Monday, September 30, 2013

Framing male lactivism

Given that breastfeeding is by nature a feminine act, some people might wonder how a man can be passionate and committed in this connection. Although I've written for years on the topic - what I describe as appropriate nurturing and nutrition for the young of our species - I have never set out to define in so many words the source of my passion and commitment. I will attempt to do so now.

When I present at conferences, I often begin by emphasizing my three most important credentials, in order of significance:

- I've been a mammal since 1944
- I've been a father since 1974
- I've been a grandfather since 2000

Oh, and before formally retiring in 2004, I also worked for 30 years in the field of international public health nutrition.

Beyond that are elements like my life-long interest in human behavior and motivation; cultural cues and influences governing behavior in distinctly different environments where I have lived and worked for varying periods, for example the USA, Turkey, Cameroon, Haiti and Switzerland; what it means to be a mammal and the implications of acting consistently, or not, with our nature; and how the unique universal biological norm for feeding infants and young children is molded by culture.

Add fascination, since I was an early teen, with the concept of "deviant behavior", how it is defined in a given sociocultural context, how such behavior is punished and who goes to prison and for how long, and the all too rare emphasis on crime prevention in place of, or at least complementary to, criminal confinement. (It is sobering to compare the ever-breastfed rates with the incarceration rates in the same countries around the world. I long ago observed the tendency for many countries with the lowest incarceration rates to have the highest breastfeeding rates and vice versa. I am not saying that breastfeeding keeps people out of jail, although that may well be true in several meaningful ways. What I am saying is that breastfeeding is a useful surrogate measure of how effectively a given society nurtures its members in the widest sense of the term.)

Should only women be interested in how society nurtures its members?

Stir in as well a general neglect, until only recently, of:

- the results of acting, or failing to act, in a manner that is consistent with our nature in terms of the impact on life-long mental, emotional and physical health and the related costs and benefits; and
- the inevitable implications of all this in terms of neurocognitive development.

One doesn't have to be a neuroscientist to observe, with certainty, that we can never hope to achieve our full neurocognitive developmental potential by any other means than by beginning life with ingesting the food that is unique to our species. We are mammals; this is what we do, or at least this is what we should be doing.

Should only women care whether our species achieves its potential?

As a male I spent the first two decades of life in the USA and came of age in a highly confused Puritanical anti-pleasure environment where distrust, even fear, of the human body was - and still is - in constant conflict with a morbid fascination with sexuality divorced from any real understanding or awareness of our status as mammals. I long ago concluded that we can do better, much better, by acting consistently with our nature in place of varying degrees of denial and hypocrisy and the individual and collective disasters that they continue to generate. For the neonate, this begins at the breast.

Thus, I think that being male hardly disqualifies me from having strong feelings about breast milk and breastfeeding any more than it dispenses me from acting consistently on this basis. Yes, I'm a father of three and a grandfather of five; but there's no need for any of that to understand the multiple advantages of surrounding ourselves with healthy, well-adjusted and intelligent people who begin their life journey consistent with Nature's plan. I have never menstruated either, yet I've not had a problem adopting a strong position on iron deficiency, which afflicts differentially according to sex.

I certainly have no regrets in becoming involved in promoting appropriate nurturing and nutrition for all children. Some of the staunchest female breastfeeding advocates I've ever known have never actually breastfed (Alison Blenkinsop springs to mind), just as some of the strongest female critics have, apparently for short periods.

In my version of ho-hum ordinariness, the best place to be is where both women and men - and this irrespective of whether they become parents - because they're genuinely informed, caring and societally supportive, are not only keen on mothers and children breastfeeding generally, they also make all the right moves - defined as the easy and obvious things to do because they're normalized - to ensure that the entire society is totally in on the deal.

Breastfeeding is not a woman's issue. Breastfeeding is not a man's issue. Breastfeeding is a human issue.

James Akre prepared this post for The Alpha Parent. As founder, chairman and CEO of the International Breastfeeding Support Collective, James focuses on the sociocultural dimension of the universal biological norm for feeding infants and young children, and on pathways for returning breastfeeding to the realm of the ho-hum ordinary everywhere. He is a member of the editorial board of the International Breastfeeding Journal and of the Scientific Advisory Committee of La Leche League France, and past member of the board of directors of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE).

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