The Supreme Courts Says Men Lactate, Too. So When Can They Start Breastfeeding?

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The Supreme Court has now established that it isn’t sex discrimination to fire a woman because of breastfeeding, in part because men can lactate, too. Critics have met the ruling with disbelief, indignation and dismay.

I disagree. I think it’s great news. Finally, we have federal legal recognition that men can take part in this fundamental part of newborn care. At times the present Supreme Court has seemed retrograde and unconcerned with reproductive rights (Hobby Lobby, anyone?), but in this case the Justices have forged ahead, outpacing even biology and culture. I haven’t seen too many men in lactation classes (maybe they’re such naturals, they don’t need the classes) or publicly chestfeeding their kids, and the Daily Mail ran a story about the now sadly defunct “Project Breastfeeding”‘s campaign to get more dads involved. Their slogan was “If I could, I would”— and now you can!

This brave new world of equal opportunity lactation is good for all, especially for the babies. It has long been known that breastfed babies are healthier than ones fed on formula, because of the boost from antibodies in the milk. And it’s better for the mom (excuse me, parent)—lower incidences of breast cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and osteoporosis.

But it’s the cultural issues around lactation that are really mysterious and might need explanation to the uninitiated. For example, my local supermarket is so pro-lactation, that it keeps the formula in a locked cabinet, and you have to show ID to buy it. You’d think that this would mean that everyone’s really pro-lactation, but the Courts might be leaders of public opinion here.

Fathers can now legally share the toil of lactation, but because this, until now, has been mostly a women’s issue, and men’s new legal freedoms might have crept up on them, new fathers might need some tips on the whole process of managing feeding in public and pumping at work. Parents of newborns are inundated with advice, most of it contradictory, but at the risk of boobsplaining, let me offer some advice.

Fifty years ago, newborns were fed every four hours, and tough luck if they wanted to eat more frequently. Now that we’ve realized that it takes about 35 minutes for a stomach the size of a walnut to empty, the new recommendations are to feed on demand. That means that if you’re breastfeeding, and if you don’t want to stay home all the time, sooner or later you’re likely to need to feed your baby in a place that wasn’t designed for it. Which is almost everywhere. So you’ll need some tricks. The refrigerated beer cabinet at the supermarket is quite a comfortable place to sit while you nurse your infant. So is the cheese cabinet. Subways and buses are good, but you need to be careful of your elbows, and older babies might get distracted and bite. And there’s always the car (safely stationary in the discrete car park of your choice), but the steering wheel can get in the way.

Now that men are doing the lactation too, you can bet your bottom dollar that they won’t be pumping or feeding their kids in toilet stalls or supply closets. Now we’ll all be able to feed our kids anywhere: On the low garden wall of a convenient house, while doing a question-and-answer session for 70 new graduate students, while giving interviews with journalists, while seeing a client, while appearing in court about that speeding ticket, during a quick break before doing an oil change, while flipping burgers, at that Armed Services Committee hearing, or in the middle of a run with your fancy new jogging stroller. You men could have competitions with your mates, play “nursing bingo” (who’ll be the first at work to feed through meetings with all the senior administrators at your company? while on TV? while giving a day-long training course?)

It’ll be good for the economy, too, because it’ll open up a whole range of new marketing opportunities. Sports-themed nursing pads, for example. And in the cooler, there’ll be a place for baby’s 4oz milk bottles amongst the beer. Artists will benefit from a new range of “pa-donna and child” paintings. But guys, you must be careful not to show too much flesh (however much of your mammaries are on display at other times), so we can have a new range of giant tents for kids to nurse under. Darth Vadar tents, perhaps?

Critics are no doubt rushing to link to the Snopes.com article pointing out that this is a minor part of the overall ruling related to an argument about pregnancy as a disability, and that it was a lower court who so helpfully pointed out that man “can lactate under certain circumstances.” Let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture here. We have an opportunity to think big, and move beyond the case of one woman in Iowa. Or maybe we’ll just fall back on excuses: “There was a lactation room, she just didn’t observe the three day cooling off period before trying to use it.” And it’ll continue to be ok to discriminate against all parents who “want to stay at home with their babies,” because lactation isn’t a necessary condition of pregnancy. Biology will come up trumps, and we’ll be left thinking about the culture in which we’re raising our kids.

Claire Bowern is an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow and an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Yale.

Lead photo: Gonzalo Merat on Flickr Creative Commons.

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