FFF Friday: “I don’t know how to feel.”

Welcome to Fearless Formula Feeder Fridays, a weekly guest post feature that strives to build a supportive community of parents united through our common experiences, open minds, and frustration with the breast-vs-bottle bullying and bullcrap.

Please note, these stories are for the most part unedited, and do not necessarily represent the FFF’s opinions. They also are not political statements – this is an arena for people to share their thoughts, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.

There’s been some anger floating around the Facebook page lately, and my impulse is to urge people to simmer down and not let themselves be baited. And then, I get stories like Mandi’s in my inbox, which make me wonder if anger might be an appropriate emotion to embrace. I think we should feel angry that women like Mandi have to keep questioning themselves, because imagine how much women could accomplish if this kind of intelligence, spirit, and insight didn’t have to be muted – even momentarily – by self-doubt. Anger can be a useful emotion; at least more useful than guilt or fear. What matters is where you direct that anger. It’s pointless to waste it on extremists, or random haters on the internet who get their jollies from seeing their hateful thoughts typed out on a Facebook thread. It’s more healthy, and productive, to direct quiet, controlled anger towards those who can truly create change, and influence them by rising above the sloppy rage so prevalent in this debate.

The anger expressed in the post below is the kind I’m talking about – it hits you in the gut; fills you with drive rather than rendering you impotent. It’s the kind of anger which will provoke us to fight for better rights for ALL parents,  formula feeding, combo feeding, and breastfeeding. We need to make it clear to the powers that be that we are not fighting a petty mommy war – we are standing up for every parent’s right to feed their baby in the safest and healthiest way possible, whatever that ends up being.

(Oh – and just one caveat: this story does touch upon politics, and I know we are a very diverse group here – so I hope we can give the same respect to differences in opinion on political matters as we give to differences in opinion on parenting styles.) 

Happy Friday, fearless ones…

Mandi’s Story
When I was 16 years old, I wore a size 10 pants.  I also wore a size 2x top because I wore a size 42 G bra.  I was ludicrously disproportionate.  So when I had the opportunity to have a breast reduction, I jumped on it, not even caring what the repercussions might be down the road because I was 17 and 17 year olds just don’t think like that.  I vaguely remember the surgeon mentioning that I might or might not be able to nurse my kids later on, but that it would be a “wait and see” situation.
Fast forward 15 or so years, and my husband and I are trying to start a family.  I’d been diagnosed with PCOS (though in hindsight I disagree with the diagnosis and think it’s based on my weight, not on the actual diagnostic criteria).  We defied the statistics.  I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant without clomid, progesterone, IVF, some sort of fertility aid, etc…. but I became pregnant within the first 2 months we were trying.  I continued to defy statistics…. I was supposed to have gestational diabetes because I supposedly had PCOS, so it was treated like a foregone conclusion… no diabetes. As far as nursing was concerned, I approached it with the same attitude: the doctors say I won’t be able to, so I’m going to prepare everything to be able to anyway because if things keep going like they are, it shouldn’t be an issue. I researched nursing bras for larger mamas, got myself set up with a medical-grade double electric pump, and had daydreams about rocking my baby while we peacefully nursed and bonded.
I was wrong. You hear about inadequate supply all the time and the more vigilant lactivists will insist that there’s no such thing and that the mother just isn’t committed enough or doing the right things to boost her supply.  I made next to nothing.  I tried latching my newborn daughter in the hospital to no avail.  I used a hospital pump and got nothing.  And when I say nothing, I don’t mean a little colostrum like one would expect while waiting for the milk to come in.  I mean that after 40 minutes of pumping I would have 2-3 drops of breastmilk in the bottles.   Still, I thought that maybe once I got home my milk would come in and we could still nurse.  Nope, nothing.  I tried herbs. I tried tea.  I tried warm compresses, drinking a ton of water, pumping regularly, etc…. but never produced more than an ounce of milk in an entire day.  We bottle fed that to my daughter, got a can of formula and moved on with life.  It was only then that I started feeling the “sting” of being a bad mother, having not tried hard enough to nurse, etc…. I have several “crunchy” mom friends and while their attitudes weren’t so Judgy McJudgerson, they frequently posted articles to FB and such that demonize formula as chemical poison and insisted that all women could nurse, allowing reprieve only to those who didn’t have breasts due to mastectomy or some such thing.  I began to wonder if these people truly believed it would have been “healthier” for me to starve my daughter by insisting that breastfeeding WOULD work if I tried hard enough, despite empirical evidence that I didn’t just have a low supply, I had a no supply.
 Then about 18 months later I went off birth control again because we were thinking we’d like to conceive a second child in the next 6 months or so.  As Yoda would say, “There is no try, there is only do,” and I was knocked up again the very first time we tried- literally within days of having my IUD removed. Infertility and I were not acquainted.  This time around I changed the focus of my research, typing searches into Google such as “Chances of lactating with second child if unable to nurse first,” and began to believe that I was the only person in my situation who either really couldn’t breastfeed or didn’t just say I don’t care, formula feed and avoid the internet.
Still when it became time for my younger daughter to be born, I was hopeful that maybe this time something would change.  As soon as she was born I asked for a pump to be brought to my room.  I didn’t have very much faith in my boobs, so to be honest I didn’t even try to latch my new baby.  I tried pumping, every hour, for the time we were in the hospital.  Again, nothing. Same story at home, different characters.  I admit it, I gave up. I didn’t want to be a slave to the pump for 1oz of breastmilk a day.  With such a tiny amount, my daughter needed her Mama much more than she needed my breastmilk. 
Still, despite all the logical conclusions on Earth, a part of me still has guilt.  My tendency towards overeducated and passionate friends means that I have read countless horror story articles, articles denouncing me as less than a mother.  When our daughter had colic, I wondered if it would have been different if I could have nursed her. When she was diagnosed with a sacral dimple and possible occult spina bifida, I wondered if whatever was “wrong” with me that caused me not to lactate had made my poor baby imperfect.  And I can’t shake those feelings of guilt, not yet.  If I had it to do over, would I still have had the reduction surgery?  Yes. So I don’t know how to feel.  I have received the message loud and clear that I failed.  No matter how many times the judgment is followed up by “but you have to do what works for you,” etc…. it doesn’t change the underlying message of “what works for you is WRONG.”    And for what it’s worth, that message has never come from a man, a Republican or a Tea Partier; those people who are waging the legislative battle against women’s reproductive rights.  It has come pretty exclusively from the community of educated, prosperous women for whom childrearing has become a competitive sport.  The world where Apgar scores are mentioned in conversation as a way to compare how good you were at being pregnant, where women who take advantage of the advances of medical science that allow the vast majority of pregnant women not to die in childbirth the way we have for millennia are viewed as irresponsible and negligent, where pseudo-scientific studies tout how much smarter, thinner, faster, better, healthier the Bionic Breastfed Children will be than my own, poor, unloved formula fed daughters, where strollers (except for super expensive BOB strollers of course) are neglectful because you should be wearing your child in a sling….. where every message of “support” is clouded with judgment that some choice you’re making (or in my case, was made for me) is WRONG and the “supporter” is overtly telling you how much better of a mother she is because her children have only eaten organic tempeh with carob dip  and your kid has had McDonald’s nuggets.  My guilt comes from hearing, over and over, the message that Breast is not just Best, it ought to be ONLY. If I’d done what that community insists I should have been able to do, my kids would be dead.  But that does little to overcome the guilt of my own failure. Thanks for that.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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18 thoughts on “FFF Friday: “I don’t know how to feel.”

  1. Mandi, you are brave to share your story and I commend you for doing so. I'm sorry you have felt so much guilt. You have not failed. Not in the least. You have done everything for your daughters. There is no failure in that.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story! My third (and final) son is almost 2 months old, and he has just reached the point where our “nursing” relationship is about to come to an end (I have it in quotes because I barely produce 1/2 oz. a day. He mostly just comfort nurses, and rarely at that). I have PCOS and managed to get pregnant 3 times (with the help of Metformin). Even though I have gotten a tougher skin since the very depressing start with my firstborn, the guilt continues to linger. I'll be in positive mood, and then one article, one comment about “breast is not best, it's NORMAL” or “breast milk is FAR superior to formula” brings me right back to the days when I was so depressed I could barely leave the house. I, too, don't understand why motherhood has become a “competitive sport”. Your last paragraph should be read by all mothers! I hope that all of us who carry guilt will be able to let it go over time, and that we will really begin to live by the mantra we chant to ourselves: We are all good mothers, and whether or not we can breastfeed does not change that. I don't think we are going to get that reassurance from the mothers who continue to pile on the guilt, but we will get it from seeing our children grow up healthy, happy, and loved.

  3. Sounds like you know just what your family needs! You are so right that your babies need you more than they need your milk. I don't know if it is possible not to feel guilty about something these days. No matter where we look there is always someone telling us that we are not good enough in some aspect of parenting/life. Sometimes we just have to trust that we are doing our best, right? Best wishes to you and your family!

  4. Thank you SO much for this! I had been exclusively breastfeeding for the first 3 weeks of my little girls life, and she was so upset all the time we thought she had colic. I had bought and used a $300 pump and felt engorged enough times that I know I had enough milk, however, I was also in excruciating pain every time she fed which we later determined was thrush. When my husbands family suggested we try to supplement with formula I cried and cried, because I felt so extremely guilty and angry with myself. Now after feeding her formula for 4 days, she has finally gained weight, will sleep soundly, and is more alert and happy when she's awake. I am starting to heal as well and now feel somewhat guilty that I waited so long to feed her properly! I realize my situation is different, but the guilt is all the same. I am also a firm believer that one of the main reasons formula fed babies can have more illness is that they are more associated with premature babies born to less than ideal environments (smokers, poor diet, little prenatal care, daycare, etc). I'd be curious to see a study with all of the women from a similar socioeconomic class and that has more controlled variables. Everyone has their own unique experience in motherhood, and it would be great if our situations could be treated as such.

  5. I also had a breast reduction when I was 18 and a PCOS diagnosis. And I also never produced more than a few drops of milk. The most I ever got from a pumping session was 5 mL which is less than 1/6 of an ounce. I don't regret my breast reduction at all, but it's obvious that it can have pretty big repercussions for breastfeeding and it's not a matter of trying hard enough or not.

    We are going to start trying for another soon (unfortunately I did not have an easy time getting pregnant) and I wonder if I will put myself through attempting to breastfeed again. I'm leaning against it, because I hated the pump with my whole soul and I don't want to waste any time I could be spending with my children trying to pump to increase my “supply”. I kind of feel like I should try for colostrum in the hospital, but i'm not sure if I produced enough to even matter. Anyway, thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Yeah the “mommy wars” have gotten insane. I can't believe there's actually a stroller vs. baby-wearing debate. Quite possibly the stupidest (non-) “issue” ever, IMHO.

  7. Cheering loudly at your last para – as a self-identifying liberal progressive sort, I absolutely despise the elitist judginess of the sanctimommy contingent. So much of the head-shaking at how poor women are feeding their children the wrong thing and making them obese is rooted in classism and racism and so much of the touting of BFing benefits stubbornly ignores the class correlation of BFing with positive outcomes for children. If you've ever read George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier about socialists lecturing the poor on why they should eat brown bread, it rings very true in the BF/FF debate today.

  8. You wrote: “I have several “crunchy” mom friends and while their attitudes weren’t so Judgy McJudgerson, they frequently posted articles to FB and such that demonize formula as chemical poison and insisted that all women could nurse, allowing reprieve only to those who didn’t have breasts due to mastectomy or some such thing.”

    Honey you need some new friends. Or maybe you just need to delete some people from your facebook friend list. You have to do what you need to do to get back to healthy. Even if they are just aquaintances and not really “friends.”

    The fact that you are post partum and you are exercising more common sense than they might be should tell you something: “I began to wonder if these people truly believed it would have been “healthier” for me to starve my daughter by insisting that breastfeeding WOULD work if I tried hard enough, despite empirical evidence that I didn’t just have a low supply, I had a no supply.”

    Even if you did have a mastectomy, people that extreme would still look down on you for not investing in donor milk. And they are being “Judgy McJudgerson” because they are taking the time to post that kind of stuff on their facebook wall for people like you that they are friends with. They may not be posting it directly on your wall, but they know it will end up on your news feed…With friends like that, you don't need enemies.

    My son is 14 mos, and one thing all the older people in my life have said is that parenting is a humbling process. Your “friends”, will fortunately or unfortunately be humbled at some point. You were humbled just a little sooner.

    I'm sorry my post is so riled up, but FFF was right–your story did just that! You're an awesome Mama and your babies will be that much more empowered because they have you to be their advocate!

  9. Oh *hugs* momma. Many women who have had breast alterations have difficulty, or flat out can't breastfeed because the nipples were moved and repositioned, and because of how many milk ducts are removed during the surgery. Please don't feel guilty over something you did as a teenager. What we need to do is get the word out there so other girls can make an informed decision. While it's true that only 3-5% of women worldwide cannot physically breastfeed, that number doesn't apply to those who have had reductions. In your case, having “friends” insist that you couldn't do it because you just weren't “trying hard enough” is disgusting. Some friends *smh*

  10. Right there with you! Who cares whether you baby wear or use a stroller? Out of all the things to “mommy war” about, that should be one of the last ones. Next thing you know we're going to start hearing about the high chair vs. booster seat debate… or something equally stupid.

  11. Te he he! Maybe there will be a onesies vs. multi- pieced outfit war. 😉

    Or maybe, as you suggested, by the time we have kids people will run out of parenting decisions to squabble over and get a life. Here's to hoping.

  12. I love everything you said! I had to delete a few women from my friends list because they were posting the rudest, unkind, hateful things about formula feeding knowing full well that I feed my daughter formula. Life is too short to surround yourself with people who kick you when you're down. Delete 'em! I just pray that their unkind words, judging attitudes, and lack of compassion don't pass to their children through their breastmilk 😉

  13. Thanks everyone…. and I should clear up that never once did one of my actual FRIENDS make any comments that ever made me feel badly- what I guess I didn't say very clearly was that I have some non-militant lacivist friends who are prone to posting articles about bfing that I really shouldn't read, LOL….

    6 months down the road I have two happy, healthy, formula fed little girls. I'm good. And I swear, if a pediatrician ever tells me again that I could nurse if I was just willing to try harder again, I will just whip my DD out in the middle of the exam room and ask him to please show me the mechanics of producing breastmilk without milk ducts.

  14. Thank you for sharing your story. I think it shows so well that even if we KNOW why we aren't able to breastfeed that it's still hard to get over. I had retained placenta for months and killed myself trying to increase production. I know in my head now that there was a reason, but even so I still feel guilty and jealous of moms who can breastfeed.

  15. Mandi, you & I have had different situations that led to formula feeding our babies. Neither is more or less “legitimate.” Formula saved our babies' lives. End of story.

    You are a great mom and I know this for a fact!

    I have tried to move away from the “breast is best” promotion because it's not always best and I & many others have found this out the hard way.

    Women, mothers, should not be vilified or made to feel guilty for formula feeding their babies or for nursing their four year olds. You can't freaking win and it would be easier to take if, like you mentioned, it wasn't fellow mothers attacking each other for these decisions.

    Do you feed your child? Yes? Good. I feed mine, too.

  16. my husband takes thyroid medicine every day, has since he was a baby because his gland just doesn't produce enough. Yet nobody has ever told him that he was poisoning himself with artificial thyroid or that he's just not trying hard enough to produce, because that would be cruel and ridiculous. yet, switch mammary gland for thyroid and suddenly it's OK to judge. wait, what?

    mandi, just because breast rhymes with best doesn't necessarily mean it's true. the only thing you are lacking, my friend, is a cool word to rhyme with formula. 😉

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