In all honesty, lots of mistakes were made on my way to getting it. But now I know it’s more than just saying the words.
When my wife was pregnant we took a birthing course at NYU. The woman giving the course was a brassy old nurse who looked like she wore too much perfume (I never got close enough to confirm). She seemed less like a nurse and more like a needling mother-in-law in a crappy sitcom.
She lectured a bit on breastfeeding at one point. I don’t remember what she said about it because I wasn’t listening. Breastfeeding had nothing to do with me.
But then she addressed the non-pregnant folks in class, informing us that the dreaded nighttime feedings were not opportunities for us, the support people, to catch up on sleep. This was said scoldingly, as if she’d caught us sleeping through her class and thought we’d sleep away our parenthoods given a chance.
No, our job was to “sit up” with our partners. That’s all she said. “You sit up with them.” None of us raised a hand to ask what we were expected to do while sitting up with them, however.
It didn’t make much sense to me. Why would I sit up with her? Why should I?
I shopped this suggestion around to a few of my dad friends: “When your baby was new, and your wife was breastfeeding, did you sit up with her?”
The general answer was no. The specific answers were more like, “Hell no. Why would I do that? What purpose would that serve? You’re just sitting there while she feeds the baby? For what? One of you needs to be rested.”
One of the friends I spoke to about this is a woman, whose wife had recently given birth to their first child. I expected her views to be aligned with the shrill nurse’s. But she was, in fact, the most vehemently opposed.
“That’s bullshit!” she said as we went to the store to get my wife soda water. “That’s your time to sleep!” When we got back to our apartment, she said to my wife, “Let Brad sleep. Don’t make him get up with you to breastfeed.”
Within 2 days of having our daughter, my wife’s engorgement had become excruciating. Some mothers don’t produce much milk, but Jen seemed to have the opposite problem. A young nurse came and instructed her to get into the shower and try to “crack open the milk ducts” in her breasts with her fingers. We didn’t know at the time that this was not only insanely painful but wrong advice.
A lactation consultant finally visited my wife’s room and showed her techniques to help her express the milk. Still, my wife was scared. When it was becoming overwhelming for her, during the worst of it, I opened up my fat mouth and asked the consultant, “And, uh, what should I be doing?”
My wife and the lactation consultant glanced at me.
“While she’s breastfeeding, I mean. Like, do I sit with her, or…do I, like…”
“Yeah, you… you help her with whatever she needs,” the lactation consultant said. When she left the room, my wife suggested maybe I should leave for a bit too.
Seated alone in a visitor area with time to reflect on my mistake, I noticed a poster on the wall that said in big letters, DO YOU SUPPORT BREASTFEEDING?
I’m sure this is due to many factors, one of which has got to be that it’s damn hard. Latching, mastitis, engorgement, supply issues, letdown pain, nipple pain, breast pain, all the pain. I’m surprised more don’t quit before they leave the hospital.
But, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking, “Of course I support breastfeeding. I’m not one of these guys who won’t want their wives breastfeeding in public, who feel grossed out by the whole thing and want zero involvement. Therefore I am one of the good ones. I SUPPORT BREASTFEEDING.”
But I wasn’t showing support. We stayed in the hospital 3 nights following the birth, the standard stay for new mothers who’ve had cesarean deliveries. The “one parent should be rested” mantra played in my mind and I kept prioritizing my own rest.
I’d leave my wife in the hospital during the day and go home to nap in perfect, baby-free silence, returning 6 to 8 hours later. My wife’s parents are there, friends are visiting, she’ll be fine, I thought. Let. Brad. Sleep.
On our worst night, when the baby shrieked endlessly and couldn’t be consoled, I wasn’t terribly bothered and managed to fall asleep on the roll-away bed, leaving my desperate, seriously wounded wife to walk the halls with our child and deal with it.
Jen, presumably too tired to simply divorce me, let me come home with her and the baby and attempt to redeem myself. It’s hard to remember those 3 a.m. wake-ups well, but I was aware that I needed to go above and beyond in showing my support of breastfeeding. Still I came up short.
Maybe one night I’d get the baby for her, put her in her arms, then expect to be undisturbed by Jen or the baby the rest of the night. Maybe the next night I’d register Jen’s disappointment enough to get her some snacks while she fed.
Slowly, however, a routine solidified, one I began to enjoy. I got pretty good at the 3 a.m. wake-ups and was able to jump up, get baby Olive, change her, present Jen with a clean baby, then get Jen a snack. As my reward, Jen would tell me to go lie down. I wouldn’t sleep, just look at my phone and wait.
Twenty minutes or so later she’d whisper my name to inform me the baby was ready to be put back down, and I’d go pick her up from my wife’s arms. As per our pediatrician’s suggestion, I’d hold my daughter upright after feeds, cuddled against my shoulder, as she drifted back to sleep. Which, even at 3 a.m., felt really nice!
Every couple is different, but you can find a routine that works that includes all available parents — not just the breastfeeding mother. And hopefully you don’t dig yourself the kind of hole I made for myself early on. I got so much advice from all kinds of dads, and most of it was either obvious, vague, or bad.
Then my friend Taylor nailed it for me: “Keep Mom happy.”
So simple! Once I just started trying to make my wife happy, parenting became much easier. Breastfeeding is not my business to run. I’m running a separate business, and the only two customers are my wife and baby, and I want to keep them satisfied.
Being more involved feels good, and empowering. Keep Mom happy. At least it’s a much better mantra than “Let Brad Sleep.”
Brad Austin is a writer and comedian who’s been published in the New York Times, Vulture, and elsewhere. He recently moved from NYC to Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and daughter, an experience he frequently blogs about on his website, bradaustincomedy.com.