Can formula feeding really be “fearless”?

The lovely KJ Dell’Antonia recently mentioned my book and blog in a Motherlode column she wrote about the recent onslaught of breastfeeding-pressure backlash. There was the refreshing -albeit unfortunately titled- piece by a father in the Atlantic, followed by another excellent Motherlode post by writer Marie C. Baca about “embracing” bottle feeding- these came on the heels of a number of other articles which cropped up over the summer and in the early fall, as a result of Latch On NYC and a few other initiatives that have passed in the United States and abroad. Dell’Antonia observed that in all of these writers’ submissions (including yours truly’s) to the infant feeding discourse, one thing remained consistent:

…What’s striking about Ms. Barston’s and Mr. Kornelis’s stories, and most stories of “fearless formula feeding” is still really how “fearless” they aren’t. In every narrative of not breastfeeding, there is the obligatory note of failure, as though justification were the first order of the day… for most women, not nursing, for whatever reason, remains a troubling topic. As long as women are occupied with the litany of excuses… then the conversation will stay on defending the bottle or breast, and off the more important question of how to ensure that the choice between them is dictated more by health and happiness and less by circumstance.

This struck a nerve with me. Scratch that – it pinched a nerve. Her theory was like a constant, nagging backache, reminding me that it needed attention every time I moved a bit too fast. It took me a few days to untangle what bothered me so much about these assertions; the ensuing discussion on the FFF Facebook page only served to deepen my desire for answers (or a good massage).

All of you made fantastic points about why we so often appear to be defensive about our choices. Some argued that while we may indeed give excuses, this is because we are conditioned to expect judgment. “I think our stories are tinged with defensiveness since before even sharing them we are already preparing to be attacked,” Tara mused. Lisa echoed that sentiment. “For me, it wasn’t inner guilt – it was everyone’s expectation that I SHOULD feel guilty and that I had done something wrong. Frankly, I was outright pissed off by the insinuations and outright accusations that by formula feeding my daughter, I was setting her up to be fat, stupid, and unhealthy. That’s where my defensiveness came from – the need to defend my choice.” And others thoughtfully mentioned that while we may indeed appear defensive, a lot of it may simply be our way of dealing with complex emotions over the inability to do something we wanted very badly to do:   “”I don’t believe that guilt is a simple emotion – I felt guilty because my boobs failed, I also felt guilty that I was happy that formula was working for us. I felt I was letting my daughter and others down. Guilt is often the result of being unable to change a moment in time – it’s not always about what is right or wrong,” wrote Allison.

As a few of you rightly pointed out, so much comes down to perspective. Unless you have lived through this particular kind of hell, you just can’t understand it. As Misty explained. “I think they mistake bitterness with defensiveness. Unless you’ve suffered the same societal and personal condemnation and guilt tripping that comes with the breast v bottle war, you can’t imagine what kind of damage and pain it causes to a woman’s soul. Obviously, not every woman who tried to nurse but went to formula experiences anguish about it, but many of us do, especially those who had fully embraced the ‘breast is best’ mantra. I still struggle with resentment toward the BFing friends and professionals who, in my opinion, needlessly caused me to suffer terribly as a new mother. I still have sorrow that my first year as a mother was so joyless, because others chose to reinforce my flawed views about BFing (which I’d gotten from them) instead of guiding me compassionately to a more balanced and emotionally healthier way of feeding my child.”

Perspective also plays into the issue of defensiveness in another way: the further away from it you are, the easier it is to approach the “Why I Formula Fed” question dispassionately. I guarantee that for most new mothers, ten years from now- hell, even five – this debate will bore the hell out of them. Other issues will take its place – education, bullying, puberty, safety concerns, etc. However, there are those of us for whom this isn’t just a personal tragedy, but a social problem, a cause which deserves our anger and outrage and yes, defensiveness. I don’t think it’s entirely realistic to hope that we can move away from defensiveness completely, because we are typically reacting to offensiveness.

I think you can be fearless and simultaneously feel the need to defend yourself. All “fearless” formula feeding means to me is that you feel you have made the best choice for your family, for your baby, for you. Fearless doesn’t necessarily mean regret-less, guilt-less, anger-less, resentful-less. It just means you’re not scared of your choice, because you know it is safe, and you know it was right.

But as for what KJ refers to as the “litany of excuses”… I’ve always suspected these are a necessary tool, a ticket to participate in the conversation. By explaining how much you wanted to nurse, and talking about all the struggle you went through to do it, it might help the opposition understand that this is not a matter of lack of education or drive. That it would at least start us on a level playing field, and take down the barricades at the border – I wanted to nurse, you wanted to nurse, we both believe in breastfeeding, so let’s try and discuss this rationally. I have nothing but admiration for women gutsy enough to just come out and say nursing wasn’t for them – I loved Amy Sullivan’s essay in The New Republic, and it was, indeed, the most “fearless” argument for bottle feeding I’ve seen (interestingly, Dell’Antonia felt that Baca’s piece was free from the normal guilt-ridden excuses. I thought it was an excellent piece, on every level – I mean really, really excellent, and quite fearless in a number of important ways – but the fact remains that Baca still mentioned that that she was physically unable to nurse. That gives her a “pass”, in many people’s estimation; it’s still a preemptive strike against condemnation, unconscious as it may have been). But one look at the comment section of Sullivan’s editorial, and you’ll see that it immediately erupted into a hate-fest. Breastfeeding moms took her words as an affront to their method of feeding; breastfeeding advocates told her she was misinformed; judgmental sanctimommies hurled accusations of the usual flavors- Sullivan was selfish, shouldn’t have had kids, etc.

Still, in the past few months, I’ve noticed something: no matter what the writer says, in every online piece I’ve read about formula feeding, the response thread is Exactly. The. Same. The same arguments, the same people, the same facts and studies and name-calling. So while I think we have a right to our emotions – whether these emotions are guilt or regret or anger or pride- we shouldn’t feel the need to state our case in order to create a more peaceful discourse. No matter what you tell them, haters are gonna hate, or whatever that saying is.

Ultimately, I think KJ is right: I’m not sure we can move forward in creating positive change for anyone until we can stop the vicious cycle of guilt-defensiveness-bitterness. I would argue, though, that this is not the responsibility of the women (or men) sharing their stories, but rather that the conversation at large needs to change focus and tone. This might start with media outlets allowing for more nuanced, balanced features on why breastfeeding isn’t working for so many women, rather than coping out with opinion pieces. It might continue with physicians being able to speak out against some of the newest breastfeeding promotion endeavors without risking their careers to do so. It might end with us accepting that changing our society to be more breastfeeding-friendly is far less of a public health issue than it is a question of personal freedom, women’s rights, and trusting our own instincts over what the experts deem is best.



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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9 thoughts on “Can formula feeding really be “fearless”?

  1. I see no reason not to be defensive when it comes to our right to choose how we feed our children. If people see that as defensive, perhaps they ought to examine why they are so comfortable not only accepting people with paternalistic attitudes feeling as if they have a right to tell women what to do with their breasts, but actively promoting this as the one and only true way. Our freedoms to feed and parent our children the way that works best for us are freedoms worth defending.

    Spot on again, FFF.

  2. Is there a single mother here who has *not* been asked by friends or family or a doctor how she is feeding her child? I thought not. Men don’t get those questions. There’s a strong association of BFing with Good Mothering. Even in framing a response to nosy questions, in order to be polite you have to “explain” your choice. I honestly don’t understand why someone like KJ who runs the friggin Motherlode column and should know all about mother-guilting has to even ask the question of why women offer “excuses.”

    • And may I add: I find her condescending tone and argument that FFIng women are the ones “occupied with a litany of excuses” offensive – it’s like people telling new mothers “hey, get some sleep!” Like it’s completely up to them, their own fault that they are sleep deprived. Women aren’t making excuses to the mirror – they live in society among others whose approval and judgement they depend on, like all human beings. Sociology 101. Or should I say, common sense 101.

  3. I am a breastfeeding mom and graduating as a breastfeeding counselor. Because the way we have been brought up we normally go defensive or aggressive on a subject we have at heart. That being said, it is up to us to try and play it down. It s not a matter of public health, whether it is good or bad to do one thing or the other. It s just a matter of ready are we to try understand and listen each other without actually starting formulating back responses before the person is done talking. It is very hard to do so-especially when you are so keen on that subject in particular but I know it is possible if only we try.

    Thank you for such an informative blog

  4. I never had any intention of breastfeeding. I have mental health issues that require medication…and other issues that go along with them that breastfeeding would aggravate. My goal was to be drug free during my pregnancy and that didnt even work out! And now, here I sit, 38 years old with a perfectly happy, secure, beautiful three week old baby boy. I spent the first morning after he was born in the nursing room off the nursery with other moms…they were all breastfeeding or pumping, not one said a word about the bottle of liquid formula I was holding. For the life of me I simply couldn’t get him to latch and drink! Several times that first morning I found myself close to pulling out a breast and giving it a go. Were there not drugs in my system that would be harmful to the baby i think i just might have gone for it. My husband showed up and popped the bottle in with no trouble at all! Since then my husband continues to have better bottle feeding skills than I do! I am not a breastfeeding failure…but there are days I feel like a formula feeding failure! How many 100% formula feeders sit around feeling like breastfeeding would be so much easier. I am not sorry, at all, that i am not breastfeeding, my reasons are extensive and far outweigh the moments where breastfeeding has seemed a simpler solution. The trouble with this website is that all most all the stories are from women who ‘tried’ and ‘failed.’ I didn’t fail because i never tried!

    • Wendy, I post stories from women with all sorts of experiences. I’d love to receive more from those who formula fed from the start. Maybe you’d like to submit?

  5. When discussing the fact that my daughter was primarily formula fed, I find myself explaining the background story (the usual: insufficient glandular tissue leading to extremely low supply, blah blah blah), in an effort to counter the whole “everyone can breastfeed” myth, since there seems to be a total lack of recognition regarding the fact that it just isn’t true. I’ve often come across as defensive, I believe because I tend to counter the usual breastfeeding advice before it’s even given to me, just to save some time and aggravation.

  6. I feel fearless about my own choice now, but I wasn’t when I made the choice. I am angry that I ever wasn’t fearless, and when I act defensively about formula feeding, it’s because I’m defending all the other parents who aren’t fearless yet. They shouldn’t have to do all the work anew.

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