08/13/2014 10:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Wrong Way to Support Your Wife's Breastfeeding

John Kinnear

When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, tucked in among all the typical friends and family pre-baby small talk, there was one question that continually came up.

"Do you plan on breastfeeding?"

In my pre-dad, super-excited-to-be-a-part-of-all-things-parenting mode, there were a few times towards the beginning when I hopped in and said, "Yes. Totally!" I realize now how silly I must have sounded answering a very personal, and gender specific, question for my wife. I obviously was not going to be breastfeeding our child, and that question was not really mine to answer. What I will say is that the breastfeeding question was generally asked within a series of "Are you" questions that did involve me. "Are you planning on putting her in day care? Are you set on a name yet? Are you excited to have a little girl?" Even though my wife was the one with the kid in her womb, we got used to answering these questions as a team.

My wife is a non-confrontational person. Instead of talking with me about my, let's call it what it was, rude and presumptive third-party committal of her mammary glands, she did what a non-confrontational person does when confronted with something. She internalized it and she worried. It wasn't until months later when, in the midst of me spouting off about how glad I was that "we" decided that she was going to breastfeed, because breast is best, and mom is the bomb, and boobs are for newbs, and... OK, only one of those is an actual thing people say. Regardless, mid-way through my bloviating about our decision to breastfeed she quietly said, "I don't know if I want to breastfeed."

I. Was. Shocked. I was flabbergasted. "But, we decided..."

"Actually, we didn't."

"But when we talked about..." And then reality came pouring in. We hadn't talked about it. We hadn't even kind-of talked about it. I had assumed. What else had I assumed?

I think the worst part of the whole situation was that even though I was the one who had overstepped, she was the one who was feeling guilty.

Next came a strange mix of emotions. I felt bad for assuming and I was disappointed that she might not breastfeed. Then I felt guilty that I was disappointed because I knew my disappointment was going to make her feel guilty. Then I was hungry, but not because of any of the other emotions; I'm just usually hungry in any situation.

I think the next thing I said went something like this: "I messed up. I assumed we were on the same page about this. I think you should breastfeed." Here is what I thought I should have said: "I messed up. I'm not sure why, but I assumed we were on the same page about the topic of breastfeeding, which then led me to believe that we were on the same page about you breastfeeding. What I didn't take into account is that breastfeeding is more than just a pamphlet I read while I was bored at your last OB appointment. I can imagine that there is a lot of anxiety around it." But see the problem with either one of those replies? I assumed again. Here's what I REALLY should have said: "I messed up, and I made assumptions. I'm ready to listen."

We got there eventually (to me listening). It took a while of me explaining the benefits of breast milk (she already knew them), praising the other women in my life who had successfully breastfed (she had heard it before), and quoting every time in our relationship when she had mentioned the benefits of nursing (she remembered those too) before she was able to communicate to me, mostly with her eyes, that I was not the one whose input was missing from this conversation. My wife is a very patient woman. Eventually I just shut up and listened. Here's what I heard.

She was nervous, but she was also a little grossed out by the idea -- which made her feel guilty. She was worried she couldn't do it, and she was feeling a ton of pressure that she had to or she would permanently hurt the baby. And she didn't want to disappoint me, because she really wanted to be a good mom... and then she started crying, and I started crying, and we both looked very silly.

I apologized and she apologized and then I apologized that she felt like she needed to apologize and we went back and forth like that for a while. I said if she didn't want to breastfeed I would be totally OK with it. She said she knew that wasn't totally true, but appreciated me saying it. We danced like that for a bit and she suggested that we take a breastfeeding class together. The plan: She would consider my, the class's, her body's, and the baby's input and then make a decision as we got closer to having a mouth to feed. I would support her and love her no matter which decision she made.

The plan worked -- not in swaying her one way or the other, but by empowering her to feel comfortable and happy with whatever decision she came to. The class was wonderful and informative. I kept my mouth shut and listened (not an easy task for me). She read a couple books, and when Duchess arrived she decided she wanted to breastfeed. It was really hard and frustrating at first. My first instinct was to cheer for her the way you would a tired athlete. "GO! YOU BREASTFEED THAT KID! WOOHOO!" But we had gotten better at communicating by then, and she told me what she needed. Whether it was a hug or small words of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on or some of those gel nipple pads, when she asked for it -- she got it.

Yes, I am proud of my wife's decision to breastfeed. It wasn't an easy task, especially when she went back to work and had to pump. But, if I am being honest, I am more proud of what we learned before her milk ever came in. I learned that being an active and involved father doesn't necessarily mean that I have a 50 percent share of every single decision -- especially ones that involve her body. She learned that if she looks at me long enough and slowly raises her left eyebrow I will eventually realize that I am rambling on and on and on. Joking aside -- she learned to talk more, I learned to listen more, and we met in the middle. Breast milk may be healthy for our kids, but I hope seeing us communicate like that will be pretty damn healthy too.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on John Kinnear's personal blog, Ask Your Dad. You can also find him desperately trying to be funny on Facebook.

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