Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Stop Peeing, Right Now

If you are a man and want me to see your penis as sexy and mysterious. That's what one of the commenters at Powerpop gave as a reversal for this story which argues that mothers shouldn't breastfeed too much, because it's bad for their sex lives and marriages:

Why nurturing a passionate marriage is more important than breast-feeding.
The science section of The New York Times recently featured a lengthy study on breast-feeding and its benefits. Breast-feeding, the study found, helps reduce the chances of infection, cold, diarrhea, illness, and even later childhood obesity. No one argues with any of these benefits, but what the report neglects to mention, and what I have personally witnessed when counseling couples, is how breast-feeding can come between a husband and wife.

One of the episodes of "Shalom in the Home" this season featured a young couple in Pennsylvania who were madly in love when they married, but had slowly drifted apart after the birth of two children. Indeed, a Harvard University study maintains that a couples' love life decreases by 74 percent in the first year after the birth of a child. Now, given that sex is nearly dead in the American bedroom anyway, with national sex rates in marriage figuring at about once a week, a three-quarters decrease means that sex takes place once every few months—sparse pickings indeed.

With this particular couple, the situation was even worse. Their sex life had died completely, and one of the main causes was the mother's obsession with breast-feeding well into the child's eleventh month. The baby was attached to his mother like a limb, and he even slept with her every night, consigning her husband to a different bedroom.

I told the mother that in being so devoted to her son, she had committed the cardinal sin of marriage, which is to put someone else before her spouse, even if that someone is your child. Furthermore, I said, her obsession had turned one of her most attractive body parts into a feeding station, an attractive cafeteria rather than a scintillating piece of flesh.


In the end, there are two effects of breast-feeding that we often refuse to acknowledge. One is the de-eroticization of a woman's body, as her husband witnesses one of the most attractive parts of her body serving a utilitarian rather than romantic purpose. This is not to say that breast-feeding isn't sexy. Indeed, 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. By all means, be there for the entire labor, as I have been for the births of each of my eight children. But I strongly agree with the advice of the ancient rabbis that husbands should not be staring at the actual delivery. 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.

The Powerpop blogger, currently breastfeeding, gives the proper emotional reaction to this advice by a Rabbi, and the comment I started with gives all of it a funny angle. Though naturally some people only pee in secret, and our good Rabbi seems to recommend secret breastfeeding, too.

Is there anything useful that I can say about this piece of advice intended for breastfeeding women? Other than that it assumes that the way the hypothetical father feels in the stories cannot be changed by his own self-analysis or discussions? Other than the assumption that it is his sexual needs and how they are satisfied that is the basis for a good marriage? All this is pretty obvious in the original sermon.

Yet the Rabbi almost has a point, almost, because he loses the point by focusing on his fobias about the female body doing its stuff. The point is that marriages are indeed easy to take for granted, and that this easiness is not something only women are guilty of. The difficulty is similar to the trouble I have in seeing changes in my own face in the mirror, because I see it all the time. A new photograph suddenly puts things into a different perspective, oddly enough. Something like that goes on in close relationships. It's as if we have an old snapshot of the relationship and we assume that it reflects the current situation, too.

Fixing the problem, if it exists, isn't very easy. I dislike the idea of "marriage work" because it sounds like a chore. Something is needed to keep things fresh and open, and the only thing I can think of that really works is respect. Not love, though love can be the most wonderful thing, but just old-fashioned respect towards the humanity of the other. That, combined with the understanding that there are times (such as the first year with a new baby) when a relationship isn't going to satisfy every single need of the partners; that might take us a fair way into something better.