Project inspires dads of breastfed babies to bare hearts
The photo shows a bearded man. His tattoo-etched chest is bare. His arms are posed in embrace.
At his breast he holds a baby — his baby — in the same way a nursing mother might.
The message he sends is this: "If I could, I would."
Hector Cruz wanted nothing more.
As his wife lay shaking in bed, her nipples cracked and bleeding from nursing their newborn, Cruz wanted to help. The sleepless hours facilitated her stress, and she feared the pain from breastfeeding her baby.
With tears slipping across her cheeks, Cruz asked himself, "Would I step in to fill that nutritional role? Would I go that far?"
The question echoed.
And so began the Clarksville, Tenn., dad's creative — and controversial — photo campaign, "Project: Breastfeeding."
The images Cruz has taken often startle viewers.
Photos of men — dads from Nashville and Ft. Campbell military base — entwined with their children in a way usually reserved for mothers.
But the intentions resonate.
"If you ask any guy, 'Hey, if you could breastfeed, would you?' They would say no," Cruz said. "But if you rephrase that question, 'Would you do absolutely anything for your child and for your wife?' That starts to challenge us.
"We are ingrained to be protectors. That's part of our DNA."
That's the movement Cruz works to be a part of. A professional-drummer-turned-commercial-photographer, his photos have been featured on "Today," Time.com, Fox News and the Huffington Post. He has been interviewed by Telemundo and news outlets in England and Australia.
Now, he is working to create billboards of his images to educate men across the country on how they can serve as support for breastfeeding moms, to resolve the stigma associated with breastfeeding in public and to empower women to feel comfortable with feeding their baby.
"This is not a Clarksville issue," Cruz said. "This is not a Tennessee issue. This is a global issue."
Barriers to helping
Cruz and his wife, Nicole, tried for more than 10 years to have a baby. When the couple finally conceived, Cruz didn't want to miss a single moment.
He went to every prenatal appointment. Every childbirth class. Except one.
Their birthing hospital didn't allow men in the class, he said.
It was, for Cruz, the first in a series of experiences that exemplified the barriers men face in supporting a nursing mother.
"Fathers have been kind of relegated to sit in the corner of the doctor's office," said the 33-year-old Cruz. "We are not part of the equation. We help make the babies, but after that we are not a part of the experience. You kind of feel like the chauffeur."
The reason many men opt out of the prenatal and newborn parental decisions, Cruz continued, is because they don't feel their opinions are taken into consideration — particularly in breastfeeding.
"And that creates a harsh, unsupported environment," he said.
"The No. 1 job men have when it comes to breastfeeding is to create a very supportive, nurturing, healthy environment for mom and baby, and the second is learning about how you can help."
'No resources for guys'
Without that knowledge, Cruz struggled.
His daughter, Sophia, was born at 38 weeks by emergency C-section. She had jaundice and was losing a lot of weight. The doctor advised supplementing her diet with formula — something the Cruzes didn't want to do.
That afternoon, Nicole Cruz cried herself to sleep.
"I didn't know what to do," Hector Cruz said.
But he knew who would. He got on Facebook and posted a message to a local moms group that his wife had joined. "I need help," he said. Within 10 minutes, 50 women responded with support and suggestions, including hiring a lactation consultant, which he did.
When the lactation consultant arrived Cruz had two words: "Teach me."
He knew he would be up at 5 a.m. helping his wife through any breastfeeding challenges she may face, so he learned about proper latch, tongue ties, mastitis and galactagogues.
"I started realizing there is no resources for guys, there's none," Cruz said. "Everything you see is written by women for women. A lot of men feel this is not part of our role. We miss that bond. But we can still bond that way, just a little different.
"For me, I started realizing, 'Whoa, this is a team effort.' Just because I don't breastfeed doesn't mean I am not a part of this."
Father's support matters
Adam West never envisioned that bond would begin with his stripping off his shirt for a photo shoot.
"I am not totally shy, but that was a little bit of a surprise," he said with a laugh.
Still, when the 30-year-old Nashville father of three arrived at The Nesting Place in Berry Hill for one of Cruz's photo shoots, he didn't hesitate to pose with his now 10-month-old daughter, Althea.
One photo shows Althea's hand resting gently on her father's bare chest as he smiles at the camera. It is an intimate moment of support that he describes as "cool."
"And to see there are other dads in these photos who are compassionate and trusting and family men is pretty cool, too," he said.
Research into the father's role in the breastfeeding family is relatively new, but there is evidence that fathers are "incredibly important" in the decision to breastfeed and how long the family continues to breastfeed, said Dr. Anna Morad, director of the newborn nursery at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.
Mothers are more likely to engage when they believe their partners have positive attitudes toward breastfeeding, and there is some evidence that indicates the father's knowledge of benefits of breastfeeding and how to manage it also can affect how long a woman tries to breastfeed.
"Unfortunately, traditionally we haven't done a great job of making sure fathers felt they were important in that role," Morad said.