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How the Men in My Family Support Breastfeeding

By Kendra Atkins-Boyce, Portland, Oregon

karys-sleepingFor some women, the idea of a family that supports breastfeeding seems like the stuff of legends. Their family reunions are full of side-eye glances and condescending comments. Many of my friends have been admonished for breastfeeding at family gatherings or even in their own homes.

Unfortunately, it is sometimes the case that new mothers feel uncomfortable breastfeeding around their male family members. I’ve never felt that kind of discomfort, and I’m here to tell you how the men (and boys) in my family have helped to create and support a breastfeeding friendly environment.

I grew up in a family where breastfeeding was considered normal. My mother, my aunts, and their friends nursed their babies and toddlers wherever they were: at the kitchen table, on the living room couch, or on a chaise longue on the patio. The women didn’t hide away in darkened bedrooms, and the men of the family came and went among them without a second thought. I don’t remember anyone saying anything less than encouraging about nursing. In fact, my aunt is a former La Leche League Leader and a lactation consultant who once had a party featuring a breast-shaped cake. No one batted an eye.

The men in my family are completely comfortable with the fact that breastfeeding is the way that the women in our family feed their babies. I’ve even heard my father and my brothers refer to breasts “like a fork or spoon or anything else people use to eat.” I think this attitude is central to our family’s feeling that nursing is normal. Unlike some women, we don’t feel the need to explain or justify nursing in their presence because they’ve never expected that of us. A nice side effect of this pervading attitude is that the boys in our family grew up nursing, and they watched their younger siblings and cousins nursing at their mothers’ breasts. They have grown up to be the kind of men who will support breastfeeding in their homes and communities.

Most likely because of the support our fathers and grandfathers showed our mothers on their breastfeeding journeys, the women of my generation have found partners who embody the same attitude. For example, my husband was one of the biggest supporters of my efforts to breastfeed, despite many struggles. His support started in my daughter’s first three hours of life when I was still in the operating room and he gave Karys kangaroo care and skin-to-skin contact while waiting for me to wake up from anesthesia. From bringing me water or a snack to rubbing my shoulders to washing breast pump parts, my husband did whatever he could to help my daughter and me establish and sustain a healthy breastfeeding relationship.

Karys-Pictures-January-to-April--2010-038The other men in my life also helped me feel comfortable breastfeeding. My father sat and talked with me in the early days of motherhood when I felt like I was always either nursing my daughter or pumping to increase my milk supply.  He never made me feel uncomfortable or made a big deal of the fact that his daughter was using her breasts to feed her child in front of him. My brothers, male cousins, and uncles went about their lives when I started feeding my daughter in their presence. My husband’s family, including my brother-in-law, my fathers-in-law, and his many uncles, helped me feel comfortable by treating breastfeeding as normal. I once sat in the middle of a forty-plus person gift exchange at my husband’s grandparents’ house and nursed my 15-month-old daughter to sleep. No one said a word.

My own family experience shows me that boys and young men who spend time around breastfeeding women come to accept breastfeeding as a normal part of life. If you can’t change the attitudes of the adult men in your life, maybe you can start by being sure your children see breastfeeding as what it is: a normal and natural way to feed babies.