Indeed, this the way that the idea was originally marketed. Each “authority” would have his (they were invariably male) own scientifically worked out “formula” for a wonderful breast milk substitute. A 1902 advertisement for Allenburys’ Foods describes itself as “A progressive dietary adapted to the physiological development of the child.” It quotes a medical journal’s opinion of it:
The system is well conceived, and if carried out exactly and scientifically should certainly and can, as we are able to personally testify, give most excellent results. The objects which are fulfilled by the method are manifold.
The style may have changed, but the message has not. Some people still feel that bottle feeding is more scientific—after all, you can see how much the baby is taking. No-one ever explains why we need to know; it is probably just because we feel unable to trust nature. And this is especially true of those men who feel incapable of letting things happen, but rather want always to impose their will on the world and mould it. Culture is “better” than nature just because it is man-made. Animals eat raw food, civilized human beings display their superiority to the animals by eating cooked food.
For some people it is the same with infant feeding: animals suckle their young, should we not prove our superiority by refusing to do this and using a cultural food instead? The argument falls down because infant formula is just modified animal’s milk anyway. But this fact is discreetly ignored by the companies and their success can be measured by the fact that only a couple of years ago an English hospital nurse was heard to say. “No, we don’t give the babies cow’s milk, we give them formula.” The fact is that the scientific evidence demonstrates conclusively that breast milk is superior to any substitutes and that, at their best, such substitutes can be adequate but no more than that.
Although it may have no scientific advantages, bottle feeding does have one psychological advantage over breastfeeding: a woman may find bottle feeding easier than breastfeeding if she has no support and encouragement. This is because the reflexes involved in breastfeeding, especially the “let-down” or “milk ejection” reflex, are very susceptible to the woman’s emotional state. The breastfeeding mother often needs support and help in order to feed successfully. Studies have shown that perhaps the most important source of support for the breastfeeding woman today is her husband. Zarina Kurtz found that three quarters of the women she interviewed said that their husbands had giving them more help than anyone after leaving hospital. Men are increasingly aware of this responsibility and are prepared to accept it—even though it causes them more problems. The main problem is this, if the mother mothers the baby, and the father mothers the mother, who mothers the father?
This is a very stressful time, especially if it is your first baby. The reality of those early days can be very hard to cope with. A new baby is so real, so substantial, so intrusive. Up till now it had all been theory. You thought you knew what it was going to be like, but now you realise that this had just been a fantasy. They never told you any of the important things such as how noisy a new baby is, or how frustrated, tense, and angry you can get when he won’t stop crying. They never told what it would be like to go without proper sleep for days and nights on end; that you wouldn’t be able to think straight or have any time for yourselves. They never told you that it seems to go on for ever and there seems no chance of remission for good behaviour. And finally, they never told you how alone you’d be; how after all the support and encouragement you got during pregnancy you would now be flying solo, just the two of you having to work it all out for yourselves as you go along.
Given all this—and more—it is not surprising that a new father can find himself very torn between his desire to nurture and protect his wife and baby and his own desire to be looked after himself. Even the most selfless man can find himself becoming jealous; jealous of his partner because she is no longer able to give him the time and attention she used to, jealous of the baby because it has supplanted him as the centre of her affections. For many men this sense of isolation and rejection is made worse if she is breastfeeding.
Breasts are sex objects in our society. Most men in the West find them sexually stimulating both to sight and touch. They are still tabooed from general view, and their constant exposure in advertising, magazines and films only serves to reinforce this taboo. They play an important role in close relationships and touching of the breasts is an important expression of intimacy. Some men see breasts as “theirs”, almost as property. “I married her because of her breasts, their mine, and I’m not going to have any kid touching them, including my own!” said an expectant father to Robert Bradley. Most men don’t react so strongly but the feeling is there, and is often made manifest when breastfeeding starts.
I don’t think that I am the most chauvinist of men (but then, whoever does?), but I found myself forced to confront my own feelings of ownership after the birth of Mark, our eldest. There was never any doubt in my mind about breastfeeding. I had been breastfed myself, Shirley wanted to, and the hospital strongly advised it (there was a history of allergy on her side of the family). But I had a problem when it came to her feeding in front of other people. I found myself embarrassed and resentful. I didn’t want “my” breasts to be shown off in front of other people—especially other men. I don’t think I ever mentioned this to anyone at the time, and I certainly didn’t want to try to stop Shirley breastfeeding so I just sat and inwardly writhed with discomfort.
Gradually I got used to it, better able to separate the natural and sexual functions of the breasts. When our other children arrived my prejudices had had learned their lesson; never again did I suffer from feelings of possessive jealousy about breastfeeding. I have since spoken to many other men about this. Some felt the same way, others never suffered from the problem at all. In a way it is trivial, but it illustrates just one of the unexpected traps for the unwary father.
Jealousy manifests itself in other ways as well: it’s a key emotion. It is well known—almost a cliché—that men can ‘feel left out of it’ after a baby is born. For many men the breasts are an important part of lovemaking. But the fact is that the breasts are often—usually—tabooed after childbirth for one reason or another: she doesn’t want them touched; they leak if they’re touched; he feels they’ve become the baby’s exclusive property. This mean that for some months after the birth—at least until the milk supply is not so plentiful and perhaps until weaning—an important part of lovemaking is prohibited. Now this is not the cause of that ‘being left out’ feeling, but it can be a contributory factor. More to the point, it appears to be something that can be cured. If the baby is put on the bottle, then I can have my breasts back, can’t I?
These worries about breasts and breastfeeding are part of a larger set of problems relating to sex after childbirth. Perhaps the best way I can illustrate this is by reproducing part of a letter I received from a woman before a study day I ran. It comes from her journal and was originally destined for the local National Childbirth Trust (NCT) branch newsletter, but in the end was never submitted:
Two years after writing the above things are a bit better:
There are many reasons why sex after childbirth can be difficult. The trauma of the birth itself is often a major factor. Labour can be exhausting and it can take many weeks for a woman's body to recover fully. More important is that birth often leaves scars—even if it is a straightforward 'normal' birth. An episiotomy or a tear in the perineum can take a long time to heal and can be excruciatingly painful at first. The altered hormonal balance after birth also makes it difficult for many women to get interested in sex, or to achieve orgasm easily, even if they do manage to make love.
These are the areas on which the baby books concentrate. The implication is always that they are transitory problems which will pass in a relatively short time, and that if they don't, then something 'abnormal' has occurred. But psychological scars are often deeper than physical ones, and the feeling of violation experienced by many women can take much longer to get over. The woman whose body was taken over and controlled by obstetricians may fear sex as yet another assault and violation which she is simply unable to cope with—especially with the stress of adjusting to a new role with a new baby.
These reasons, plus many others such as tiredness, lack of opportunity, a woman's bad feelings about the changes in her body after birth, worries about contraception, and depression after childbirth mean that slow sexual adjustment is commonplace rather than rare. Yet the baby books continue to betray us by peddling a set of false assumptions:
These quotes, all taken from books written by men and addressed to fathers, suggest a situation far removed from the reality of many new parents’ experiences. The fact seems to be that many, perhaps most, women find their whole attitude towards sexuality and the physical aspects of lovemaking radically changed after childbirth, and this change lasts for many months or years. In quite a few cases the change is permanent. Many women are never able to return to the approach to sexuality which characterised their pre-maternal life. Indeed, given the major changes which a baby brings, this need not surprise anyone. One antenatal teacher I know suggested that only one couple in twenty did not experience a sever disruption of their sex life. The surprising thing, perhaps, is that men do not seem to be as affected as women.
We have seen that many men shy away from sexual activity during pregnancy. Although some authorities see this as a ‘problem’ to be solved, I have argued that it is natural and normal male reaction to pregnancy, which should be accepted as such. There does not seem to be an equivalent common postnatal male shyness. Some men do not want sex after the baby has been born, but the majority do—and they want it very much. Again, the reasons are complex, lying partly in the need for cuddling and consolation which a new father requires. Men are sensitive to ‘rejection’ at the best of times; when a new baby has just elbowed them out the limelight it is even worse.
Yet we still try to pretend that things are not as they really are. Sara was talking to me about this recently. She still doesn’t feel like making love—six months after the birth of their second baby. She puts it down to breastfeeding. Her own lack of interest distresses her, although mainly for her husband’s sake. I said that I thought that her reaction was much more common than usually recognised and she gained some comfort from this. She said that she hoped that Jimmy would come along to the fathers’ group so that he could discuss it with other men and come to realise that her lack of interest was natural. “Then he won’t think I’m rejecting him.” she said. But I had to point out that, even if he did understand, it didn’t alter the fact that she was rejecting him. That is the fact which many couples have to face. At the moment many of them do so in a context of unrealistic expectations. But even if the situation is better understood does not automatically make it easy to cope with. We can understand and still resent. Understanding does not necessarily bring acceptance or approval.
However, in this case it may be that the expectations are actually helping to create the problem. Many societies taboo intercourse while a woman is still breastfeeding. It is often said that it will harm the child. Since weaning does not occur until the second year or later in most traditional societies, this often means a two year period of abstinence for the new parents. Men in such circumstances seem to cope with this abstinence in different ways. Some, having more than one wife, may simply find legitimate sexual outlets elsewhere. In other cases adultery is the solution—but everything is kept very discreet and a conspiracy of silence surrounds it. In this way the man’s physical needs may be satisfied without threat to his marriage. Sometimes the taboo is simply ignored, either because the husband insists, or by mutual agreement between husband and wife.
When a long period of abstinence is prescribed there is usually some kind of outlet for the husband’s sexuality. But not always. The Grand Valley Dani of Papua New Guinea have become rather famous because of their apparent lack of interest in sex. According to Karl Heider, Dani parents always abstain from all sexual relations for four to six years after the birth of a child. Most of them have no alternate sexual outlets and none shows signs of unhappiness or frustration at this position. What is more, the Grand Valley Dani appear to have a very low interest in sex in general.
We tend to assume that sexual activity is necessary and inevitable. There is often an undisguised scepticism about monks, priests or others who adopt a life of celibacy. Surely, we say, there must be something wrong with them, or else they must “have a bit on the side”. Yet the evidence from them, from the Dani, from the behaviour of many men during pregnancy, shows that it is not necessarily so. People can live without sex, and there may be times in every person’s life cycle when this is normal for them. If so, we do no-one a service by pressuring them into unrealistic expectations.
There are no easy answers to the problems of adjustment to parenthood. Lack of physical lovemaking is only one of them, although often the most obvious and painful. I do think that it is important to recognise just how common, and perhaps inevitable, it is. This recognition will not take away all the pain of rejection, but it may help to ease it. If we can accept that the rejection is not personal, not a rejection of the man himself but rather a sign of a change of life then it becomes easier to bear. In particular, it becomes less necessary to try to blame someone. No-one is to blame; not father, not mother, not baby. Having a baby is a greater change than most of us realise. It is not a temporary break in a relationship which will sooner or later will get back to the way things used to be. There is no going back after a baby. It is a new beginning for all of you; almost as if you were meeting for the first time. Some people never manage to get things together again, others find new depths and heights in their relationship.
We pay a lot of attention to birth in our society with many rituals of preparation and purification. The tendency is to see birth as an end in itself. But it is not. Whether for good or ill, those first weeks and months of life after birth are the start of a new way of living. [Next]
 Incidentally, this particular episode illustrates one of the great advantages of fathers’ groups. If a group of men get together, to relax and talk about fathering there is a wonderful opportunity for any worries such as David’s to be expressed. All he needed to know was that his response was ‘normal’. But if he hadn’t come to the meeting he might never have been in a position to raise the matter with another father.
Some men are able to talk to colleagues at work, others are not so lucky. One man I met, a merchant banker, had no-one at work to whom he could talk, except the senior partner who had just become a grandfather. None of the other young executives were prepared to discuss domestic matters; perhaps because they thought it might show weakness in such a highly competitive environment. On the other hand, another new father displayed obvious relish when recounting how the only woman in his office was being instructed and supported during her first pregnancy by her three colleagues, all young fathers keen to share their greater experience.
 In a letter to Pediatrics 1972, Derrick & Patrice Jelliffe (authors of a standard textbook on breastfeeding) write on induced lactation. They note that, “lactation induced by sucking stimulation is reported in adult men, a surprising finding perhaps, until one pauses to reflect that milk production is well recognised in males in the form of neonatal Hexenmilch” The reference they give for this is Gates, Helen 1972. ‘Abnormal Lactation’ (in press)—which I have not been able to track down any further. (Hexenmilch, ‘witch’s milk’ is a milk-like secretion produced from the nipples of some new born babies, both male and female.)
 There is some evidence to suggest that lactating women are less interested in sex than bottle feeding women—probably for hormonal reasons. A study by Alder and Bancroft of 25 women found that none of the six bottle feeders had any loss of interest in sex, while all the lactating women reported a reduction of interest. They also found that the breastfeeding women had lower levels of circulating androgens, male hormones often felt to have a role in the level of libido. The sample in this study is small but the findings agree with the anecdotal evidence which I have come across.