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It's Time to Include Trans Breastfeeding Parents

Photograph by Getty Images

The hardest part of my early motherhood was mastering breastfeeding. Not only did my nipples ache, crack and bleed, but I was constantly terrified that my baby wasn't getting enough milk. Those were some dark days.

As dark as they were, I was surrounded by helpful mom friends who cheered me on. When I was about to give up, I looked up a La Leche League International meeting and let a room full of strangers give me advice. Other than a few uncomfortable stares when I would nurse in public, I did not experience any hostility from the people around me. I felt that whole communities of nursing mothers were invested in my success.

But not all nursing parents can say that.

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First, not all nursing parents are mothers, a truth that cuts against the iconic image of a mother nursing her newborn baby. That picture is all over my OB's office, on the bus, on the books I bought before I gave birth and all over social media. Because I identify as a woman, I've never once questioned those images or the language surrounding breastfeeding as something exclusively done by mothers.

But the truth is that a growing number of transgender parents are nursing their children. For nursing parents who no longer identify as female, the images and ingrained language we use around nursing excludes them and their experience. For them, not only do they have to deal with the physical and emotional challenges of learning to breastfeed their babies, but they also operate as an invisible minority that does not always feel welcome in the same places that welcomed me and my baby with open arms.

It's worthwhile to strive for inclusion so that all nursing parents have access to the support that is so critical to a successful and nurturing breastfeeding experience.

The changes that have enlarged our understanding of gender beyond the traditional male-female binaries also require us to adapt our birthing communities to include the nursing parents who do not identify as a woman or a mother.

But there has been some resistance. For example, in August 2015, Women-Centered Midwifery issued an open letter to the Midwives Alliance of North America (MANA) expressing concern over MANA's use of gender-neutral language designed to include nursing parents who a transgender. The signatories to the open letter criticize MANA for erasing the word "woman" and replacing it with "pregnant individual" and "birthing parent." The heart of their argument hinges on their belief that "there are two distinct biological sexes, female and male, with each having particular primary and secondary sex characteristics that allow us to make a distinction between the two." And their concern is that "[f]emale liberation from patriarchal oppression, including brutal and demeaning birth practices, cannot be achieved if we are forbidden from mentioning female biology."

The challenge, then, is to find a way to enlarge the conversation to include the trans parent's experience, while also advancing female liberation from patriarchal oppression. And while this is a tall order, it's worthwhile to strive for inclusion so that all nursing parents have access to the support that is so critical to a successful and nurturing breastfeeding experience.

La Leche League International has taken steps to include trans parents, including issuing a press release noting that it has "refined its eligibility qualifications for its volunteer breastfeeding counselors to include men who otherwise meet the prerequisites for becoming a volunteer applicant." This is a good start.

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But more steps are needed to enlarge the circle of nursing support systems to include trans nursing parents. Inclusive language and materials are a critical beginning, as they signal to those who may not identify as mothers that they will be welcomed and supported. While the aim of freeing women from patriarchal oppression is important for us and our children, the success of that mission is undermined if we don't include the people who are nursing along side us.

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