In choosing to become parents—which most of us do—we tacitly agree to take on certain obligations, to make sacrifices for our children, to do what we can to make their lives better than ours. Going a step further, if there’s something we can do to protect our children, to keep them from harm, we must do it.
Although I defer to the good rabbi’s knowledge of Jewish texts, I’ve studied a section of Talmud that I believe deals with this exact issue:
"One who can prevent members of his household from committing a sin and does not do so, is punishable for their sin. If one can prevent his fellow citizens from committing a sin, and does not do so, he is punishable for their sin. If one can prevent the whole world from a sin and does not, he is punishable for the sin of the entire world." (Shabbat 54b)
Okay, it’s a little extreme to say that not breast-feeding a child is a sin that threatens the world. After all, most of us who are over 30 weren’t breast-fed, and for the most part we’re fully functional, tax-paying members of society. Also, there’s a percentage of women for whom breast-feeding simply doesn’t work out—and their children turn out just fine. But the point is that as parents, when we have a chance to do something that is almost guaranteed to make our children healthier, we have to do it, even if it comes at some sacrifice.
But that raises an important question: Does supporting breast-feeding come at the expense of the couple’s romantic relationship? Hardly.
In researching my books, "The Expectant Father" and "The New Father: A Dad’s Guide to the First Year," I found the same thing as the Harvard study Rabbi Boteach cites: that new parents experience a tremendous decline in their love life in the first year after the birth of a child. But a waning sex life is less a casualty of breast-feeding and more a symptom of an overall drop in communication and intimacy-building activities.
To start with, most new mothers are instructed by their OBs to refrain from sex for at least six weeks after giving birth. But the reality is that a majority of women don’t recover their pre-pregnancy sex drive for six months or more. Given that sex is both a product of and a catalyst for intimacy, less sex means less intimacy, and vice versa.
Second, when couples become parents, they rather abruptly move from focusing on themselves and their relationship, to the 24-hour baby channel ("all baby, all the time"). Going out together—for dinner, movies, or even a walk—pretty much disappears from the scene for a while. All that adds up to less time for having fun and fewer opportunities for intimacy. Throw in a complete lack of spontaneity, a little sleep deprivation, and maybe some worries about money, and it’s no wonder that new parents’ sex lives suffer. Breast-feeding is the least of the reasons why.
The only rain cloud in this idyllic picture is Dad. I frequently hear from new fathers who feel left out when the mom is breast-feeding. But what pushes the guys away isn’t, as Boteach suggests, that the woman’s body has gone from fun to functional. In fact, many men are fascinated and sometimes even aroused by their wives' bodily transformations. The problem, rather, is jealousy—of the baby for monopolizing the breasts, as Boteach says, but also jealousy of the wife for the close bond she’s building with the baby. Dads can feel useless and may withdraw emotionally and even physically from both mom and baby. Obviously, this is a critical juncture in the couple’s relationship.
But rather than stop breast-feeding as a way of keeping that relationship alive, the nursing mother needs to make every possible attempt to encourage the dad to be involved. She needs to make sure he gets plenty of one-on-one time with the baby so he can develop his own, unique bond. If she’s pumping milk, she can fill an extra bottle so Dad can participate in the feeding.
At the same time, it’s vital for the new dad to support his nursing partner. As odd as it may sound, the father plays a very important part in breast-feeding. The more encouraging and supportive he is, the longer she’ll do it and the more she’ll enjoy it. And longer is better. To give you an idea of how important this is, a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that babies breast-fed for four months were twice as likely to have recurrent ear infections and four times as likely to get pneumonia than those nursed for six months.
In my experience, when dads learn what a major contribution they’re making to their children’s health by supporting breast-feeding, they feel far more important, like an equal partner in parenting, and they get more and more involved.
Boteach suggests not only that women avoid breast-feeding if it interferes with their marriages, but that men avoid looking at the business end of the birth when their babies are born. As a father of three, I’m somewhat awed at the size of Boteach’s family, and I applaud his attendance at the births of each of his eight children. But I strongly disagree with his contention that the images of birth could start a “negative trend” that “can only subvert his erotic interest.” This may be true for some, but there’s no evidence to suggest that men who saw the actual birth of their first child are less likely to have a second than men who waited outside the delivery room or remained next to their wives' heads.
More important, the overwhelming majority of men truly want to be there. They want to catch the baby, cut the cord, and start connecting right away. I know I did. Separating dad from his baby at the moment of birth reinforces the old stereotype that dads simply aren’t as important as moms.
The bottom line to both moms and dads feeling comfortable with their roles in the physical process of parenting, including breast-feeding? Well, to be perfectly blunt, the more men participate, the more sex those men will get. As psychologist Aaron Hass puts it, “There is no more powerful aphrodisiac to a mother than to see her husband lovingly engaged with their children.” So it goes like this: When dads support breast-feeding and are actively involved with their children, moms are happier. Happier moms have more energy and are more interested in satisfying their husband’s—and their own—sexual needs.