Breast-feeding: Bad for marriages?

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says certain unsexy aspects of motherhood should be hidden from husbands.

Published August 14, 2006 3:00PM (EDT)

When the New York Times ran that infamous "Breast-Feed or Else" piece back in June, we found plenty we disagreed with. Couldn't the Times have confirmed that breast milk is the healthiest food for babies without slanting the science and presenting formula feeding as dangerous? Especially since public scaremongering won't do as much to encourage breast-feeding as actual support for the needs of nursing mothers? But we have to admit, we didn't think of this breast-feeding counterargument, presented by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in Beliefnet this week: Breast-feeding is unsexy, and as such, it is bad for marriages.

In response to the Times piece, Boteach writes, "No one argues with any of these benefits." But extolling the benefits of breast milk overlooks the fact that "breast-feeding can come between a husband and wife."

How's that? Well, the physical and time-related demands of breast-feeding can cause nursing mothers to commit "the cardinal sin of marriage, which is to put someone else before her spouse." Plus, breast-feeding can turn "one of [a woman's] most attractive body parts into a feeding station, an attractive cafeteria rather than a scintillating piece of flesh."

Boteach later compares breast-feeding to adultery ("when a mother gives her breasts to her son and takes them away from her husband, the effect on the marriage can feel the same") and suggests that breast-feeding ends marriages ("The crisis we have in America is not undernourished children, it is undernourished marriages ... I would take the diarrhea and cough any day over the permanent sense of brokenness that affects children of divorce"). Women shouldn't let their spouses get too close to the unattractive aspects of their biology, he contends, because men won't find their wives attractive anymore:

"The maternal dimension is a central part of womanliness. But public breast-feeding is profoundly de-eroticizing, and I believe that wives should cover up, even when they nurse their babies in their husband's presence.

"I believe this same problem comes up when men witness childbirth up close. There are certain poses in which a husband should not see his wife ... That is just too erotic a part of a wife's anatomy for it to become a mere birth canal.

"The erotic nature of a wife's body is one of the principal elements of attraction in marriage. When a husband ceases to see his wife as a woman, and begins to see her as 'the mother of his children,' a negative trend has begun in his mind that can only subvert his erotic interest."

I'm all for hot monogamy, I really am. Bring on the date nights and the lingerie. But even if you get past the retrograde sexism of this argument (no tips for husbands seeking to preserve the erotic nature of their own bodies, Rabbi?), it's impractical. Unless you're keeping separate bedrooms, marriage means seeing your spouse's body in mundane and unusual situations, many of which aren't very sexy. If your wife gets a stomach bug and is vomiting, does that mean you'll never want to kiss her again? And even if a woman is able to preserve the veil between her unattractive bodily functions and her husband's tender eyes, she will, if she's lucky, eventually grow old and saggy and gray. As will her husband! And being able to weather such physical embarrassments together strikes me as one of marriage's most romantic aspects. Yes, it's important to remain attractive for your spouse, but not at the expense of reality.

And of course, I can't really get past the retrograde sexism of this argument, which seems to suggest that women shoulder all the yucky burdens of reproduction without letting their partners know of their yuckiness. Who are these imaginary spouses saying "Yes, let's have kids -- call me when they're done!" Or, "sure, it's great if the children get optimum nutrition, but don't make me watch the feeding!" Grow up! Maybe Beliefnet can dig up a devil's advocate to address Boteach's arguments, with some sweet column on how compassion is the sexiest spousal virtue.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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