From the very start, breast-feeding can seal the fate of couples who intend to be equal mates. As beneficial as it is for baby and mom, breast-feeding has serious consequences for shared parenting, which experts have yet to address.
To promote breast-feeding, doctors and lactation specialists discourage the use of bottles in the first month of a baby's life. Several pediatricians with whom I consulted said that in the course of their careers, they have never seen a case of "nipple confusion," in which a baby prefers sucking from a bottle rather than the breast. There are many reasons to hold off on supplemental bottles of formula, which babies sometimes prefer over breast milk. But taboos about dads offering bottles of mom's pumped and stored breast milk from an early point seem increasingly baseless.
Yet, feedings are not the only way to establish closeness. Babies do acclimate to dads, or to any caregiver who spends more time with them, scientists tell us. Too often, though, dads get discouraged at not having the magic touch and back off. For this reason, or because moms won't share, dads often get fewer of the exquisite perks babies and children bring: pudgy arms and legs that flail in recognition when you near the crib, the sweet-smelling head that nuzzles under your chin during story time, or the pictures colored at day care they're so excited to give to you.
When Dad withdraws from Baby, this devastating gulf translates to the marriage. Temperamental babies scare dads off even more, and cause a more severe decline in marital satisfaction than relatively contented babies. And while a mom who feels inept will often seek help or direction from others, a male will not, only furthering the family's estrangement.
Several mommy friends of mine reported their husbands were actually better at handling babies than they were. But a larger contingent reported men too impatient to learn baby care, or wired so tightly that they would overreact to spit-up on their shirts or three-year-olds not playing Chutes and Ladders by the rules. New dads everywhere seemed to get huffy about minor annoyances bubbles blown in milk or toppled Stride Rites spilling playground sand onto hardwood floors.
The arrangements couples made for nighttime feedings also proved prophetic. Some moms prefer to take over at night in order to hand off their screaming gremlins in the evening when dads return from work. But Cowan and Cowan learned that husbands who get up for night-time feedings, if only to change a diaper or bring Baby to Mom, send a critical message of "teamwork" that buffers the marriage against resentment.