Our first night home from the hospital, my husband Drew and I put our newborn son down for the first time around 10 p.m. Worn out from labor and the stress of spending a few nights in a crowded maternity ward, I fell into a deep sleep. When my son woke up crying an hour and a half later, Drew shook me awake. I sat up in bed, dazed. Not yet 72 hours into my new role as mother, fatigue apparently turned me into Teflon.
“I’m drawing a blank,” I admitted.
“You have to feed the baby!” His annoyance teetered on outrage (though we have laughed about this since). The stupor lifted. I got out of bed, scooped our son out of the bassinet and put him to my breast. Drew placed his pillow on my side of the bed to support me as I spent the next hour nursing our newborn. Then, along with the baby I slept for two hours before Drew woke me up again because my child’s cries didn’t.
Funnily enough, the fact that Drew is a light sleeper and I am a heavy one has helped to set the tone for our renegotiation of household duties now that we have a child. Because I am breastfeeding our son, for the past 9 months I have shouldered the bulk of the responsibility for his care, providing nearly all of his sustenance and most of his comfort. Yet, in the middle of the night, when breastfeeding can feel the most isolating (and maddening), Drew more often than not has spent some of that time awake with me, alleviating the sense that I am parenting alone. As our son has gotten older and doesn’t require night feedings as much, Drew often forgoes waking me and rocks our son to sleep.
In her book “Nighttime Breastfeeding: An American Cultural Dilemma,” Johns Hopkins medical anthropologist Cecilia Tomori calls this kind of partner support “men’s kin work.” According to her research, men provide valuable breastfeeding support mainly by creating “new divisions of household labor that better accommodated the needs of the new mother.” In my case, her finding is true. One of Drew's jobs post-baby has been to alert me to our son’s nighttime cries. Additionally, he now does laundry, makes most of our home-cooked meals and always does the dishes. Between caring for my child, work projects and trying desperately to scratch out a little time to read and exercise, dinner and laundry barely make my after-thought list. Drew, like a lot of decent, non-lactating partners in relationships that have produced kids, has picked up some of the household slack. Instead of being “Mr. Mom,” which with a breastfed baby is nearly impossible, Drew, has become “Mr. Wife,” adding some domestic duties to his docket. He will never lactate, but he can load the dishwasher.
Because breastfeeding is time-consuming, often painful, sex-specific work, it makes an obvious observation even more glaring: Customary domestic responsibilities can be readily performed by either gender. And yet in most households with children, the male partner picking up a task here and there is still not enough of a contribution to create greater gender equity. A recent Ohio State study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that in dual-career couples who shared household duties before the birth of a child, women took on the bulk of the extra tasks after the child was born. But the most telling part of the study is this: Though both men and women overestimated their increase in workload to be four hours, women’s work, on average, increased by two hours while men’s increased by only 40 minutes. For men, doing more housework than usual feels like a lot even when it’s not.
Another study published in the American Sociological Review revealed that men and women ages 18-32 claim a preference for gender equity in their relationships before having children. However, because of the lack of egalitarianism in workplace leave policies for men compared to those for women, traditional gender roles tend to become the default once raising kids stops being a hypothetical debate and becomes a reality. And part of the reality of having a baby for most mothers is that breastfeeding seems like the best option.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and for a minimum of one year. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to “two years of age or beyond.” Among many other positive outcomes, breastfeeding has been linked to increased intelligence in adulthood (PDF), appears to help protect against pollutants and may even play a role in preventing the recurrence of breast cancer. But even as breastfeeding is promoted and lauded, fundamental support for the practice is lacking.
In a 2009 essay for The Atlantic that faced backlash for critiquing the science that promotes nursing, author Hanna Rosin called breastfeeding “this generation’s vacuum cleaner — an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down.” In another piece published in The Atlantic, “A Father’s Case Against Breast-Feeding,” the writer Chris Kornelis described how his wife did not produce enough milk for their child, even after visiting a lactation consultant and abiding by a brutal pumping schedule. As a result, the family went the formula route, which meant that they could take turns feeding the baby at night while the other partner slept, enabling valuable bonding time between father and son as well as some gender parity in the childcare regiment. “Instead of focusing solely on the ‘ideal’ way to feed a baby,” the author wrote, “people should be talking about the healthiest option for the family.”
I agree. Only, I think the healthiest option for families is that women do less work in the household while men do more — whether mothers choose to breastfeed or not. Breastfeeding itself is not oppressing women. What keeps women down is that adequate household support is in short supply from men.