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.
In my uber-crunchy city, meeting a highly educated, liberal, mid-thirties mother who doesn’t even try to breastfeed is probably as rare as a unicorn-sighting. Call me a unicorn then, because I planned to formula feed from the start. Part of it was logistical: I have an at-will contract job with no guarantee of not being fired for taking leave, so I only felt comfortable taking 6 weeks (unpaid) leave. My office doesn’t have a pump room and again, no job protection or employee rights for me, so I’d need to formula feed from 6 weeks on. It seemed silly to start for only 6 weeks, then deal with up to 2 weeks of milk coming in for so little actual breast feeding.
Plus, my husband and I were committed to being equal parents. While that’s possible with breastfeeding, there’s so much momentum created in the beginning of a child’s life. We didn’t want to establish a pattern in which only I can address our kid’s needs.
My other reason was much more personal: after two miscarriages, I’d been pregnant/maybe preggo for a year and a half. I was tired: of not getting a drink with friends, of caffeine deprivation, of curtailing my food choices, of exhaustion, pain, and carrying around extra weight. I wanted my body back. With a high risk pregnancy with some hints of IUGR and other problems, I also felt, in some fundamental way, that my body just wasn’t up to the task of providing for this baby. I was incredibly relieved that he made it out safely and formula would take away the anxiety that my body was a risky, insufficient source for my child.
My breasts are also pretty integral to my own sexuality. The cognitive dissonance of “breasts=food! No, wait: breasts=sexy-time!” plus potential pain, lack of libido and persistent numbness after breastfeeding scared me. It angered me when breastfeeding advocates insulted women scared of ruining their breasts or sex lives as dupes who see breasts as solely for men. My feelings were about my own relationship with sexuality, and has little to do with my partner’s.
My choice was cemented after hearing so many other women’s experiences. Despite the propaganda that almost all women can breastfeed successfully, in my survey of six recentish moms, two couldn’t breastfeed for physical reasons, one hated it, and one had such substantial difficulties with it that her first months were a living hell. The two people who really enjoyed it were stay-at-home mothers or quit their jobs soon after giving birth. Once I gave birth, the stories just kept pouring in from women who had soldiered through it but hated it or had to cut out most foods from their diet to deal with an allergy, or had to tape tubes to their breasts to convince their kid to latch. I wanted to sidestep those potential problems.
Finally, part of my job is to analyze scientific research with a skeptical eye, so I’d scanned through the reams of poorly constructed studies and found the benefits of breastfeeding to be pretty modest and hazy. Did it seem like, on average, breastfeeding was better than not? Probably, all else being equal. But was it the kind of decision I would ever be able to pin a specific problem in my kid to? No. I don’t decide to drink alcohol or exercise or avoid cheese or live in a certain area based on flimsy epidemiological data, so why would I make a decision that would end my career for a good long while based on that data?
When all the establishment is giving you the hard sell on something, and yet less than half of women, despite all this cultural pressure, continue after giving it a fair shot, my spider sense tingled and I was skeptical of its claim that breast is universally best.
Plus I learned something very poignantly after two miscarriages: you can second-guess the potential causes all day long, but in the end, it is out of your hands and the science is so fuzzy that you will never know if exercising or drinking that sangria before you got the positive test played a role. Similarly, you will never know whether you kid has asthma or is less smart or has stomach problems because of formula feeding. You just have to live your life as best you can without basing every decision on fear of the worst-case scenario.
So anyways, I decided not to breastfeed. Friends who’d been there were supportive and recognized the difficulties, but the medical establishment laid on the guilt. My OB tried to pressure me by claiming that I’d get my figure back sooner, that it was cheaper, I’d reduce my risk of breast cancer, and that it was better for baby. At the hospital, I made it clear that I wasn’t breastfeeding. I had an emergency C-section and our baby wound up briefly in the NICU. A lactation consultant came to the room while I still had the shakes to ask about pumping colostrum. When I declined, she looked at me like I was planning to spoon feed my child crack. Every doctor and nurse asked about it, and then gave an “educational” shpiel, as if the only reasons a woman wouldn’t choose to breastfeed were ignorance, a double mastectomy, or being the Wicked Witch of the West. The onslaught finally got to me and I gave breastfeeding a lackluster shot when my milk came in, but he cried and I cried from the pain and it didn’t seem like he got much milk, so I didn’t bother again. My nipples were scabbed and numb for a few weeks after that one experience.
My little one is still pretty young, just six weeks old, but so far he is doing well. Despite that, the breastfeeding guilt machine has wormed its way into my brain. Hubby’s family called me a brainwashed American career woman and harlot for not breastfeeding. Baby has acid reflux and gas which might not be as bad if he were breastfed. When he didn’t smile at 4 weeks, I worried I had made him “stupid” by formula feeding him. And it’s possible the oxytocin released by breast feeding would have alleviated my PPD. The guilt has only made my inadequacy and depression stronger. Plus, it’s hard to join new parent groups when wary of outing myself as a bottle feeder, despite knowing that could help with the PPD. The guilt is really terrible because a) that ship sailed when my milk dried up, so what’s the point of laying it on so thick?, and b) it just makes all the other struggles of new parenthood that much more isolating.
Yet despite that, my husband has been able to do half the feedings and child care, and when he goes on paternity leave, he can feed the munchkin without some sort of crazy juggling routine. The little one has formed a strong bond with his dad already, we’ve both been able to get about 6 to 7 hours of sleep from the get-go, and our sex life is not decimated. It’s also been really amazing to watch my mom and dad be able to feed him. Hopefully as our baby gets older and is fine, my guilt will subside.
In some ways my story may reaffirm the “lazy, careerist, selfish formula feeder” stereotype, but that just highlights the incredibly problematic mentality that surrounds breastfeeding and motherhood in general. What, exactly, is wrong with women making choices that enhance their happiness? What, exactly, is wrong with making choices that make your life a little easier as long as they don’t do real harm to your children? Our society fetishizes sacrifice for its own sake, and ignores the reality that all parenting decisions are trade-offs between the ideal and reality, between cost and benefit–especially when women bear the brunt of those trade-offs. Studies show that bilingual kids have many cognitive advantages, but we don’t all move to Switzerland!
Breastfeeding is awesome and way easier than formula for many. We should absolutely remove structural barriers to breastfeeding (more workplace protections, support for public breastfeeding, maybe baby friendly workplaces ). But lots of people have reasons for not doing so, and that choice should be considered just as valid as other parenting decisions.
If I had another kid, I would probably give breastfeeding a shot, assuming my job situation was better. There definitely are some conveniences, such as not having to bring or wash a bottle or get formula feeding stains out of clothes. It would be awesome to just roll over at night, pull up my shirt, and feed in my sleep. But even if I did breastfeed, I wouldn’t see it as somehow “doing better” the next time, and if it wasn’t working out, I’d have zero qualms about formula feeding. It would be a personal decision that was best for our family at that time.