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Breastfeeding Dad Barred From Leading La Leche League Groups: Is This Fair?

Dr. Jack Newman

You may have heard about Trevor MacDonald, the transgender dad behind the blog Milk Junkies, whose breastfeeding success story caught a ton of attention when it went live on The Huffington Post back in April. For those who missed it, here’s the short version: MacDonald was born a woman, transitioned to a male identity via hormones and “top” (chest) surgery, gave birth to his own son, attended La Leche League meetings while pregnant and ultimately—with the help of a supplementary nursing system (SNS) and some donated breast milk – nursed his baby through year one and beyond. MacDonald’s story is fascinating, no doubt; it certainly challenged many readers’ assumptions around gender, babies and breastfeeding. But, as much as the term ‘breastfeeding dad’ took the public by surprise, and as foreign as MacDonald’s individual circumstances may be to most readers, his story is also relatable, I think, for anyone who’s overcome breastfeeding challenges.

Many parents supplement with donated breast milk in the face of supply issues; I did. Many others use SNS systems to feed their babies either donated milk or formula at the breast (there are some pretty amazing adoptive parent stories to be found around this topic). And LOTS of moms have benefited from breastfeeding support, either in the form of individualized assistance from lactation consultants, or of group support systems like La Leche League membership and meetings; in fact, the AAP cites this kind of support as critical to breastfeeding success, especially in cases where moms face nursing challenges like supply issues. While it might be a major stretch for most women to imagine being a pregnant man, the breastfeeding side of this story remains totally within reach for lots of moms. Broadening perceptions around gender is important work, and I think it’s particularly interesting that MacDonald managed to do so while simultaneously bringing additional visibility to breastfeeding support resources and alternative breastfeeding options (also important, and timely). Kudos, dude!

There’s a new twist in this story, though; MacDonald recently inquired with La Leche League’s Canadian branch about becoming a group leader within the organization. The response he received from the org thanked him for the visibility and support he’s provided to the league, but informed MacDonald that he – as a (self-identified) man, and a father – is not eligible to act as a leader within the organization, which maintains a mission of providing mother-to-mother, breastfeeding support. As is stated in the league’s written policy,“Since an LLL Leader is a mother who has breastfed a baby, a man cannot become an LLL Leader.”. And the letter to MacDonald elaborates more specifically on the decision not to extend a leadership role to him, “You told me that you do not identify as a mother. You are your baby's father. According to LLL philosophy the roles of mothers and fathers are not interchangeable. I think that this would make it difficult for you to represent LLL philosophy. You acknowledge that some women may not be comfortable working with a male Leader. A Leader needs to be able to help all women interested in breastfeeding. Fathers are able to help in other ways, for example an informed LLL father who is supportive of LLL philosophy might present a fathers' meeting.” (The letter goes on to note that leaders may share information on donated breastmilk, but the topic may not be introduced by leaders, something MacDonald might not feel inclined toward, since he has shared so readily about his use of donated milk… You can read the letter, in full, here.)

MacDonald has said that LLL needs to update its policy to be more inclusive of transgender families. Fiona Audy, the league’s chair of the board of directors, said this is something the organization needs to discuss, but “It is not a discussion that would be a quick discussion….We wouldn’t want Trevor to be sitting around waiting for something that may or not change.” Meanwhile, MacDonald has started his own LGBT breastfeeding support group, and remains very pro-LLL on his blog. (Both parties have handled the issue thoughtfully and respectfully, which is refreshing .)

To be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on this one. Both sides seem equally compelling. On the one hand, I feel like MacDonald’s breastfeeding experience, and commitment to the practice, makes him a great resource for breastfeeding moms (and, ostensibly, other breastfeeding dads). He’s already made the benefits of breastfeeding support, and the options around breastfeeding backup, more visible in the public eye. But, on the other hand, that doesn’t necessarily make him an ideal La Leche League leader; the organization has specific objectives and guidelines that MacDonald’s identity as a man, and experience breastfeeding – as a man – might conflict with. Changing the policy to include men as leaders, and to broaden the definition of the word ‘mother’ (something MacDonald, who identifies as his child’s father, has suggested should happen), could compromise the organization’s ability to fulfill its objectives; I can see how this would take some lengthy discussion, on the part of LLL, to sort out.

It’s certainly not clear-cut, because, of course, in MacDonald’s case the organization provided mother-to-breastfeeding-father support. And it did so effectively. The organization's reach, in reality, is already more broad than its written objectives indicate, and perhaps this is the most convincing sign that its policy should be updated to account for the growing diversity that is to be found among breastfeeding families. I’m pretty sure (and I may be wrong—chime in, y’all) MacDonald is the first transgender, breastfeeding dad, but I doubt he’ll be the last. I guess the question boils down to whether La Leche League is the organization best suited to parents like him, or whether it wants to be; in MacDonald’s case it turned out to be a good match, but perhaps as MacDonald, and other trans parents, create groups more geared toward trans families, those families will choose to work with others who’ve dealt with situations and challenges specifically akin to their own. In that case, LLL could presumably maintain its mother-to-mother focus without leaving anyone stranded.

I’m still undecided on what the best answer is, but I do think the questions are helpful and useful, especially since they’re being posed, and addressed, respectfully on both sides. As MacDonald says, “Just having this conversation is making people more aware of transgendered families and how transgendered people live and raise their kids. And the discussion that needs to be taking place is taking place, and that’s really positive.” What do you think? Should La Leche League allow him to be a leader within the organization, and update their policy to include men and fathers in the same roles as women and mothers? Should clauses be added, accounting for transgendered people who are bearing children and breastfeeding? Would it detract from the league’s mission (to provide mother-to-mother support among women) to do so? Tell us your thoughts!