Monday, July 24, 2006

Thursday the Rabbi Encountered a Fearsome Mob of Livid Lactivists*

...In which we return to lactation, a smattering of theology, and what the Rabbi coulda been thinking.

[For clarification of what this post is about, please refer to my previous post, Mammary Memories.]

*I realize the above title isn't nearly as snappy as were the titles of the Rabbi Small mysteries popular in the 1970's (e.g. Monday the Rabbi Saw Red, Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet.) But I couldn't help myself. Mea culpa.

Being cable/dish nonsubscribers by choice (some would have it, by Luddite Yours Truly's fiat) I was completely unaware of Shalom in the Home and Rabbi Shumley prior to the email that launched Part I of the Minor Premise Lactation Series. So I have to rely on my sister-in-law's judgement regarding the show and the Rabbi's motivation.

Sis's response to me indicated she wasn't buying my suggestion that the Rabbi might for religious reasons be endorsing procreation over extended lactation, and I must admit that's a bit of a stretch.

In Sis's humble opinion, the Rabbi's intent is to save marriage, which is strained enough in our culture as it is and which he believes comes under additional strain from the (perfectly normal) temporary decline in frequency of marital relations that
generally follows the birth of an infant. I'm astounded, however, at the lengths to which he is willing to take it. His heavy-handed defense of marital relations almost as an end in themselves literally throws the baby out with the bathwater (pun intended--mea maxima culpa.) It is as if nothing else matters if Papa ain't happy, and Papa ain't happy unless he's being serviced.

First, a little biology:
Lactation in the human confers with it (at least, until we start to meddle with artificial feeding, pacifiers, and schedules) a period of natural infertility (a.k.a. lactation amenorrhea.) It usually runs at least six months (if you don't mess with Mother Nature) and often lasts longer, in some cases until total weaning. This fills two needs: it ensures adequate care and nutrition for the infant and it gives the mother some recovery time. (Repeat after me, as often as necessary to soak it into the gray matter: God knows what he's doing!) And yes, estrogen suppression and the release of oxytocin and prolactin during lactation do tend to have the effect of suppressing the female libido. Lest this seem to be all disdvantage, realize that these hormones are also powerful mellowers and enhance the mood of the lactating woman.

Next, a little reality:
As I pointed out in my previous post, it's not just breastfeeding that puts strain on a couple--it's adjusting to the squalling, messy, perpetually hungry, totally dependent little being with no proper sense of time that the two of them have engendered Getting up at midnight to feed a baby is tiring, and can disrupt the lovelife. Spending fifteen extra minutes at midnight fixing a bottle is even more tiring and disruptive. Total up the extra time spent in a baby's first year juggling bottle paraphernalia, preparing feeds that otherwise would be at the ready, washing laundry with more severe stains that don't want to come out, and perhaps treating additional illness and rashes, factor in exhaustion from all the extra work and drain to the household economy, and you can easily introduce more stressors than you've eliminated.

Then, a little amateur psychology:
In his column the Rabbi cited a case in which a couple's marriage was foundering, we were told, due to the lack of relations between them. (Sorry, can't find the quote--see Note 1 below.) The mother was nursing an 11-month-old and, according to his assessment of the situation, was inseparable from the child. It seems to me that an astute counselor would know better than to jump on the mother's breastfeeding as the culprit in the relationship's decline (although it may have served as a handy excuse for the wife's neglect of her husband.) The average 11-month old is seldom so excessively mother-dependent for one thing, so good counseling would dictate looking for additional factors in the marriage for this behavior. (Some babies are high-need: I raised one; I know. Still, by this age they tend not to need or want to be hanging on their mothers 24-7.) Pressure to wean abruptly in this case would likely have been traumatic for the baby, produced resentment in the wife, and allowed any other problems affecting the couple to fester and multiply. I doubt it would have solved the husband's loss of consort problem.

The Rabbi strikes me as squeamish to a fault about the perfectly natural process of lactation:
One is the de-eroticization of a woman’s body, as in her husbands eyes one of the most attractive parts of her body becomes, in effect, a cafeteria...
Here we have a wife employing her body in a perfectly natural and commendable way, and a husband with an overactive gross-out factor. So we propose suspending the normal and commendable in order that he can persist in his puerile view of sexuality? I suppose we also need to provide him with a divided dish at meals so the peas don't touch the potatoes!

Personally, (thank goodness) I haven't had to deal with a male who is this squeamish about breastfeeding; in fact I believe that most men, especially if they are educated about the benefits of breastfeeding, are real enthusiasts. But, we do live in a culture that has tended in recent generations to be a bit schizo about the nurturing and sexual aspects of breasts and I grant that such men probably do exist. What to do?

I have had people in my acquaintance who have had to deal with excessive reactions of various kinds--some could not cope with blood, others with spiders, still others with heights. Those who have dealt with their reactions effectively have generally instituted a plan of incremental exposure along with relaxation exercises. (Actually, the acquaintance with the heights problem just went bungee-jumping, but that was an unusual case.) Thus I propose that any man for whom the thought of his wife nursing conjures up images not of a placid Earth Mother or contemplative Madonna but of a Horn and Hardart's should (1) Acknowledge he has a problem, (2) Educate himself about breastfeeding, (3) Practice incremental exposure to lactation, with physiologic breathing or meditation if need be, (4) Work on those Earth Mother visualizations, and (5) Be really, really nice to his wife. (5) actually doesn't have anything to do with his problem, but it does increase the likelihood that his wife will be nice back so that maybe he won't see breastfeeding as such a big deal. Not to suggest the Rabbi is projecting or anything, by the way, but perhaps it would do him some good to practice the above techniques himself,

Fnially, a little lactation theology:
On certain points, Jewish and Christian theology run fairly parallel:
[Disclaimer: I am NO theologian. If my amateur attempt runs a bit more to The Cotton Patch Gospel than to Evangelium Vitae, I beg your indulgence. I'm doing my best.]
1. God don't make junk.
2. If God made it, you would be wise to respect it.
(I'm not sure, but I think this is more or less what you'd call Natural Law!)
This applies in all sorts of ways--the prohibition on tattoos and such in Judaism, for example; that on artifical contraception in Catholicism and most of Christianity before the last century. One would think it would apply to the natural phenomenon that has enabeled humanity to survive and thrive as well. (Did the Rabbi give any thought to the fact that, only a few generations ago, any couple following his advice would have been far less likely to produce any surviving children?)

The Christian perspective of marriage is that it is unitive (biologists call this pair bonding) as well as procreative. Neither of those two aspects can exist independently. While the possibility of creating new life should not be eschewed, neither should be that bonding. (Bear with me, I know it sounds like I'm about to go off down the Rabbi's primrose path.) Nor should procreation or bonding trump other marital virtues, such as the raising of children and the sacrifice of one's own wants and needs. Self-sacrifice is, after all, one of those learning experiences in marriage that leads not only to better parenting but also to better partnering. In giving up first claim to his wife, a father not only promotes the health of his child, he grows as a husband. In appreciating his willingness to do so and striving to accomodate his needs willingly whenever she can, a mother grows as a wife. Quality marital relations do not depend on quantity marital relations. Mutual desire to please and connect with each other counts far more than the number of encounters per week or month.

Note 1: I have been having difficulty locating the original text or Rabbi Boteach's column at the address given in Mammary Memories If I find a new link I will add it or the full text here later.

Note 2: After writing up my two bits' worth above, I was interested to find this quote:

Marriage should be put before the children. Children will outgrow your love someday. They'll move out and find the love of a stranger. You'll want them to have the memory that love is real because they saw it at home, and to believe they'll find a soul mate instead of dating aimlessly, like we see so much of now.

I found it here but I think it originated in a promotional statement for Boteach's TLC program. It certainly clears up for me where the Rabbi is coming from. It changes my views not one whit, however. While it's good for children to know their parents love each other, it's more important for them to develop an ability to trust at an early age. This happens when their needs are met, consistently, by the people who care for them. A baby who knows his needs will be met grows into a child who doesn't have to be whining constantly about every little thing, because he knows his needs will be met. That child grows into an adult who can postpone gratification to meet the needs of others because that behavior has been modeled for him from birth. Meddle with the sequence at your own peril!

Harvest: Second bloom of eggplants. Found some brijndal recipes at Ashbury's Aubergines.
Yard Eco: Lots of house finches at feeders. Quite a few juvenile cardinals as well. Anoles out often (especially under the spigot, until it rained;) toads have been a bit more reticent, presumably because of the dry spell. Spiders have been coming out of the woodwork recently; a number of species I'm not familiar with as well as my nomination for prettiest darn spider in North America, the Crablike Spiny Orb Weaver. Black and yellow Argiopes were out in force down at the swamp last week, and the preponderance of the evidence on the boardwalk indicated that the gray foxes have been munching out on berries.
Knitting: Finally finished that darn (of course pun intended) trekking sock. Miraculously, it even fit. Let the Second Sock Syndrome commence!

Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

--attr. Dallan Forgaill, 8th C; trans. Mary E. Byrne, 1905; versed Eleanor H. Hull, 1912. Melody: Slane



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