Can Men Help Breastfeed Their Children?
In a tribe in central Africa, male and female roles are practically interchangeable in caregiving to children. Even though their lifestyle might sound strange to the West, it offers important life lessons about who raises children — and how.
The southwestern regions of the Central African Republic and the northern Republic of Congo are home to the Aka, a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers who, from a Western point-of-view, are surprising because male and female roles are practically interchangeable.
Though women remain the primary caregivers, what is interesting is that their society has a level of flexibility virtually unknown to ours.
While the women hunt, the men care for the children; while the men cook, the women decide where to settle, and vice versa. This was observed by anthropologist Barry Hewlett, a professor at Washington State University, who lived for long periods alongside the tribe. “It is the most egalitarian human society possible,” Hewlett said in an interview.
During his research, he found that fathers in the Aka tribe spend more time in close contact with their babies than in any other known society, holding their babies 47% of the time. In an article in The Guardian, Hewlett reports that fathers sometimes even breastfeed their babies.
Breastfeeding is not free
Yes, you heard that right. Contrary to what many may believe, male nipples are far from useless, at least for the Aka. Fathers’ nipples are there as substitutes when mothers are not around and there is a desperate baby in dad’s care.
I am not referring here to fathers producing milk and nursing their babies — which is possible for some transgender men and nonbinary people, as well as trans women with the help of drugs.
As much as there is no comparison with breastfeeding in nutritional terms, it doesn't sound so far-fetched to think that for a baby sucking from the father's nipple may feel more pleasant than a rubber pacifier, does it? (I'm sure there will be no lack of those who will see in this an element of “child abuse” — I’ve already seen this reaction in several places.) If for a moment we can ignore our cultural conditioning, perhaps we can imagine that there are other possibilities.
Breastfeeding is a labor-intensive form of care.
I am thinking of this as my newborn son León spends many hours a day attached to my partner’s breasts — feeding, but also seeking comfort and warmth. When she wrote about the false myth of breastfeeding as free, Irene, my partner, calculated that she spent some 12 hours a day feeding Lorenzo, our firstborn. Journalist Alyssa Rosenberg wrote that she breastfed her child some five hours a day in an article for The Washington Post. Regardless of the exact hours, it is clear that breastfeeding is far from free, and that it represents a labor-intensive form of care.
I remember that when my son Lorenzo was still getting over being weaned, one day he came to my chest and started sucking one of my nipples saying, "Teta, teta." He was playing. We laughed but I didn't let him continue.
I wonder now if I would ever let León try out one of my nipples in an emergency. Like one of those days when Lorenzo, being a baby and demanding his mother's presence, wouldn't stop crying and there was nothing to comfort him: would it have worked if I tried this method? And what if we men pitched in with our chests too, and took over some of the time when babies want to be at the breast just to feel reassured?!
Aka woman hunting
A different approach and important life lesson
Returning to the research, if Aka life sounds like a feminist paradise, it is not. While tasks and decision-making are largely shared activities, the best jobs go to the men. But that doesn't detract from their important contribution as co-caregivers with their children, nor does it reduce the impact of the message Hewlett believes the Aka tribe has for Western couples struggling to find a balance between the demand of paid work, housework, self-fulfillment and parenting.
We’ve come to believe that kids are a burden rather than a blessing.
Hewlett says he admires the Aka’s attentive and patient approach to children, while still respecting their autonomy. “The Aka do not talk about ‘quality time.’ They believe in quantity, and that approach was very meaningful for me. In the United States, where you have the ‘quality time’ notion, there is no point bringing the children to work with you — in fact, it is even a waste of time — because you cannot devote your full attention to them,” he says.
“There's a big sense in our society that dads can't always be around and that you have to give up a lot of time with your child but that you can put that right by having quality time with them instead," says Hewlettin another piece.
This is a reflection that stayed with me: we’ve come to believe that kids are a burden rather than a blessing. That's something the Aka never do, according to Hewlett. Another important life lesson from a people whose lifestyle may sound very foreign to us, but whose societal relationships carry important insights.
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