We’ve got it easy. Pigeon and dove fathers produce crop milk; a substance with more fat and protein than human or cow milk. The father feeds it to the baby through regurgitation. Later on, the father chews up seeds, worms, and insects, mixes the bolus with the milk and feeds the rather eccentric smoothie to the baby. Protecting his young consumes whatever energies the father has left after this draining feeding process.
As much as I love my daughter (or, perhaps, because I do), I shudder at the thought of chewing up food, mixing it with a special bile, and regurgitating it into her mouth. I’m glad it’s not the role of the human father; but, if it were the most effective and nutritious way of feeding my children, I’d do it.
Although the process might not be so involved, I think that human fathers have just as vital a role in breastfeeding as do these avian fathers. Most people see breastfeeding as something that exists between a mother and her child; but I see it as something that involves the entire family. The breastfeeding father plays a crucial role in the life of their child.
When my wife became pregnant, we agreed to try breastfeeding. The first thing we learned about it is best summed up by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (though, I believe, he was discussing a different subject): “Do or do not. There is no try.” Breastfeeding was the most difficult task that we could imagine undertaking. Several times more difficult than the birth.
Breastfeeding is not so difficult for everyone. We just had the fortune to encounter almost every imaginable problem that a breastfeeding family can be faced with. Mastitis, plugged ducts, engorgement, thrush—every week it was a new obstacle to overcome. We read books on breastfeeding cover-to-cover, we talked to doctors, lactation consultants, La Leche League members, we read textbooks on the subject, scoured the internet—we did everything we could to get the feeding on the road. I made midnight trips to drugstores looking for nipple shields (to help with overactive letdown); read up on and bought the most economically effective breast pump (to help with engorgement); I bought a mixed grill of breast pads, ointments, balms, lanolin, Soothies, and many more products that required me to mention the condition of my wife’s breasts to the bashful faces of pharmacists all over the city. It was a solid six weeks until breastfeeding was a consistently comfortable process for mother and child.
All along, I had to be the foundation. I had to be the stable one. I wasn’t allowed to breakdown in tears or give up, or reach for one of the ubiquitous canisters of formula lying in various places around the house—the ones that are mailed to you everyday just from giving your address to one single maternity store. All it would have taken to make the whole project come crashing down would be a small chink in my armor. One moment of hesitation, and I could negatively affect my wife’s post-partum, tired, and fed-up will to do the best thing for our baby.
Many fathers feel that they have to feed their child with a bottle in order to bond with them. I don’t understand that. My presence and assistance during the initial weeks of breastfeeding brought me closer to mother and child than I ever thought possible. Not only that, but it was actually an advantage that I had no way of feeding the baby—and it remains so.
She never looks to me for nursing. When she is in my arms, she knows that comfort is going to have to come from somewhere other than a boob. This makes it much easier for me to put her to sleep at night. Babies tend to respond to the tenor of a calm father’s voice in a much more soothing manor than the alto or soprano mother. And without the option of a breast, she is much more ready to take alternative forms of comfort.
In the first 12 months of breastfeeding our child, there were other, more social challenges to overcome. I always say that if you’ve met my wife, and stuck around for a little while, you’ve seen her boobs. Her breasts (which weathered the journey from almost B to DD very well) are no longer for my eyes only. They’ve made appearances at restaurants, malls, Disneyland, and sidewalks everywhere.
When we moved to Ausin, we found it to be a very breastfeeding-friendly place. For the first nine months, we were living in Waco. There was a tendency there to treat a mother breastfeeding in public as a spectacle, a disgrace, or a peepshow. In Austin, people treat her like a human. They talk to her without staring, and if they look away, they don’t do it as if they’ve just seen something revolting.
We couldn’t be happier with breastfeeding. Our daughters rarely catch cold. They haven't had any ear infections, constipation, or colic. I can’t begin to calculate all the money we’ve saved. Those free bottles that you get in the mail are just to get you hooked. Later, it turns out, you have to pay for them. The formula companies act like they’re run by school-yard drug dealers.
But the challenges keep coming. When our first daughter was six months old, we found out that we were pregnant again (note, breastfeeding is not an effective means of birth control). Nursing through a pregnancy was the hardest challenge we had faced. Many people, including doctors and nurses, still believe the old wives’ tale that you can’t nurse through a pregnancy. It’s hard to. It’s painful. There’s less milk. But it can, and should be done.
Tandem nursing was even more of a challenge. There's not a lot written about the subject, and while that is a separate post altogether, it's worth noting that we did it. Together. The reward of seeing the two girls together, stroking each other's heads while nursing was enough to keep things going. After a long two years, though, the nursing stopped. The girls didn't ask for it at bedtime a few nights in a row. And, finally, when they did ask, there was no more to give.
After a few deep breathes, and the first bra that my wife has worn in almost four years that didn't have little plastic quick-release tabs, we're ready to face the unknown again. Every baby feeds differently, and who knows how difficult this next one will be?