Breast-feeding and “Matriphagy”

by Naomi Kanakia

“Matriphagy” [in our current issue, on sale now!] was inspired by a breast-feeding class my wife and I took during the last few months of her pregnancy. Personally, I am a breast-feeding skeptic. If you look deep into the data, you’ll find that the benefits aren’t necessarily there. Unfortunately it’s hard for me to argue these points, because my wife has an MD and a PhD and is a professor of immunology and infectious disease. Note, she hasn’t studied breast-feeding or anything—she has to google it the same as me—but she has a certain level of moral authority when it comes to scientific data.

I found the class incredibly annoying. Less a class about breast-feeding and more of a commercial for breast-feeding. And this was even more annoying because it was offered by the university system where my wife works and where we receive our medical care, so it carried the imprimatur of considerable medical authority. 

What surprised me about the class, however, was that so many of the men and women (six of the ten women were there with their partners, who were all men) were interested in breast-feeding because of the intangible benefits—the connection to the baby and the feeling that it was just more natural and was what you’re kind of supposed to do as a human being. Like, breast-feeding is a paleo diet but for babies (which is something I believe one of the people at the class actually said, which, now that I think about it, is both clever and annoying).

My main concern about breastfeeding was the time expenditure. It’s just a lot slower than bottle-feeding. My wife read some study that during the first year of her baby’s life, a woman will spend umpteen zillion hours breast-feeding (I forget the figure; you can see why I’m not good at arguing these points). My wife has a time-consuming job, and I felt like, well, why spend all this time doing this stuff if there’s no benefit.

Doctors don’t care about how rare something is in the general public; if they’re seeing it every day, then it’s gonna be on their minds.

But my wife is an immunologist, and she was all about the benefits to the immune system from the practice, etc, etc. Doctors are so weird about their own specialty. Like, we have a friend who’s a radiation oncologist who said she wasn’t gonna fly during her pregnancy because of radiation exposure from being high in the atmosphere or something. A rheumatologist is gonna worry about allergies, etc. They are all obsessed with controlling their environment, but particularly so when it comes to their own specialty, which, because they encounter so many people who have rare conditions tied to that specialty, is something they tend to think about a lot. Doctors don’t care about how rare something is in the general public; if they’re seeing it every day, then it’s gonna be on their minds.

The class was several hours long; we did gain some useful information about breastfeeding, but the smarmy tone bothered both my wife and me. However, we did argue as we left the class—she thought I hadn’t paid enough attention and that I’d been rude when they asked why I was interested in breast-feeding (I said that the benefits seemed a little exaggerated to me, but I was here to support my wife).

But as time passed, my wife and I’s opinions tended to converge, just like the couple’s in the story. We gave birth during the early days of COVID, and I was grateful for any immune system benefit to our baby. My wife found pumping to be tiresome, and was grateful to give it up at six months rather than continuing to a year as the class had insisted was necessary. We both ultimately were happy that the other person had injected some realism into our opinion.

But I think I wrote this story before all that happened! I believe the very next day after this class, or at most no more than a week or two later, I said something like, “What is the dumbest birthing practice that people would continue to do just because it’s ‘natural.’” I’d previously written a story called “Sexual Cannibalism” about praying mantises and their seemingly self-defeating mating practices, and somehow the word “Matriphagy” floated up to my mind. From there the rest of the story wrote itself in about ninety minutes, and that was it!

Incidentally, my wife read the story and was very tickled. My only regret about it is that the story implies that matriphagy does have some benefits to the spiderlings, but honestly it makes for a better story that way, and even if breast-feeding doesn’t in truth make much of a long-term difference in outcomes, you always—when it comes to children—feel like there’s something more you could’ve done to set them up better in life.

Naomi Kanakia is the author of two contemporary young adult novels, Enter Title Here (Disney, 2016) and We Are Totally Normal (HarperTeen, 2020). Additionally, her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Gulf Coast, The Indiana Review, and West Branch, and her poetry has appeared in Soundings East, The American Journal of Poetry, and Vallum. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and daughter.

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