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This past June I wrote a column and became the Antichrist, which, in itself, is quite a feat for a rabbi. To be sure, in my life I have not hesitated to be controversial when the situation warranted. But to become, in the eyes of my devoted readers, the twin brother of Saddam Hussein over a straightforward article on breast-feeding was, to say the least, unexpected.
But OK, if I was wrong, I'll admit it. True, as many of you will point out, I've never been wrong before. But I am, after all, human, that is, unless you're one of my breast-feeding critics, in which case I am a bushy-bearded Cyclops.
But first the facts.
The column I wrote was in response to a New York Times report on the benefits of breast-feeding for babies. I noted that while no one disagrees that breast-feeding is much better for a baby than formula, as a marital counselor I had seen that in some marriages, admittedly a minority, breast-feeding could come between a husband and wife, its incessant demands serving as an impediment to romance. For many couples it meant not being able to go out on a date without the baby for months, and having the baby sleep in the matrimonial bed, with the inevitable deleterious effect on the couple's love life. My solution: if breast-feeding creates distance between you and your husband, don't feel guilty about supplementing the breast with the bottle.
SOUNDS innocuous, right? But the suggestion opened the floodgates of hell. Women who admired me as a lifelong champion of women's rights, in books like Hating Women and Kosher Sex, felt betrayed. They were now calling me a misogynist because, in their mind, I took the side of male chauvinists whose selfish claim on their wives' time imperiled their children, and whose need to eroticize their wives' breasts took precedence over the role of the breast in feeding a child.
Commentary on the article exploded all over the Internet, with the inevitable misquotation and misrepresentation. Suddenly, I was reading how I had dismissed breast-feeding as unsexy and destructive to marriages. Women's breasts don't belong to their husbands, was how critics castigated the article. One woman wrote a blog saying, "Breastfeeding does not hurt marriages. Selfish fathers hurt marriages." Less charitably, a blogger claimed that I had equated breast-feeding with adultery.
My article, of course, said none of these things. So here is my real position.
Firstly, I absolutely believe that women should breast-feed. My wife has breast-fed every single one of our eight children. It was good for her, it was good for the children, and it was good for our marriage because it endeared my wife to me to see the extent of her devotion to our children. When we took a cross-country RV trip this summer, I told my wife repeatedly that she should avail herself, on the long daily drives, of breast-feeding our baby completely rather than giving him the occasional bottle, which she had begun. I believe that a woman's first choice should always be to breast-feed.
SO WHY did I write my article? Because when we make breast-feeding an outright obsession, we cause harm to those families for whom the practice is a hardship. For instance, many families are absolutely dependent on a wife's income for their basic sustenance. So a few weeks after having a baby, a mom will often be forced to return to work. She will feel extremely guilty at not being able to breast-feed during the day. Should we dig in the knife by telling her that she is harming her children? Since formula, albeit as a lesser alternative, exists, should we make her feel that quitting a necessary job must be prioritized over rent and food money for her children? To be sure, it would be much better, of course, if she were to stay home with her baby. But for many women, that is simply not an option. And yes, I realize that she can express milk. But for many women, who are already overrun with too many job and household responsibilities, the added chore of having to express milk prior to rushing to work, after getting their other kids ready for school and making lunch, becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Then there are all the women who simply cannot breast-feed due to medical considerations. Many moms simply don't have enough milk. And every time they read one of these articles about how cruel it is not to breast-feed, they feel like inadequate mothers.
FURTHERMORE, however much people will disagree with and condemn me, I have counseled many marriages in which breast-feeding became an impediment to romance. We can criticize those husbands all we want for not being understanding about their children's need to be suckled. But marriages have needs, too, and in some marriages, the huge time commitment for breast-feeding makes it challenging for a husband and wife to have alone time.
In my article, I gave the example of a couple who appeared on Shalom in the Home, even though the breast-feeding aspect was not included in their on-air story. Their marriage was passionate and their attraction strong until the birth of their baby boy. This should not surprise us since a Harvard study indicates that sexual activity between a husband and wife decreases by about 74 percent in the first year after the birth of a child. What increased the loss of eroticism for this particular couple was that the mother nursed her baby constantly, so much so that the husband no longer felt he even had a place in their marital bed and moved into a spare bedroom.
When I met them, the baby was already a year old. The mom told me that her sex and romantic life with her husband had atrophied because of her being constantly on call to breast-feed. I told her that in her case, having nursed the baby for an entire year, there was nothing wrong with putting him on the bottle and that the family would be better served if the marriage was brought back from the brink.
Many readers assailed me for that advice, arguing that I should have told the husband to stop being so selfish and put the interests of his children first. I would respond that the husband felt that he had done so for an entire year, but now wanted to share intimacy with his wife and felt unable to do so because the baby was always in their bed. His wife would nurse the baby in bed and both would fall asleep.
I AM, in general, a great opponent of children sleeping in the matrimonial bed because it prevents parents from being lovers, and a bad and loveless marriage is ultimately detrimental to the children who are a product of that marriage. Giving up breast-feeding was the right choice for this couple because the wife herself complained that she was too tired for sex since she was up most of the night feeding. She also said that she and her husband had stopped going out together on dates because she had to be back to feed the baby. In the first year after the baby's birth, they did not go out alone together even once. When she put the baby on the bottle, her love life was restored and she and her husband were happier.
Who has the right to judge this couple, and condemn the parents for being selfish, when their only desire was to recapture the affection that had produced the baby in the first place? I am a staunch advocate of breast-feeding, and would not recommend the above advice for most couples, including myself; but if forced to choose between a couple's romantic life and supplementing breast-feeding with the bottle, I would advocate the bottle. Period.
And even so, breast-feeding remains the correct decision for the vast majority of couples, and husbands should go out of their way to support and encourage their wives in making that choice. However, in a case where both spouses agree that breast-feeding has come between them, then the baby will survive perfectly well on a bottle.
I have written many times that the greatest gift a man can give his children is to love their mother, and the greatest gift a woman can give her children is to love their father. In a healthy marriage, horrible as it may sound, the relationship comes before the children. Husbands and wives with small children should feel no sense of guilt getting a babysitter once a week so that they can be a man and a woman on a date again. And they should try and go away at least once and perhaps twice a year together, even though it means leaving the children behind.
As for the many women who were puzzled by my advice that when they breast-feed they should do so modestly and try, even a little, to cover up, this is consistent with my advice, given in Kosher Adultery and elsewhere, that even after marriage husbands and wives should not parade around the bedroom naked for fear that overexposure to each other's bodies could invite erotic boredom. Yes, the breast is an organ beautifully designed by God for the nurturance of a baby. But even as it becomes an infant's milksource, it should always retain its erotic allure.
The writer's latest book is Parenting with Fire. His Web site is www.shmuley.com