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The Masculine Mystique

So we were hanging out with some new friends, young parents like ourselves, yammering about the joys and frustrations of mom-and-pop life, when the wife unbuttoned her shirt, scooped up a breast, and fed it into the maw of her hungry daughter. Nothing remarkable in that. Happens all the time. If my wife Lisa isn't nursing, one of her engorged gal-pals is. And yet, despite 11 months of experience with the mother's-milk thing, I did something incredibly rude; I gawked at our friend's flesh with the intensity of a 15-year-old, sex-obsessed virgin.

Call me a boorish jerk, but my gaze was fixed on that unsheathed mammary gland for one, two, perhaps three seconds too long. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice. In those three long seconds, however, I recognized, for the first time since being initiated into the culture of nursing, that my reaction to the nude female breast had become mild, even sort of neutral. Nowadays I see some mama con leche and think, "Ah, yes, the infant feeding stations. The family feedbags. Mother's little helpers. Bravo, biology!" And this, it now seemed to me, wasn't quite right.

Some background. When Lisa started nursing I felt slightly weird about her putting herself on display. Moreover, I felt weird about feeling weird, but I didn't want her to think I was some uptight 1950s guy, so I worked hard at giving the impression of being totally laid back about the whole shebang. I consciously de-sexualized the entire situation. "Remember, Ken," I told myself, "she's not flashing you; she's feeding the baby." Thus I overcame my normal biological response to the sight of Lisa's chest and allowed the concept of breastfeeding to become as sexy as the act of flossing one's teeth.

But after this recent mano-a-mammary incident, I began to think my whole approach was a huge mistake. I was being neutered! All of us dads were! In our effort to be sensitive husband-fathers we were giving up our masculine vitality, the uncensored use of our own eyes!

Which cast my mind back to a breastfeeding incident from my pre-Shoshi days. At a business conference a few years back, I was talking to a colleague, a nursing mother who brought her baby along for the trip. Without a word of preface, she yanked up her sweater and let the baby merge with her corporeal assets. The image of her unencumbered breast -- something I never, ever would have seen, or thought of, in any other context -- combined with her utter nonchalance almost knocked the wind out of me. I had to send a little memo to myself ("Ken: Do not pay attention to the surprising darkness of the nipple!") so I could pretend to listen to whatever she was saying.

The bottom line: Being a father is turning me into what Hans and Franz, Saturday Night Live's sweatsuit-clad avatars of masculine fitness, would've called "a girlie man." Of course, I wasn't some beer- and back-pounding jerk before becoming a dad, but since we brought the baby on board I've developed a rather extensive repertoire of nurturing skills. I can feed, bathe, change, and coo to the baby with a sort of maternal finesse, and I do so every single day. As a stay-at-home-dad, I've allowed myself to become one soft, sweet guy. In fact, I am a man who, when he ventures out into the world, lugs a big, pink Oilily diaper bag over his shoulder. What in the name of Dr. T. Berry Brazelton has happened to me?

There are these odd, awkward occasions when I feel like I'm a mommy with a five o'clock shadow. The image of myself pushing a stroller and singing little songs to my daughter makes me think of what men of my grandfather's generation, crusty old scotch-and-sirloin guys, would make of this. I'm sure they'd find it puzzling and unmanly. And in fact, part of me longs to sit on the back porch and talk sports and yell for the women to shut the kids up and bring us food. I do sometimes fear that if you stay home too long with a baby you become a stranger to the capital-G guy you used to be, the one who was a little rough around the edges.

But you know, when I really think about it, the rough stuff may be something you -- or at least I -- simply outgrow. I noticed the other day that I look at provocatively dressed young girls with virtually nothing but paternal concern. Tight hip-hugger jeans make me shake my head. A tank top with the bra strap flopping down makes me want to ground someone. At one time I might have seen these girls and thought, "Wow! They sure start young nowadays!" Nowadays I'm simply horrified at the notion of starting young.

I look at these girls and think, "Do you really want that kind of attention?" and "Don't you know what men are really like?" and "Didn't your father pay enough attention to you when you were little?" And it's this last question that slices right through me. I don't want Shoshi to turn into some walking advertisement for sex; I want her to be confident enough to forgo whatever sartorial nonsense her friends are up to. I don't know how I'll prevent her from becoming a Hot Teen Strumpet -- but I have a feeling that much of her later self will be formed by what I do now.

So after all this, here's the punchline: I'm gonna continue being the same devoted, sweet daddy I've become. But I must ditch the self-doubt. The next time I find myself feeling a little self-conscious about my softening as a father, I'm going to take it like a man.