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 feelings, and I hope we can all give them the space to do so.
This week, I went on a television morning news show and, much to my chagrin, came off sounding more like a breastfeeding advocate than a defender of feeding choice. But that didn’t stop a few breastfeeding pages from starting writing campaigns to protest my “offensive” appearance. You know what they found offensive? That I suggested that pumping was hard. That I suggested even women who exclusively pump are made to feel guilty for not meeting the breastfeeding ideal. That I said some women can’t breastfeed, for emotional, physical, or workplace-related reasons.
I cannot understand how either of these assertions anti-breastfeeding in ANY way, to a rational human being. Pumping is hard, for many of us. That doesn’t mean that it’s not easy for some women, or that we shouldn’t do it. And why is it considered detrimental to breastfeeding mothers to suggest that some women can’t breastfeed, or simply don’t want to?
This, my friends, is the reason FFF must exist. Because it doesn’t matter that we support breastfeeding. It doesn’t matter what our reasons are for choosing, or being “forced” to formula feed. The people who have created this parenting powder-keg don’t care about personal choice, personal feelings, or personal situations. They are not advocating for breastfeeding. They are advocating for censorship; for brainwashing; for dogmatic agreement from every segment of society that their choice is not only the healthiest, but the ONLY choice, and anyone who suggests that a woman has a fundamental right to formula feed should be promptly silenced.
Why am I using this rant to open this week’s FFF Friday? Well, because Meredith’s story is my new battle cry. She is someone who opted not to breastfeed from the start. And she feels no guilt, no shame, no regret – she can see how ridiculous this situation is, and how amazing her child is, and feel proud of her own unique, personal choices. I want to hear from more women like Meredith; I want them to join our ranks, to encourage us to fight a bit harder, to not wallow in guilt, and to rage against the structures which create a divide between mothers and allow this us vs. them bullsh-t to continue. I love Meredith’s last line – the one I chose for the title of the piece – and I want us all to start living it, breathing it, and repeating it:
I simply cannot fathom why I’m supposed to feel guilty.
Yes, yes, and a thousand times yes.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
I started following the FFF Facebook page and blog a month or two before my daughter was born, so admittedly I haven’t been around that long, but I have noticed that as wonderful as the posts are, I don’t see a whole lot of unwavering, unapologetic, completely unashamed pronouncements of being an exclusive formula feeder from very many women. There are an awful lot of moms who seem to tell their stories of ending up formula feeding after heartbreaking experiences with breastfeeding failures, and while that’s understandable it doesn’t exactly equal “unashamed.” I don’t mean to put anyone down, and I completely understand why they’re sharing their stories—there’s a grieving process for women who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t, and they need to mourn. But as someone who genuinely feels no guilt, it stands out to me as odd on a page for the “Fearless” Formula Feeder that not many women say, “I didn’t even consider breastfeeding, I don’t regret it at all, and this is why.” So I thought I might share my story, which is one of exclusive formula feeding from day one, without shame, or guilt, or regret, to maybe reassure some women that their babies will still be beautiful and smart and amazing without breast milk, and that their health really, genuinely matters, and if they’re sacrificing their health to breastfeed, it’s really okay to say “It’s just not worth it” without all the guilt. You really can’t appreciate how important your health is until it’s gone for good, and anyone who tells you your health doesn’t matter deserves a punch in the face. You can always blame it on your hormones.
I have never once thought, “Oh, if only I’d breastfed, maybe my four month old daughter wouldn’t be so incredibly strong or ridiculously smart.” Seriously, my sister thinks my daughter’s a genius, my brother wonders if she’s a mutant, my husband’s godmother (who worked in a daycare for two decades) has never seen a baby like her, and everyone in the family is simply floored by how smart, alert, active, and happy she is, not to mention the fact that she’s gorgeous. I know every baby is beautiful to their mother, but when you are routinely stopped in stores by strangers who want to tell you how beautiful your baby is, or when your landlord sends you an email simply to say that your husband brought the baby when he dropped off the rent and she wanted to tell you how beautiful and happy your daughter is, you might have a really beautiful baby. All of this is without a single drop of breast milk. Not even the colostrum. My husband and I are actually somewhat afraid of how much more advanced she’d be than she is right now if she were getting the “magical properties” of breast milk and not just evil store brand formula. That’s right—we aren’t even feeding her the name brand stuff! Frankly I’m not sure the world is ready for her as an “inferior” formula fed kid. The planet might implode if she’d had access to the “super-awesome-ridiculously-superior goodness” of breast milk.
Alas, that was never going to be, and the world can blame me for my daughter not being able to reach her full superhuman potential of flight and x-ray vision because she was bottle fed (I accept this, the world is going to blame me for everything they deem wrong with her anyway). I genuinely don’t care if the world shakes its fist at me and declares, “She could have had a magic lasso and invisible plane if only you’d breastfed her!” Maybe that’s because I’m somewhat jaded. Maybe that’s because I don’t much care what random strangers think of me. Maybe that’s because I was 37 when I had her, so I’m very much an adult who knows how to stick up for herself and doesn’t buy into a lot of trendy mommy b.s., or take kindly to bullies. Maybe it’s because her dad was a breastfed baby and still has ADHD and dyslexia. But more likely it’s because I was a breastfed baby, and was still diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 24. My husband and I are living proof that breast milk isn’t magical, and I long ago had to come to terms with the fact that there are just going to be things I can’t do.
The list of things I can’t do because I need health insurance and my body has very finite limits, but had planned to do when I was 24 and my robust health took a permanent powder:
- Backpack across Europe.
- Move to New York to become a Broadway star.
- Move to Hollywood and couch surf until I made it into movies.
- Become a freelance journalist while writing the great American novel.
- Front a rock band called Drunk Boy and tour the country covering ‘80s songs by British bands (you probably don’t know that the bone holding your vocal chords, the hyoid, is a joint and will swell if you have a joint disease—singing is to my hyoid bone what running up and down stairs would be to my knees).
I know you can’t possibly think I was actually serious about any of these things. Even at 24 most people have a sense of reality. Au contraire. I was as serious about these as a heart attack.
When I was four I decided I wanted to be an actress, since it was the only way I was ever going to meet Bo Duke (what can I say? John Schneider was 18 and the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen when I was four). I beat out all the boys for the lead of “Father Time” in the school musical in the first grade and was completely hooked.
When I hit the second grade and they started teaching us creative writing, I started writing profusely. I wrote my first novel in the fourth grade. It was 87 pages long, and I filled spiral notebook after spiral notebook with stories for the next eight years.
Upon graduating high school I won the English Key and the Music Key, and had been in choir all but a single year from kindergarten to 12th grade (for some reason recess seemed more important than choir one year in middle school). My English teacher wanted to send me to Russia and my parents said “No” (stupid Cold War). I’d gone to NYSSMA for both piano and voice multiple times, and had traveled to the first international choral competition our school had entered, in Quebec (our group was too small to officially compete, but they were pleased to have us none-the-less and I was pleased to put a use to my five years of French classes). We got to sing Mozart and Bach in the center of a cathedral named after a saint (not being Catholic, I don’t recall which one). I was in Girl’s Ensemble, Show Choir, Select Choir, Hand Bell Choir (which I miss more than you know), and had sung pieces in Latin, French, German, and Spanish. My choir teacher created an award for me senior year, “Section Leader,” because “Choir Leader” was a popularity contest no alto would ever win, and she couldn’t let me graduate without officially recognizing I’d carried the alto section since the 7th grade.
I got my BFA in Acting, (which many people would agree is a stupid investment, but two years out of school it was a completely worthless investment—I can’t even pursue an MFA to teach because the hours at any program worth its stuff are far too grueling, or require trapeze classes [I’m looking at you, National Theatre Conservatory]), and was starting to plump up my resume through community theatre around my native city before heading off somewhere big to make a career of it. And it wasn’t just my dream. My maternal grandmother gave me her sister’s mink stole, because I was the only one in the family who would ever have anywhere to wear it once I was a famous actress. She never understood why my parents taught me how to drive, as she was positive I would have a chauffeur to take me anywhere I needed to go. That was an actual conversation she had with my mother. She imagined I’d be Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, or Vivien Leigh, and I’d always known she was right (though I wanted to be Meryl Streep). I was destined for greatness, mink stoles, and chauffeurs. Only I wasn’t. Rheumatism runs in my family, and my immune system was just waiting for something to set it off, which it did when I was barely an adult. I was very close to my mom’s parents, and if you want to talk about grieving, talk about knowing that you’re never going to live up to your grandma’s absolute, unwavering belief that you would be someone so magnificent chauffeurs would drive you everywhere. She died when I was 26. I don’t cry about not being able to breastfeed. I cry that my health couldn’t have just held out for two more stinking years so my grandma would have died knowing I was pursuing the life she imagined I would have, rather than knowing I had the same illness that crippled her mother. (That’s when I think about it, which I don’t often, because you can’t spend your life crying.)
In comparison to giving up goals I’d held since I was four years old (four), deciding to formula feed was a piece of cake. I did briefly entertain ridiculous thoughts of breastfeeding in the month and a half of my pregnancy where I didn’t want to puke all the time and my joints hadn’t yet figured out I was off my medication. That month and a half was the best I’d felt in a long, long time. I stupidly thought, “If I feel this good now, there’s no reason I can’t breastfeed!” Then my joints caught on to my clever scheme of using pregnancy hormones to keep them in check, and they rebelled with appropriate fury. It was laughable that I’d even entertained thoughts that I could stay off my medication to put myself into a sleep deprived breastfeeding stupor and expect to take care of a baby. My husband had to help me dress. I couldn’t find any position to sleep that didn’t cause horrible hip and shoulder pain. I spent night after night crying until two or three in the morning because I couldn’t lie down (or sit up, really) without being in agony. I went to work with my wrists and hands wrapped in athletic tape for support. Going up and down the stairs at work or at home was a nightmare because of my knees and ankles. I went to my baby shower with my right arm in a sling so I could keep my shoulder immobile and not be in excruciating pain (those aren’t humiliating pictures or anything). I lived day to day in paralyzing fear that my medication would no longer work when I went back on it. Outside of going to work, I was practically a hermit because I didn’t have the energy or feel well enough to even go to the grocery store to buy bread and milk. That was pretty much my pregnancy from week 22 until my daughter was born (a week late, thanks kid).
Yet somehow people didn’t understand why I wasn’t having the whole, “I am the Earth mother” experience. I did mention to my husband a couple of times how mind blowing it was that we made this whole new person who had never existed before, a concept that he just grasped last week. (He actually said while watching her in her bouncy seat, “We made a whole new person. She never existed before. That’s amazing!” Since I’m a good wife, I did not respond with, “Duh.”) But other than that I was pretty miserable and just counting the days for the whole thing to be over, which I’m sure made me look like a bad mommy to a lot of people that don’t know me well and weren’t aware of how sick I was, and I really didn’t care. Nineteen weeks of constant severe pain and little sleep—which makes the pain worse, which keeps you from sleeping, which makes the pain worse, which keeps you from sleeping ad infinitum—is a very, very long time when you’re carrying around 35 extra pounds that your joints do not like. The RA turned what was supposed to be a wonderful time in my life into months of anxiety and physical torture that I just wanted to end. But as terrible as my pregnancy was, I’ll still do it again—hopefully twice, I’ve always wanted three kids and am loathe to give up yet another dream to my disease—because my baby is proof that the end result is worth 19 weeks of agony and sleepless nights. Another pregnancy [or two] would simply not be possible if I wasn’t able to immediately get control of my RA post-partum because my medication is breastfeeding contraindicated and I bought into “breast is best.”
Ironically, my body understood that we weren’t breastfeeding. My very large breasts swelled for about three days after we brought our perfect baby girl home, and then started rapidly deflating like punctured balloons. I kept waiting for the pain from engorgement and to start leaking all over everything, but that never happened. It was actually quite shocking to be waiting for something that just never came. I kept expecting I’d have to hand my baby off to my mom (she stayed with us the first week, as she’d been a nervous wreck worrying about my health most of my pregnancy) or my husband the first time my breasts ached because I wasn’t feeding her, and my breasts would say, “P’shaw.” She’d cry, and I’d wait for my breasts to react by squirting out milk, forcing me to hand my baby off to my mom or husband, but my mammaries would just sit there going, “Meh.” I’d take a shower with my back to the water to avoid the warmth because so many people had said it was painful, and my breasts would declare, “Excuse me, you’ve had us in a sports bra for days. We’re sweaty and gross. Why aren’t you washing us???” It makes me wonder if I would have even been able to breastfeed, or if I would have ended up in the long dismissed line of women who don’t produce enough (or any) milk, riddled with guilt at having failed my daughter in her first days and weeks of life since “everyone can breastfeed,” and finding no one anywhere to tell me that just wasn’t true and formula wasn’t poison. (See, I really can imagine the guilt – that probably would have been me.)
My daughter also seemed to know from minute one that her mom had certain limitations, and she was just going to have to work with them. She hated the pre-made formula we had in the hospital (largely because the nipples on the bottles had medium sized holes and she was choking on the stuff, plus, have you seen it? It’s taupe, or ecru, or eggshell, but it’s definitely not milk colored), but as soon as we got home and put her on the powdered formula she took to it like a champ. She has never cared what kind of formula we were using or what kind of bottle we give her, so long as she’s being fed. We switched formulas after about a month and a half from our initial pick to something less clumpy, and she didn’t fuss at all. Her diaper wasn’t pleasant for about two days, but otherwise her tummy didn’t object and her taste buds didn’t care. She’s had no colic, nor is she particularly gassy, has no indication of food allergies, hasn’t spent a single day sick yet except for one rash that didn’t even give her a fever over 100, and just this week has become quite adamant that she gets “grown-up” food at dinnertime (oh, how we love our peas!). She started sleeping through the night two days after I went back to work and hasn’t stopped since. The most problematic issue she’s had with feeding is hiccups. She seems very aware that a diet of milk is temporary and for babies, and is determined to be a big girl as soon as she can manage it.
At just under 20 weeks old she’s exactly average in her height and weight, which I know is my “fault” (people with RA tend to have smaller babies), but her father and I don’t mind that she’s only average in her growth, because she’s smart, spunky, funny, and it’s really easy to buy her clothes. There’s no guessing whether or not 3-6 month old clothes will fit your four month old daughter when she’s right in the middle of the pack for her age. And, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have built up the arm strength yet to carry her around if she was a hulk in the 98th percentile weighing in at 18 lbs. Her more gradual weight gain is allowing mommy time to recover the considerable muscle mass I’ve lost to RA, which is crucial since I take her everywhere with me. (I admit it—as physically awful as pregnancy was I got used to having her with me, and getting constantly kicked wherever I went, and I still haven’t adjusted to being separated from her.) She goes to all my theatre meetings, breakfast/brunch/lunch/coffee with my friends (she has many “aunts” besides my sister), script read-throughs, committees on which I sit, and she’s already appeared in her first play (which you bet I wrote for her, though I think I’ve created a monster; she knew the applause was for her and she LOVED it). She’ll be coming with me to rehearsals for a June production that I’m in, which a dear friend of mine (who is her honorary grandpa) is directing (he adores her, and the feeling is mutual). She is fascinated by everything she sees and does with mommy, has so much fun with her biological and extended theatre families, loves new faces and being in the middle of the adult action, recognizes cameras and coyly poses for pictures whenever she sees one, never cries unless she’s very hungry, extremely tired, or ends up naked on a public bathroom changing table after a diaper blow-out (who wouldn’t?), and is ridiculously well behaved. Every day my husband and I look at her in utter amazement, and wonder how we got so lucky in having such a completely magnificent child, who babbles and laughs constantly and loves getting kisses as much as we love kissing her. She’s my favorite person. It makes me think my grandma just may have been off a generation. She’s definitely getting Great Aunt Althea’s mink.
There is no way she would have the adventures with mommy she so clearly enjoys if I was incapable of picking up a 15 lb. baby because I put breastfeeding ahead of my own health. Not only wouldn’t I be able to care for my daughter without medication, I wouldn’t be able to care for myself, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to work (my job provides our family’s health insurance – that’s kind of a big deal). There are women with rheumatism who have chosen to breastfeed despite the risks, so I know that ultimately it was an option for me. I also know that across the board those women have ended up with far worse cases of the disease than before they became pregnant. Many women with my illness think any risk is worth it to breastfeed, and even if their pregnancy wasn’t great it won’t get that bad if they stay off meds a little longer, and even if it does they’ll make that sacrifice to keep their baby from the ills of formula. I suppose I’m fortunate to have 1) a rheumatologist who is very persistent in getting his patients to listen to common sense, and 2) a good friend with RA much worse than mine, which she started suffering from shortly after having her only child, while living in Brooklyn. She went without a diagnosis for five years and was on inadequate medication to control the symptoms in the meantime. Since they finally figured out it was rheumatoid arthrittis, she’s never been able to get it under control, and she’s been on every medication they’ve come out with to treat the disease. She’s about ten years my senior, can’t straighten her right arm, can’t close her hands around small objects, her fingers are starting to permanently bend outward, her knees are chronically swollen, and she’s had all her toe joints surgically fused (all that walking around the Big Apple for five years with a small child was a bad idea). I imagine she will eventually end up in a wheelchair, or having a heart attack from all the prednisone she’s on (that’s the only thing that works right now), and she’s not even 50. She is a real person I know with my disease, not a random stranger with a scary story, and for my baby’s sake I refuse to be her. Call me crazy, but I think it would be a lot worse for my daughter to be worried at ten years old that her mom, who has fused toes and arms that don’t straighten, might drop dead of a heart attack than it would be for her to maybe have more ear infections and a mom who can braid her hair an sew her Halloween costumes. Because I choose to bottle feed, my daughter is four months into a childhood filled with a loving family, stimulating activities, and a mommy who can change her, bathe her, feed her, play with her, sing to her, and carry her into the grocery store where total strangers will tell her how beautiful she is. I simply cannot fathom why I’m supposed to feel guilty about that.
Viva la revolution. Fight the power with a hell no, we won’t go, and all that jazz. Send your FFF Friday submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.