Like most men, I want no part of the whole breast-feeding controversy. Women can duke this out on their own.
I’ve had a good friend of mine, a woman with twin sons who struggled to breast-feed, call pro-breast-feeding campaigners “La Leche Nazis.” I have had women I work for, breast-feeding moms, refer to anyone who looks askance at their breast-feeding on commuter buses as “child haters” or “anti-woman.”
As a folksy politician might say, we men ain’t got no dog in this fight. So call us when it’s over. Really.
Any man who has managed to make it through high school, and isn’t a complete moron, knows that a guy reacts to a breast-feeding woman the same way we react to the woman in the gym whose yoga pants are creeping up her butt. We glance, take note, and move on, expressionless as poker champions.
This isn’t to say we don’t have opinions on the matter, but we’ve learned to keep them to ourselves.But how is a guy supposed to act around a breast-feeding woman? When I discussed this issue with a couple of friends of mine — and our wives — over plates of Mexican food, the women, all of whom had some breast-feeding experience, were full of opinions. They used words like “discretion” and “privacy” and advice like “don’t just flop it out there.” They volunteered that breast-feeding a 2-year-old sounded a little creepy, that it smacked of trying to make some political point rather than passing along immunity to disease or something.
The guys at the table, both smart attorneys, simply nodded in silent agreement with their wives.
See what I mean?
When I pressed them to actually say something, they agreed that “it should be a non-event.”
"But,” I insisted, “do you have to make a special effort not to look?”
“Yes,” they admitted.
“I’d deliberately avoid looking in her direction. I wouldn’t want her to think I was staring at her,” one said.
In other words, depending on the situation, breast-feeding can make us uncomfortable, not because we are opposed in any way, but because we feel trapped. If, say, we were sitting at an airport gate waiting area, and the woman sitting across from us began breast-feeding, we wouldn’t be entirely sure what to do. If we pause for longer than an instant, we risk being accused of voyeurism, even if the sight of mother-baby bonding is simply making us feel warm and fuzzy inside. But if we make a show of NOT looking, we risk being accused of being disapproving.
What's a guy to do?
Cindy Post Senning, of the Emily Post Institute and co-author with Peggy Post of “Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children,” doesn’t think men ought to do much of anything.
“I would not make a point of reacting. Do whatever you would normally do. Work on the laptop, read a magazine, stare into space.” There’s no need to talk, either. “You do not want to make a comment that implies ‘Ooh, what’s going on here?’ Why would you say something?”
On the other hand, Senning says, if the nursing mother were sitting next to you, or in some situation where you might normally converse with a person, do what you would do if she were bottle feeding. “If you are the type who would be inclined to say ‘How old is the baby’ or ‘What’s her name’ or whatever, then go ahead. Otherwise let it be.”
Mealtime, whether the meal is coming out of a bottle or a breast, Senning believes, is a “first step in children learning some social graces. We tell parents to turn off the TV, don’t answer the phone. It should be you and the baby.”
So having a guy chatter on, even with good intentions, is not ideal.
Of course, this also places etiquette responsibilities on the nursing mother. Senning suggests, as our wives did, that it’s best to find a quiet corner, a “place where you can be tending to that baby in all aspects and in terms of baby manners. You want to create a climate of respect and consideration for others.”
For men, of course, breasts are complicated. Senning acknowledges that breasts can be sexual and every woman I know who’s been pregnant says her husband or boyfriend goes just a little giddy over the increase in breast acreage that comes with pregnancy. Because breasts are dual-purpose machines, we men can have some trouble completely severing the link between boobs and sex and replacing it with boobs and nurturing babies. Expecting us to regard them as the teats of a lowland gorilla is like asking a seventh-grade boy not to look at Pamela Anderson.
“True,” one of my friends admitted when I pressed and suggested the image of Giselle Bundchen breast-feeding. “It might be harder to avoid looking if the woman was a real babe.” The wives rolled their eyes.
Generational, not gender?
In fact, the husbands and wives at dinner, as well as Senning, agreed that disapproval of breast-feeding is probably more generational than gender-based. None of the people at this particular table were breast-fed. Our mothers simply didn’t do it. Back then it was considered primitive, reserved for native peoples shown in “National Geographic.” So maybe among the senior citizen set, there are more men who tut-tut and stare.
In any case, one of my male dinner companions suggested, “I think people should just lighten up.”
Personally, I don’t get what all the fuss is about, either, but again, I’m in no position to breast-feed so ignore me. Please.
Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction for the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.