I recently came across this article on BeliefNet in which Rabbi Boteach makes the argument that breastfeeding can hurt marriages. He gives as evidence one couple whose romance had faded following the birth of their two children. He writes:
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.
He goes on to advise dads to be supportive to his wife but to not watch the birth, because "That is just too erotic a part of a wife's anatomy for it to become a mere birth canal."
Perhaps the major complaint that I have with Rabbi Boteach's views is that he seems to confuse cultural bias with the voice of God. I might give this view more credence if breastfeeding were something women took it upon ourselves to do--to somehow make our breasts capable of feeding infants perhaps by the use of taking some magic pill or shot, or by the insertion of some kind of implant. But this capability is not woman's doing. Rather, this is how God has created woman--a crucial point that Rabbi Boteach ignores. Although it is cultural for men to view breasts as sexually provocative (for not all cultures view breasts in this way and in fact some view our obsession with breasts as odd and unnatural), it is not a result of cultural conditioning that breasts produce infant nourishment after childbirth, and also that infants need this nourishment for at least a full year (though WHO recommends a full two years).
To fully address the topic of marriage and breastfeeding, however, I must start at the beginning, the very beginning, in fact. Thus I will start with the book of Genesis, the first book of our shared testament. In the second creation story it is written that the man and the woman were naked yet they felt no shame. In their state of innocence and closeness to God they felt no shame because they celebrated and were awed at the other's goodness, as we see when Adam cries out in joy, "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called 'woman' for out of 'her man' this one has been taken." (Gen 2:23) After they sin they hide their nakedness. Some theologians have suggested that they must protect their dignity because they can no longer be confident in the purity and integrity of each other's gaze. Their relationship to God is now disordered, and thus, their relationships to each other and to creation are disordered as well.
Throughout history, one of man's primary temptations has been to limit God--to compartmentalize God, to think of God as someone or something that can be easily understood, and to be able to say with certainty that we know what God would or would not do, who He will or will not save, and to know precisely what God thinks in any given situation. As our relationship with and our ideas about God necessarily influence how we interact with and view one another, it seems this has been the primary temptation of men in regards to women as well--to limit us, to fit us into something that is understandable and definable. All too often, it seems that definition goes something like this: Woman: useful object for enhancing male sexual pleasure. If possessed exclusively, also useful for preparing one's meals and keeping one's abode tidy.
I feel this compartmentalization of female sexuality is dangerous. As blogger C.L. Dyck points out:
Women’s sexuality is an incomplete study without considering pregnancy and birth. The deliberate negation of the unique child-bearing and birthing capacity — something very different than involuntary infertility — reduces a woman’s sexuality to a function that’s ideologically servile to male sexual mythology.I feel striving toward a more comprehensive view of female sexuality and the female person would be the healthier attitude.
When it comes to childbirth and breastfeeding, many women, including myself, have found these experiences extremely profound and powerful. In fact, the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people of North America had their young men on the cusp of adulthood experience a vision quest, but did not require women to undergo this journey as they felt the normal events of a female's life, such as childbirth, were profound enough to render a vision quest unnecessary in most circumstances for females. For myself, growing up in this American culture in which young girls are increasingly sexualized at ever younger ages, and in which the advertising and entertainment industries often portray objectified, sexualized images of women, it was very difficult to come to adulthood with a healthy respect and knowledge of myself as a person.
In this society, and in many societies, often times a woman's worth is measured by her attractiveness to males, rather than the quality of her character. All too often, her very personhood is overlooked and she becomes "a scintilating piece of flesh." The experiences of childbirth and breastfeeding changed all that for me. In these experiences it seemed God was saying to me, "This society may treat you as though you are an object for sexual pleasure; they may act like you have no value apart from this, but this is not how I see you. This is not how I created you. Look at what you are capable of doing! You are capable of performing miracles!" Childbirth and breastfeeding touched me very deeply, and I began to value myself as a person, just because I am, and I began to become more immune to all of society's messages about what I must do and what I must look like in order to have value. If women "insist on clinging to breastfeeding" it may be because others, like myself, have found the experience so liberating.
It has often seemed to me, in fact, that so many of the processes that females go through, such as menstruation, childbirth, and breastfeeding, were designed expressly for teaching this lesson: there is more to woman than one can understand. She is miraculous and deserves respect and reverence. Of course all people--male and female--deserve this awe and respect, but it has primarily been women who have suffered from its lack. As Genesis describes, once sin has entered the picture, one of its consequences is the subjugation of women. To Eve, God says, "Yet your urge shall be for your husband and he shall be your master" (Gen 3:16). I feel it is important to note that this is presented as a result of sin and of man's now disordered desires, and not as part of God's original plan and design for the sexes.
I have often felt that the husbands who were most tempted to objectify their wives were the ones in most need of seeing her breastfeed and give birth. And for the woman who suffers from the indignity of having the person who has pledged to honor, love, and respect her, to instead lust after her and be blind to the immensity of her personhood, is the woman most in need of this lesson that her body, as God has designed it, can teach.
In saying this, it does not mean that a husband can not find his wife sexy, or that their love can not be erotic. It means, that it can't solely be erotic, to the exclusion of all else. Married couples must challenge themselves to make their love complete. It must be erotic, but also filial (the love between friends), affectionate (the love of family), and also agape (the love that would sacrifice one's self for the sake of the beloved). As a woman, if I felt that my husband's love for me was not complete, or at least if he was not striving for this completeness, if he was focused on my sexiness apart from the complete person I am--in other words, if he lusted after me--then I can be very confident that I would not be too enthusiastic about having sex with him, and I would likely be very tempted to feign headache, rather than experience the indignity of being used.
Rabbi Boteach suggests that the lack of sex in marriages is a result of men being unable to find their wives erotic. In this age in which advertising often displays soft-porn to sell their products, and in which the pornography industry is a multi-billion dollar business, I would argue that I do not think the problems with marriage are the cause of men being unable to see their wives as good for having sexual pleasure. I think the problem lies in men realizing that women are good for anything else, or in the fact that she is someONE more than merely a sex toy.
I would further contend that the marital success of couples who practice Natural Family Planning discount Rabbi Boteach's solutions. Although many people of varying beliefs are beginning to practice NFP, it is likely that the majority of its adherents still do so for religious reasons--because they are Catholics who want to stay obedient to the Church's teaching on contraception. One Catholic organization that has been very successful in teaching many couples (primarily in the US) the practice of NFP is the Couple to Couple League. CCL encourages extended ecological breastfeeding and cosleeping, and yet couples who practice NFP have approximately a 1% divorce rate compared to about the 50% divorce rate for the rest of our culture. In The Art of Natural Family Planning, by John Kipply and Sheila Kipply, it states,
One informal survey showed a divorce rate of less than 1% among couples practicing NFP. CCL Central has tracked one small group and found a divorce rate of 1.3%. Since this was a special, dedicated group, we estimate that the rate for the general population of NFP users might be higher, perhaps even two or three times that rate. If so, the rate would still be under 4%. On the basis of the imformation we have, we think a 5% divorce rate among couples practicing NFP is really the outside maximum limit." (245)
When sex isn't on-demand, it has the tendency to become more exciting. NFPers approaching the "green light" stage enjoy the anticipation that some couples seem to lose as soon as "I do" leaves their lips. Sexual tension is lousy, but releasing it can be a lot of fun. Husbands may be surprised to discover that abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. Women appreciate their spouse's chivalry, his self-donation, and sacrifice on the part of their marriage, so when they can be "on," they're really on. What NFP couples may lack in quantity (although polls indicate NFP couples actually have more sex on average than contracepting couples), they make up for in quality.
Rabbi Boteach, on the other hand, writes, "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." Now, I am not aware of any in-depth studies as to why NFP couples are more satisfied with sex than other couples, but as one who practices NFP I can say that I suspect its success lies primarily in the fact that NFP encourages men and women to develop whole views of each other. It does not take a view of woman's sexuality and disjoint it from her ability to conceive. NFP also does not advocate that men view their wives as beautiful and arousing to the exclusion of her motherliness or any other thing about her person. It doesn't ask women to change any part of our natural functioning, or ask men to ignore or look the other way when we breastfeed or give birth, but rather, it encourages women to honor ourselves as we are, and it invites men to accept and honor women for the complete persons we are as well: Wife. Mother. Friend. Person. And I must say, when I feel so completely and unreservedly loved and accepted by my husband, sex is great.
When it comes to the profound experiences that I have been privileged to have as a woman, and their relation to my marriage, I have found that my husband's attitude has made all the difference. Of course, I loved my husband the day we married, but I know that in many ways my love was immature, as was his love for me. I can honestly say that I love my husband more today than the day I married him, and he confesses the same (and more than that, his behavior convinces me this is true). I feel a big part of this is our commitment to see and love the whole person that each is. I know that my husband's love and acceptance of me--ALL of me, evidenced in part through his support through the birth of our children and my breastfeeding, and our use of NFP, makes me feel extremely loved and cherished, and it has convinced me that I have found the best man on earth.
When it comes to the prevalent views of women in many cultures, and the lessons that the Creator has placed into our bodies, I would invite Rabbi Boteach to heed our Creator's invitation anew, to look again, and seek to understand the full dignity and complexity of women, and to encourage those in his flock to do the same. I'm sure their marriages would benefit.
Added January 12, 2011: Some time ago I came across this page (and I'm finally updating this post to include it!) It seems Rabbi Boteach's article was written several years ago. In the link is his sort-of apology and clarification and one blogger's reaction. http://www.breastfeedingmomsunite.com/2010/06/update-rabbi-shmuleys-retraction-and-my-reaction/