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COMMENTARY—January 24, 2001

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 mother. 

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 this illness.

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 breastfeed.

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 gastroenteritis. 

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 unbelievable. 

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 the breast.

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 as possible. 

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 support. 

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 special ability? 

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 survival. 

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.


Copyright 2006 The Nurturing Mother. All rights reserved.
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