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Male Midwifery Student Barred From Breastfeeding Class: Is This Fair?

Alexandra Grablewski

A 30-year-old midwifery student from the UK’s Bournemouth University, Chris Butt, was recently told he could not attend a women-only breastfeeding class run by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT). The NCT has invited him to attend more open breastfeeding classes where male partners are also present, but has said that some women in the women's only classes are "sensitive" to a male presence. Thus, Butt's being there -- whether educationally beneficial to him or not -- would be inappropriate.

Butt has criticized the decision. Soon to join the ranks of only 132 male midwives in a nation 20,000 midwives strong, breastfeeding education will be one of his most important roles. Britain has one of the world's lowest breastfeeding rates, and, as in the United States, the health department there is making efforts to boost England's nursing mom count. Midwives are frequently the people who help new mothers first begin breastfeeding, and getting that solid start on nursing can make a big difference in whether a mom will continue to nurse. For new moms and midwives, breasts are a part of the new baby deal, and not the hyper-sexualized sell-anything objects normally aimed at the public male gaze. Because he's a midwife (or soon will be, anyway), Butt said, in a Royal College of Midwives article, “I didn’t believe for one minute that I would be turned away from breastfeeding groups. Do the facilitators of such clinics think I practice midwifery in some magical way where I don’t see intimate parts of women’s bodies? Do they think I stand behind a screen as a baby’s head is crowning, shouting out advice on when to breathe?”

I think his point is well made. And Butt is not alone in meeting with some resistance in his chosen profession. I recently wrote about 25-year-old Otis Kryzanauskas, a midwife in Canada, who was also came up against criticism and skepticism during his training. My feeling was then, and is now, that I'd have no problem with a male midwife, personally. I had a male obstetrician, after all. He was, in fact, the first person to help me get my own baby on my boob, and everyone in the room -- my husband, my OB, my nurse -- shared in that wonderful moment in which Kaspar latched on, I nursed him for the first time, and the world seemed to go quiet and stop turning for a moment, after all the noise and activity of Kaspar's birth. I was barely covered at the time -- I'd wanted skin-to-skin contact with my baby -- and everyone there had also just seen a baby come out of my vagina (yep, childbirth y'all); so frankly, by that point, my breasts were just no biggie. I was far too tired, and ecstatic, to feel self-conscious, and I felt quite connected to the people who helped bring my baby into the world. A male midwife, I'm sure, easily forms this same type of relationship with the families he serves, and perhaps even more so, since midwives work so closely -- and address pregnancy-related topics beyond the scope of standard medical practictioners -- with their patients. At thirty years old and in the business he's in, I've no doubt Butt would have presented himself as at once warm and professional at the breastfeeding class he was turned away from.

That said, the women in the class chose to attend the all-female, rather than partners-included, class for their own reasons. And those seem to me like decisions worth respecting. As much as breasts are no big deal in the context of an event like childbirth, the women in that class did not choose for Butt to oversee their births, had not formed that relationship with him, and all -- whatever their individual relationships with men -- live in a culture that does, as mentioned, treat breasts almost exclusively as male playthings and points-of-sale. Many men are outright (and aggressively) offended when breasts are presented -- even by the women whose bodies they belong to -- as anything other than entertainment for men. (Even some dads can't deal with it!) And many women have had difficult personal experiences with men, including sexual violence and variations on its theme. There are all kinds of reasons why a woman might not want a man in that class, and I think Butt needs to account for that. (There will be women who don't want him to be their midwife because he's a man. That's okay.)

If his top priority is these new moms' best interest and breastfeeding success, he should want for them to be able to relax sufficiently to get the hang of nursing, which is of course what they signed up for in the first place. If that means he needs to attend the open breastfeeding class, where dads will also be in attendance (which frankly strikes me as an even better learning opportunity), what's the problem? He's not missing out on gaining the knowledge and experience he needs, and the women who prefer not to have a guy around as they get through the first awkward phases of nursing can do so. I do think breastfeeding moms -- who vary dramatically in terms of public exposure comfort levels -- can all benefit from a little bit of an "I don't care what you think" attitude boost, a la Pink; it's a judgey world out there, and you'll have so much more freedom if you can don a thick skin, a sense of humor, and maybe a cover -- if that makes you more comfortable -- and do your breastfeeding thing. (Please moms, don't sequester yourselves at home for the duration of your nursing experiences!) But breastfeeding classes take place at the very beginning, when moms are sore, sleep-deprived and vulnerable; toughening up doesn't need to be one of the lessons they leave with. It's important that Butt, and other male childbirth professionals, continue to break down gender barriers and make midwifery (as a profession, and a service) available to all, but they must also cultivate a nuanced sensitivity to new moms' desires, experiences and needs.

Do you think Butt should have been allowed to attend the women-only breastfeeding class?