Up until last week the great breastfeeding debate was centered on where to do it and for how long. But Trevor MacDonald, a 27-year-old transgender parent, has raised an ever bigger question: who gets to do it?
The Winnipeg-based MacDonald has been chronicling his unique breastfeeding experience in photos and anecdotes on his blog for almost a year. But he gained national exposure this month, after a disagreement with La Leche League, an international breastfeeding support organization, over their definition on motherhood.
PHOTOS: Celebrity moms who breastfeed
After nursing his now 16-month-old son, Jacob, he hoped to become a coach for one of the club's local support groups, but was informed only women could serve as group leaders.
MacDonald was born a female but transitioned to a male at age 23 through a course of hormone treatments and chest contouring surgery. "I retained my female reproductive organs, but I felt (and still feel) fully male, and anybody seeing me on the street would never guess that I'm anything but a regular dude," he writes in an Out Magazine article published in April. He also firmly identifies himself as a father, rather than a mother.
STORY: Mom sues over breastfeeding video
He also identifies himself as homosexual ("yes, I'm that complicated," he quips) and wed his husband before becoming pregnant with their child. Before giving birth naturally he found about a breastfeeding method for women who've had mastectomies.
His main goal was providing his newborn with the kind of nutrients only breast milk can provide. (The World Health Organization recommends breast milk for at least the first six months of a child's life.) Through SNS, a tubular device that connects a bottle to the nipple area so the child can simulate the experience of nursing, MacDonald began feeding his son, supplementing his own minimal production with lactation donations.
At first, he found it "physically very challenging to latch a baby on when you have next to zero protruding breast tissue," but with the help of LLL's services Jacob's nursing improved.
STORY: Debate over public breastfeeding flares up
In a letter to LLL contesting their women-only policy MacDonald praises the institution, recognizing that a breastfeeding dad is "entirely new territory."
"Without the support and information provided to me by LLL, I doubt that I would be breastfeeding today," he writes in the letter republished on his blog MilkJunkies. "It is my hope that I could some day reciprocate the compassion, encouragement, and expertise that made such a difference to my personal breastfeeding experience."
But LLL maintained their policy that leaders of groups must be female. In fairness, LLL's response to MacDonald, republished on his blog, emphasizes it's mission to "help all mothers…irrespective of their background." Even MacDonald, who identifies as a father, was supported by the LLL. But their leadership policies are staunchly in place. "I think there may be confusion between whom we support and who can be a Leader…in this case it is the experience of mothering through breastfeeding which qualifies a Leader to help others."
MacDonald's story was widely covered in Canadian press this week, raising new questions particularly among women.
“La Leche League Canada’s decision is discriminatory,” PhD in Parenting blogger Annie Urban, told the Toronto Star. “It is time for La Leche League to update its guidelines and recognize that breastfeeding is not exclusively a mother’s domain.”
A Montreal-based woman named Jill disagrees. In a letter to the Montreal Gazette, one of the outlets covering the story, she defended the LLL's decision, believing they were protecting mothers who might be self-conscious opening the intimacies of breastfeeding to male participants. "I believe they came to the decision that the best thing for the people they’re mandated to help would be to have a woman leading the support groups," she wrote.
But this particular breastfeeding debate isn't about taking sides, it's about the evolution of the way we define motherhood, fatherhood and everything in between. California's recent bill to allow multiple legal parents of kids is another example of how family structures are evolving due not only to widening acceptance of sexual and gender orientation, but also of, divorce and single parenthood.
Within the growing transgender community, an estimated 38 percent are parents, according to the Williams Institute. Those numbers will continue to rise with scientific and educational progress. Does that mean one institution should change its policies? Not necessarily, though interest in MacDonald's case may breed more support groups for all types of fathers looking to breastfeed.
The biggest lesson learned from MacDonald's interaction with the LLL, however, may be civility. Unlike other breastfeeding controversies, this particular exchange has been handled sensitively, with both MacDonald and the LLC trading compliments despite their disagreement.
At the end of the LLL's explanation for barring MacDonald from leadership, he's thanked for his interest "in helping others." MacDonald, meanwhile, is urging readers of his blog to voice their opinion, but to continue to support the LLL organization. "Don't simply withdraw your support from the organization – there are TONS of amazing, forward-thinking Leaders," he writes. "Let's not forget about them and the great work they do!"