Breast beating

What’s a man for, after all?

My wife, who is heavily pregnant, recently went to a glamorous party that she “simply couldn’t miss”. So I went on my own to an ante-natal class on breastfeeding. I was keen to pick up tips to pass on when she could spare the time.

I took my notebook and wrote down information such as this: If you hear a baby cry your breast will start to tingle. Milk can be “expressed” with a pump, and stored in the fridge (for 24 hours) or freezer (three months). If you travel without your baby you can “pump and dump”.

The class took place at the home of our teacher, Rosie Pritchard, whose qualifications include giving birth eight times herself. Altogether, the class comprised nine couples, aged from the late 20s to early 40s, and from resolutely middle-class professions: lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, a doctor, a physiotherapist and a handful in the media. We sat round the green carpet in Rosie’s living room, on giant cushions and comfortable chairs, amid baby-shaped dolls in brightly coloured outfits.

This was one of the last classes in a series put on by the National Childbirth Trust. It covered an eventuality still impossibly remote to a group fixated by the coming rigours of childbirth. But one mother-to-be seemed, as ever, startlingly well informed. Magdalene had by now established herself as something of a class swot, capable of answering any question, even occasionally if it was addressed to somebody else – but it was hard not to admire her relish for impending motherhood.

To begin, Rosie asked the group to list any possible disadvantages of breastfeeding. “The only bad thing,” answered Magdalene confidently, “is that you can’t share it with your husband at night.” At this, her own husband, a quiet man named Jonas, nodded with something like remorse. But Rosie had good news: unlike bottle-feeding, breastfeeding is possible even when you’re asleep. “That’s the only way I could survive, with all my children.”

Another woman said apologetically that she did not think she would feel right feeding in public: “I think this makes men feel uncomfortable… I don’t even think I would be happy to do this in front of my father.” Her husband agreed, saying he is never sure whether to stare directly at a feeding baby – to show how incredibly relaxed he is – or to look elsewhere as if he hadn’t noticed a thing. I understood exactly what he meant, but said nothing.

Magdalene, by now, was wriggling in her armchair and rolling her eyes. She could contain herself no longer: “You are all so prudish!” Again, Rosie had a solution. She and her daughters had always managed to feed publicly by first turning their backs, then reappearing with a strategically placed veil of muslin.

We signed up for the course, several weeks ago, with some reservations about the NCT’s anti-interventionist “propaganda” (as it is characterised by hostile doctors). In fact, Rosie described fairly the pros and cons of caesarians, epidurals and other “unnatural” procedures. Only about breastfeeding was she unambiguously in favour. Like the World Health Organisation, she recommends that babies be fed exclusively on breast milk till the age of six months.

Which means hard work for women, and drives home the point that fathers of newborns can never be as important as mothers. Rosie asked: “Are the men feeling left out?” There was a brief silence, while we considered our real feelings. The only reply was this: “Yeah, we only get to change the nappies.”

Next, we watched a video showing – among other things – various positions in which to hold a baby. These included across the front, as shown in most portraits of the Madonna and Child; or under one arm, as if the newborn were a rugby ball or clutch bag. (The latter grip – I now know – is useful after a caesarian, when the former would be painful, and for mothers of twins hoping to satisfy both at once.)

To watch the video, Magdalene sat in the middle of the carpet, cross-legged at the front, with Jonas just behind her. Afterwards, she retreated to an easy chair while Rosie suggested we might practice the various positions ourselves. For me, this was a moment of some crisis: it was one thing to turn up at here alone, but to fake breastfeeding with a doll would feel impossibly foolish.

Mercifully, none of the other men took up a doll. But then, silently and apparently without anybody else noticing, Magdalene put down the one she was holding, reached for another, and passed it to her husband. The gesture was ambiguous: possibly officious but also conceivably a loving attempt to make Jonas feel included.

Either way, his response was dignified. Resisting the temptation to press the ersatz newborn to his breast, he laid it on the carpet before him and for several minutes – as Rosie continued to dish out her precious counsel – he supported its head in his palm, just an inch off the floor. In doing so, he exemplified the role of fathers-to-be no less amply than I did, sitting there with my notebook – at once well-meaning, ineffectual and not a little ridiculous.

Postscript: On 12 October 2003, my wife gave birth to our daughter, Nancy