A Father's Role in a Child's Life
A father's role in a child's
life is indispensable and utterly important in helping to determine the healthy
development of a child. Every child born into this world possesses a set
of genes that were specially combined through a reproductive process.
Half of a child's genes come from her mother and half from her father. It
only makes sense that the presence of both a father and a mother are crucially
important in helping to determine the well-being of their child. Notwithstanding
the permutations of modern families, a child ideally needs both a father and a
In recent years, under the
aegis and pride of feminists, fathers have been taking a more direct role in
the physical care of their young babies and children. In Los Angeles, it is not uncommon to see fathers
accompanying their young babies and children out of doors, at parks,
restaurants, malls, or anywhere for that matter. The absence of a mother
is no longer surprising, and indeed no longer expected, because she is
either “enjoying her free time” away from her baby or employed in any
profession or occupation other than rearing her own child. Meanwhile, the
dad is well equipped with the paraphernalia that every conscientious parent has
in hand to soothe even the youngest baby.
The paraphernalia that a well
organized and prepared parent carries includes infant formula (of course), baby
bottle, baby pacifier, diapers, diaper wipes, extra clothes, a stroller or baby
carrier, and a toy with which to amuse the baby. Many fathers are well
prepared, and they do their best to meet the needs of their babies. They
are good and caring parents who take wonderful care of their babies.
In 1996, I used to see a
handsome father with an adorable baby at our local park. The dad was
sweet, and his daughter was attached to him. He was a stay-at-home dad
who had been home with the baby since she was born. His wife worked
outside the home while he cared for the baby at home.
A visit to the park every day
was part of this dyad’s schedule. At one point, however, I noticed that
the pair had not frequented the park for a while. When they returned, the
dad explained to me that his fifteen-month old baby had had a severe case of
gastroenteritis for a couple of weeks. The baby had lost a great deal of
weight, and she was still recovering from her viral illness. She looked
frail and a bit gaunt since she had endured a particularly unpleasant illness
for a long time. I felt sorry that she had not been breastfed through
Many babies and young
children experience gastroenteritis, but breastfed babies experience fewer and
less severe infections. Very importantly, breast milk is probably the
only food that a sick baby can ingest. It is sweet, 90 percent water, and
it contains important nutrients and minerals, as well as numerous
biologically active cells that help to fight off the infection. Babies
also appreciate breastfeeding because it provides enormous comfort, warmth, and
pleasure while it mitigates the experience of illness.
Few parents know about the
irreplaceable benefits of breastfeeding. Granted, the pediatric community only recently
agreed in 1997 that babies should be breastfed at least for the first twelve
months of their lives. Regardless of this recommendation, some
pediatricians may not comprehending breastfeeding beyond the first few
months. Pity the loving mother who breastfeeds her baby beyond even six
months of age, for she will receive a barrage of advice from her pediatrician
that warns of negative health consequences to her baby if she continues to
Recently, my friend was
warned that she should not breastfeed too much for fear that her nine-month old
baby would not be eating enough food. It seems odd that a pediatrician
would worry that a thriving, well-nourished baby would not be nourished enough
because he was still nursing. I guess the pediatrician does not think too
much of our country's battle with an epidemic of obesity.
When nursing mothers receive
intimidating professional advice about breastfeeding, it is more likely that
the fathers of even robust, healthy breastfed babies may wonder about the benefits
of breastfeeding. Over the weekend, for
instance, I communicated via e-mail with a friend of mine whose
breastfed thirteen-month-old baby had had two bouts of
After recovering from the
first bout, the baby's pediatrician recommended that he drink only ginger
ale. She advised my friend to stop breastfeeding, but my friend chose to
ignore the advice. Unfortunately, the baby vomited, and my friend was
scared. She confided to her husband that
she had not followed the pediatrician’s advice and that the baby had
vomited. Her husband was irate and
scolded her for breastfeeding.
When she called me, I learned
that the baby was well. I reassured my
friend that there is nothing better than breastfeeding for a case of
gastroenteritis. Not only is breastfeeding profoundly comforting for a
sick infant, but it has biologically active cells and substances that
effectively kill germs and promote immunity. Besides, vomiting empties less than a third of
the stomach’s contents. This means that the baby vomited but still retained
a great deal of nourishment from his nursing session.
Her husband remained
unconvinced, and he communicated a secondary concern, which turned out to be
his primary concern. He thought that
breastfeeding inhibited his active involvement in the care of his baby. Intriguingly,
he is the same man who confided to my husband that he could only tolerate being
around his baby for a brief period of time; his hypocrisy is
Despite knowing how dedicated
his wife is to breastfeeding and to assuring their child's continued healthy
growth and development, he scolded her. He was so concerned about his
role in child-rearing that he refused to acknowledge the consequences of frightening
his wife and preventing his baby from receiving the benefits of breastfeeding. He simply was unaware of how greatly his son
benefited from breastfeeding, and he was willing to have his baby weaned off
On the contrary, I sensed
from the father of the fifteen-month-old girl with gastroenteritis that he
would have done anything to help her recover just a little faster from her
illness. He, however, did not have the option of breastfeeding his sick
daughter, so he was helpless. He
and his wife had accepted the assumption that breastfeeding is unnecessary and
that babies grow up fine and healthy without it. In the meantime, their
young daughter could not tolerate eating food or drinking most liquids, had
lost weight, and looked visibly weakened.
The infant formula
manufacturers do not feel responsible for the numerous illnesses that young
babies contract constantly because they're not breastfed. After all,
their job is to sell infant formula, and they do such an outstanding job that
they sell billions of dollars worth of products per year and earn immense
profits. It is the parents, unfortunately, who bear the burden of caring
for their sick young children who would recover more quickly and happily if
they were breastfed.
My friend's husband could see
that his thirteen-month-old son was actually quite healthy despite his
illness. He just had no understanding
how breastfeeding contributed to his son’s well-being. He seemed to have forgotten that his sick baby
was receiving the comfort and protection of breastfeeding. Clearly, he did not have anything that would
provide his baby with similar benefits, yet he thought he could perhaps provide
some manly care that his wife could not.
That makes no sense at all since his child is a baby.
My husband never objected
during the many years I breastfed our two children. He even joked that remarkable advances in
biotechnology might permit human milk to be reproduced in the laboratory.
His joke cannot be too far off considering that Dr. Ruth Lawrence, a premier
researcher of and advocate of breastfeeding, recently said, “The benefits from
banked milk are almost equal to the benefits of being breastfed.” * This remark cements further in many people’s minds the
assumption that breast milk is the only important by-product of
breastfeeding. The tendency to overlook and dismiss the emotional
and psychological bonds created by breastfeeding is disgraceful.
While contemplating why my
friend's husband feels so compelled to take a more active role in his young
baby's life now, I wondered why a man would feel so insecure about his own role
as a father. Has it become imperative for a father to take his baby out
alone for hours on end to prove his fatherly devotion? Is it important
that a father should be able to soothe and distract a baby alone, without the
assistance of a loving and breastfeeding mother nearby?
Are we measuring a father's worth
by the amount of time he spares his wife from spending with their baby?
Has today's father learned so little from his own father that he cannot judge
what his own baby needs from him? All these questions aside, my real
question is: what about the baby?
I do not really care much
about a father's insecurities, frankly speaking. The baby is a dependent
creature who lives in an environment that is created by his parents. We
might believe that the baby may have chosen to be born into a particular family,
but that does not absolve the parents of making that environment as nurturing
I am inclined to believe that
a father who is concerned about why he cannot offer more hands-on care for his
baby, at the expense of breastfeeding, is not cognizant of his own self-centered
behavior. By its nature, breastfeeding is not a self-centered
activity. Surely, the mother gains both psychological and physiological
benefits from breastfeeding.
It is the baby, however, who
gains the most from breastfeeding. The baby receives fulfillment of the
basic needs that initially allow him to survive and learn how to live as a
healthy human being. Is it too much to ask that a baby be permitted to
enjoy the benefits of breastfeeding?
It is difficult to breastfeed
one's baby when everyone around you, from your pediatrician to a snoopy
neighbor, offers contrary opinions. The saddest situation is one in which
the husband fails to support his nursing wife. I have a friend, for
instance, who described her inconsiderate husband. One day, she spent an entire afternoon with
their colicky infant. The baby finally
fell asleep in her arms, and she was exhausted and starved. When her husband came home, he prepared a
snack only for himself, and she had to beg him to get her something to eat.
Fundamentally, it is almost
impossible for women to breastfeed comfortably when a husband is
unsupportive. Spouses may question the necessity to nurse a baby beyond a
certain period of time. It is not at all clear to me why the general
public is convinced that breastfeeding is indulgent, as if the loving act of
breastfeeding will spoil children.
The father of the
thirteen-month-old baby inferred this when he remarked that his presence would
instill some necessary strictness in his baby’s life, as if breastfeeding is
all just mushy love and not all the discipline that it really is. (Please
see Commentary— “The True Meaning of Discipline.”) What
parents seem to forget is the remarkable immaturity of young babies. They
dismiss the needs of youngsters who can neither speak nor communicate their
most basic needs, like the satisfaction of hunger or cold.
When my son was eighteen
months old, for instance, we left the warmth of Southern California to visit New York in the winter. He was shivering, but he looked fairly well
bundled up, and I seemed to be impervious to the cold at the time. I dismissed the possibility that my son could
be cold. After his teeth started to chatter and he began to say “cold,” I
finally understood that he was cold.
Well intentioned and
absolutely incorrect, I kept assuming that my little son was not cold.
Thank goodness he said, “cold,” but what if I had ignored him? What about
all the babies who cannot clearly express their needs? An interested
mother knows what her baby needs because she wants to know so that she may
satisfy the needs. A breastfeeding mother knows that breastfeeding does
not spoil her baby, so it is unfortunate if her spouse does not understand this.
After breastfeeding two
children for nearly three years each, I can write unequivocally that they are
equally attached to me and my husband, the non-breastfeeding partner. My husband's role in caring for the children
was never peripheral. I may have always been available to my children
whereas he was not, but that never diminished the joy and excitement our
children experienced upon seeing and spending time with their father.
In fact, as I have written
before, their sympathy for their dad sometimes overwhelmed me because I felt
(unreasonably, I might add) as if my love and dedication were of no
import. By supporting my endeavors as a breastfeeding mother, my husband
established a definitive role as our children's father. The children’s
closeness to their father, however, verified the importance of my care and his
When it comes to
breastfeeding, women are in a profoundly unique position of power and
prestige. Truly, who can claim to provide a helpless and immature human
being, a newborn, with the most ideal combination of love and nourishment that
is best suited for him? (Let us forget for the moment the notion of mere
survival and the myriad stories and legends in our culture that celebrates a
baby's ability to grow and develop without a mother.)
A mother's body produces
custom made breast milk that helps to protect the baby specifically against
germs that are unique to his environment. The breast milk contains a
biologically active mixture of potent substances that help to direct healthy
bodily and mental development. Most importantly, breastfeeding provides
the baby with the rudiments of social behavior.
A mother's consistent and
nurturing response to her baby's needs demonstrates to the baby the
significance of caring and cooperation. Learning how to care and to
cooperate at the breast, by the way, does not in any way lead to the spoiling
of a child. It is definitively the absence of such intimacy that results
in a child becoming spoiled. Fundamentally, breastfeeding is a unique and
powerful activity only women can perform, so what do women do with such a
Some women have been disregarding
the opportunity to breastfeed in order to accommodate the fathers who clamor
for more hands-on caregiving and the feminists who decry maternal attachment to
babies. By abandoning breastfeeding,
women have abdicated a unique, womanly art without fully comprehending the
losses incurred by all involved.
The human species has
survived primarily because of cooperative behavior. Naturalist Petr
Kropotkin wrote essays nearly one hundred years ago that were compiled in the
book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. He stresses the importance of
cooperation, yet competition is still thought to drive human
As far as I can perceive, the
competition that the father of the thirteen-month-old is intentionally or
unintentionally trying to foster with his breastfeeding wife is pathetic and
harmful. Why should a father feel that he needs to compare his role with
that of his wife? Are they not both
interested in the well-being of the baby?
Our self-importance cannot be
willed upon anyone else, including even small babies. Babies and toddlers
should be permitted to enjoy breastfeeding and its enormous benefits for as
long as they wish. If we lived in a truly civilized and humane society
that respects the needs of young children, I would not have to defend the right
of young children to breastfeed.
A father should know that a
supportive role is as important as the role of a leader. A leader without
anyone to lead is no leader at all. Mothers should be allowed to
breastfeed and enjoy the unique role that mothers play in human life. A father's
role in a child's life is irreplaceable, but it should not be enforced at
the expense of breastfeeding.
Revised April 12, 2006
* Wallace, Sue. 2001. Premature, sick infants are banking on human breast milk.
AAP News, January, 18.