I have always enjoyed the full support of my husband for breastfeeding, which I have tried not to take for granted. Breastfeeding requires committment and is often not easy, so a supportive partner can help you navigate “booby traps.” But not everyone has a partner that supports nursing; in fact, some partners are actively opposed to it. With their permission, I am writing about two friends and their experiences with unsupportive partners, so that maybe someone who has similar opposition can have some insight into how to respond. I was also interested in exploring whether this opposition had any cultural basis; as it happens, both of these partners were African-American. My husband is also African-American, and I talked with him about his perceptions toward breastfeeding growing up. He does not remember ever seeing anyone nursing a baby and felt like most women in his family and neighborhood saw bottle-feeding as more convenient. Now, he is a physician and understands the health benefits of nursing, but as he grew up, he just had the sense that nursing was better so he said he had two requirements for his future wife, that she would want to breastfeed and that she didn’t smoke (future lung doctor even then). His mother seemed very uncomfortable with me nursing our first son and asked me when I was going to stop nursing and give the baby a bottle. I restrained myself and simply answered that I wanted to nurse the baby as long as possible.
My first friend was separated from her husband from 7 months pregnant until her daughter was 6 months old. She had always wanted to nurse and so breastfeeding was already established when she and her husband reconciled. No one in her family had breastfed, but she knew the benefits from her own reading. When her husband returned to the household, he said that he felt that the baby was too attached to her and that he felt helpless at not being able to feed her. My friend was pumping bottles but she thinks that when the baby was crying and she would nurse her, he felt distanced from them. Although her husband was against it and she was a very busy student teacher at the time, she states that she was “determined to breastfeed,” and felt that if she gave up, she was a quitter. Perservering, she nursed for 13 months until she became pregnant with her second daughter. With this baby, her husband said, “You breastfed one, let’s try bottlefeeding,” and the common, “I was bottle-fed and I turned out OK.” Again, my friend pressed on with her desire to nurse and he backed off although he did not want her to breastfeed in public. Interestingly, although her husband and his brother (who lived with them for a short time) were both opposed to nursing, their mother, who was very involved in her grandchildren’s lives, was supportive even though she never nursed. My friend nursed for 15 months until becoming pregnant with her third child, a boy. Her husband was much more forceful that he did not want his son breastfed. This time, she felt that there was an element of sexualizing of her breasts, which was not discussed as an issue with the girls, to the point that she always had a shirt on whenever they were intimate. Despite the stronger opposition, she nursed her son the longest, 16 months. Her husband told her that he felt feeding decisions should be made by both parents and that she was going against his wishes. She remembers a particular episode when she was in the shower and the baby was screaming, and her husband again told her he felt helpless to soothe the baby. This couple has since divorced.
My second friend had her first two children with a partner that was supportive of breastfeeding, although he did not want her to nurse in public. Although he never saw anyone in his family breastfeed, it was something he actually encouraged her to do. She also never saw anyone in her circle nurse, but had a lactation consultant in the hospital who educated and encouraged her. She nursed for 8 months with her first child, but only 4 months with her second because she went to work at a nursing home, which did not provide breaks or a place to pump. After being walked in on while pumping, but not getting to pump frequently enough, her milk dried up. She broke up with this partner and when she became pregnant with her current husband, she found him to be adamantly against breastfeeding. Starting during the pregnancy, he stated that he couldn’t feed the baby and that nobody else could keep the baby if she nursed. She also felt that he was conflicted by viewing the breasts from a sexual context. Since she didn’t have much support around her and didn’t own a breast pump, she felt it was easier not to have constant confrontation and she exclusively bottle-fed her third child. She states that she was “trying to please him,” a decision she now regrets. She says she did feel closer to her oldest child, due to the bond of nursing him the most. Her youngest child had lots of gas and reflux problems, which she would remind her husband the oldest children did not have. Although she had a tubal after her last birth, she says that if she were to have another child, she would “just do it” now as she feels stronger in herself and more understanding of the benefits plus she would have the support of friends who have nursed.
Certainly back in the 50s, moms were made to feel “poor” or of low-status if they did not bottle-feed; after all, it was the “modern” way to nourish your baby. The natural childbirth movement helped breastfeeding to resurface, but the practice lapsed again in the 80s-90s, mostly due to successful advertising by formula companies and their invasion of hospitals. Even today, as breastfeeding rates are higher (although still not sustained in large numbers), the number of breastfeeding-focused hospitals are few and far between, and many, mine included, do not even have a lactation consultant. Add in a partner who has no frame of reference for nursing, 90:10 baby shows with bottles rather than breasts featured, and breastfeeding in public under attack, is it no surprise that women are not breastfeeding in appreciable numbers? Although these examples are anecdotal, I think it gives some insight into what some women face when it comes to the breast vs. bottle debate. Whether there are true cultural differences in different communities, or whether it is just a matter of exposure and education, I don’t know. I suspect that ALL communities would benefit from removing obstacles at hospitals, active support in the early days of nursing, and recognizing that a family environment ultimately is something that we don’t always understand as a breastfeeding activists. Let’s reach out to our sisters instead of assuming we understand their daily reality.