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, we saw yet another attack on our community from people who believe our stories equate to whining; that they come out of a place of defensiveness rather than a need to connect and commiserate with others (or, like this week’s FFF Friday author, Tabitha’s case, an altruistic desire to work towards a time when moms won’t attack moms for their experiences and beliefs).
The thing of it is, there’s really no productive way to respond to this vitriol, because no story will make them understand, and no reasons will validate our experiences in their eyes. And even if it did – it certainly won’t help the next woman who tries to share her journey and is told it doesn’t measure up; that her pain doesn’t register on their mythical scale of martyrdom.
But what we need to remember is that these people aren’t “breastfeeders”. They aren’t even lactivists. They are bullies; obstinate, dogmatic extremists who will not rest until the world concedes that they are right. And any “expert” who supports them, or who shares a laugh with them at the expense of struggling new moms, is showing his or her true colors; proving that they care more about getting every woman to breastfeed than caring what it does to them (or their babies) in the process.
These people – the bloggers, the “experts”, and the semi-anoymous Facebook trolls- do us FFFs a favor. With their anger, aggression, and totalitarianism, they remind us that it is not mom against mom, but mom against – well, asshole. But I hope to god that they also remind breastfeeding advocates that their words – however well intentioned – have the ability to be morphed (quite easily) into a new brand of supremacy; one that creates an atmosphere that is not conducive to adjusting to breastfeeding or mothering; one that is perfectly, beautifully, heartbreakingly explained in Tabitha’s story. The bullies would probably be bullies no matter what, but only in the infant feeding arena are they backed up by major medical organizations, feminist groups, and government authorities. And I’m not talking about the actual statistics or studies here – I’m talking about the way these statistics and studies are presented to the public, in ways that perpetuate negative myths about formula feeding and that create what Tabitha aptly describes as a culture of competition, where we’re rated on not only how hard we try, but far more heavily on how appropriately we succeed.
Mothering is not the SAT. It’s more like an open essay question. I hope Tabitha’s story reminds all of us of that, and inspires us to start breaking our no. 2 pencils in silent protest.
Happy Friday, fearless ones,
My struggles with breastfeeding began 5 years ago, but my ideals about breastfeeding formed much earlier. I was born at a time when breastfeeding was just coming into fashion again. My mother lived in a rural town at the time and despite little support from those around her, breastfed me. Pumping was certainly not the norm or even effective at the time and so when she went back to work, I received the occasional bottle of formula. My sister arrived 2 years after me and was also breastfed. If I’m not mistaken, she was exclusively breastfed.. As a child I breastfed my dolls, because that’s how I thought all babies were fed.
Fast forward twenty years later. I chose to go into the field of early childhood development. In my university classes we discussed breastfeeding and its benefits and looked at the research. We were taught how to promote breastfeeding to mothers we would encounter in our field. A couple of years later I was working for Early Head Start. When I met with mothers who would enroll in my program I would encourage them to breastfeed and brainstorm ways to make it work despite their life circumstances. Several years later I was pregnant with my first child.
Getting pregnant didn’t come easily, but I just knew breastfeeding would. My husband and I took a breastfeeding class a few months before our son was born. I may be mistaken, but I swear the lactation consultant (LC) said, “1in 4 of you will not be breastfeeding by 3 months.” I turned to my husband and emphatically said, “That will not be me.” I aced the breastfeeding quiz the LC gave and could answer every question that came up. I was not going to fail. And then our son was born.
He was 6 lbs even at 37 weeks, but was healthy by all accounts. He was born 30 minutes shy of midnight and all three of us were exhausted. I attempted to feed my son immediately, but he didn’t have much interest at first. I did my duty and continued feeding on demand throughout the night. By the next morning, when I asked to see an LC, my nipples were a mess. I was bleeding like you wouldn’t believe. I now know I have a skin condition that made cracking inevitable. When my baby came off my breasts he had blood around his mouth. I felt like I was feeding a vampire. I was scared I would hurt him. I was in a ton of pain, but I persevered after being assured a little blood was ok and to “watch it” because I was now at risk for infection.
We got home and the problems continued. My son’s weight dropped and then some. I took supplements galore to increase milk supply. “You must supplement your baby with formula or banked milk” the doctors said. I used a supplemental nursing system with formula. Banked milk would be an ode to my failures. My baby was not going to have a bottle. That was a “booby trap”. 3 weeks in I got mastitis and after hearing my story the LC said she wouldn’t blame me if I stopped breastfeeding, but if I was to have any chance at success I had to let my nipples heal.. I hadn’t intended to use a pump. I had a job where my baby could come with me and nurse when he wanted, but out to purchase a pump I went. Due to the state of my nipples I had to use special ointments in addition to antibiotics and was advised to pump and dump throughout the infection. It was hard to see my precious milk go to waste. For those 2 weeks my son was an exclusive formula feeder.
Eventually I healed, but my baby was used to the bottle now. I was able to pump about 12 oz a day. The extra nutrition I provided him came from formula. My husband was in medical school at the time and we were living on my teacher’s salary. We had plenty of family members who would have helped us with the cost of formula, but we qualified for WIC. I decided to swallow my pride and go down to the WIC office (the fact that university trained teachers make so little they qualify for “welfare” is a story for another day). Being on the other side of WIC really gives one perspective. And believe me, they don’t push formula feeding as some would lead you to believe. I was berated for needing formula and lectured about how “breast was best.” “Yes I know”, I replied, “I used to give the same lecture and know the research, but my baby is starving.”
An aside, formula feeding is not the easy way out so many would have us believe. I personally can’t stand the smell of formula. I am a self declared neat freak so having bottles out all the time drives me batty. And washing bottles is a chore. On the flip side breastfeeding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. I had to remember a nipple shield whenever I went somewhere the first few weeks. The supplements I used to increase supply cost about as much as formula, and add on to that the cost of lactation consultant visits, doctors’ visits for infection, and prescription antibiotics. The time spent pumping took precious time away from my new family and the only thing that cured my baby’s jaundice was formula. But I digress.
At 4 months I decided to try nursing again. Amazingly, this time my son got it, but it was a comfort thing we did once a day for the next 6 months. It worked for us. And at 10 months it wasn’t for either of us anymore and we switched to full-time formula feeding.
During my breastfeeding ordeal (yes that’s what it was) people I met out and about would ask if I was breastfeeding. I learned firsthand how berating “lactivists” could be. I felt I needed to launch into my story, which is actually much more complicated than what I have already written. I have just about every medical condition listed in the literature that makes breastfeeding more difficult. But they didn’t care. I hadn’t tried “hard” enough. I would get angry when my husband would use one of my precious breastmilk bottles at home. I needed those for outings. If I couldn’t breastfeed, at least maybe those who chided me would see that I was giving my son pumped milk. When my son turned a year I felt the breastfeeding nightmare was over, but it still haunted me occasionally.
3 years later I was pregnant again. Old feelings came back. I thought about how I had “failed” my son according to certain groups of people. This, despite having a loving, smart child who was rarely sick. I would not fail again. While still pregnant, I met with an ob-gyn who had gotten her PhD doing research in breastfeeding, to discuss what went wrong previously. This doctor was incredible. All LCs should be like her. She termed my first experience a “lactastrophe” since both baby and mom had a multitude of problems. We talked about what to try differently this time around, and I was told to let go of the guilt if things did not work out and think about all the other things I could do to bond with my child. For me this was easier said than done.
My husband was now out of med school and working as a pediatrician and so I would be able to stay home. I thought this would give me more time to focus on feeding. Eventually our daughter arrived. She was born at 39 weeks and took to feeding more easily than her brother. In fact she took to breastfeeding like a champ. The nurses, doctors, and LCs said they wished they could teach all the babies on the floor to nurse so well. I used Lansinoh like it was going out of style to prevent my nipples from cracking.
Despite minor cracking, nursing was bliss for a couple of days. And then my daughter’s weight dropped and kept dropping. Because she was breastfeeding so well supplementing her wasn’t suggested at first. The doctors decided to give her time for her weight to go up. It never did. My daughter got sleepy. Nursing became agony. I couldn’t wake her up, but I was attempting to feed all the time to make sure she was getting something. My husband had access to a scale at the hospital, so I used it incessantly to measure how much my daughter was getting. You may read that true low supply only happens in 1% of mothers. To that I say “bologna”! I know too many women who have struggled with it to believe that. I did not have perceived low supply because I knew exactly what my daughter’s intake was and it was low. I pumped after every feed which became a nightmare because I had a 4 year old to take care of as well. The nurse, bottle, pump cycle became unsustainable, but for some reason I kept doing it. I began taking supplements including a new one that was supposed to be magic. It didn’t do much, nor did the other helpful tips for increasing supply.
My pediatrician husband along with our pediatrician eventually said we had to supplement. I broke down and said “go to the store to get some formula”. I was heartbroken when my husband pulled out a can of formula he had hidden in the pantry. It made me feel like more of a failure that he had saved the free can that came in the mail. I know that wasn’t his intention. Some incredible, non judgmental friends offered their own extra supplies of breastmilk. If it wouldn’t be a daily reminder to me of my own guilt I would have definitely taken them up on it. I “fell harder” this time because things seemed perfect at first and the depression I’d been spiraling into over breastfeeding our daughter hit an all-time low. I told my husband that if I couldn’t feed our daughter I might as well not be around. I had no intention of harming myself, but that’s how the culture of “breast is the only right way” had made me feel. My husband said “our baby is so much more than a thing to feed,” and of course he was right. Although I’m sure there are still those out there who think that somehow I still didn’t try hard enough.
The plan was to get our little girl’s weight up so she would have more energy to eat and then pull away supplementation. It did work well and by 2 months I had stopped supplementing with formula. But without any supplementation my daughter’s weight plateaued and so I learned that she needed just a mere three ounces of formula a day for a little weight gain. At this point I was seeing someone to discuss my depression. I was feeling much better, and only occasionally would make a comment about how I still felt bad because I wasn’t breastfeeding exclusively. My very supportive husband’s response, “it is not a competition, you are still breastfeeding.” And oh do I wish it weren’t a competition. But unfortunately women in our society have made it so.
My second breastfeeding relationship also ended at 10 months. I would have kept going, but I ended up with mastitis and at 10 months I didn’t find it necessary to continue with the risk of repeat infections being much higher for me. When my daughter slapped me because she wasn’t getting enough milk anymore, that confirmed we were done. It was a bittersweet end. I have no problem with extended feeding and would have continued, but my baby, not the world, told me it was time to stop. Dragging it out would have only been for me.
After my experience I very firmly believe that no one should tell another mother what is best for her child (yes I realize there are exceptions such as abuse). Research can be presented, but there is always more to the story than just breast vs. formula. Most mothers are doing the best they can with the cards they are dealt. Great for you if you can breastfeed exclusively! I understand and support you if you decide to formula feed. I think women should have the right to breastfeed, but they should be able to formula feed without guilt. I was very aware when visiting relatives in VA that I did not have the breastfeeding rights I had in my home state, and women should continue to fight for those rights. I know there are women who have been made to feel uncomfortable while breastfeeding in public, and I am very sorry for that. But during my two feeding relationships I was never ostracized for nursing, but was made to feel inferior time and time again and berated because I chose to supplement with formula. I have taken care of hundreds of infants who were fed in a variety of ways across socioeconomic groups and sadly breastfeeding did not magically make this disparity disappear. Of course I didn’t do controlled studies, but if I compared children within their socioeconomic groups I certainly couldn’t tell you which were breastfed and which were not. And in my infant classes, although I know just coincidence, the formula fed babies were the ones who were rarely sick. Go figure.
Would I choose to breastfeed again? Yes, but I also have to ask myself if, given my struggles, my reasons for breastfeeding aren’t entirely selfish. I took a lot of time away from my family and went on a crusade to breastfeed because society told me I wasn’t a good mother if I didn’t. Can I just say, “thank God we live in a time when an alternative is available to those of us with problems!”? So, yes I’ll do it again because when it was going well my children and I truly enjoyed the experience. But you know what? You can bond, be a good mother, and have wonderful, productive children even if you formula feed! As I wrote this I found out a friend had lost her baby in the second trimester. As my heart broke for her all I could think was that each mother out there, including myself, should be thankful we have a baby and the opportunity to debate feeding choices. I hope some day we’ll get to a place where we will support each other as mothers. I hope we’ll get to a time where excuses for why we choose to feed our infants the way we do are no longer required. A time when a four page story to support the way I chose to feed my children isn’t necessary. I know it will be an uphill battle, but one day I dream that motherhood will be a time to build each other up and not tear each other down. Until then I hope my story will at least be a step in the right direction.
Ready…set…SHARE. Send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org. And like my dad always says, don’t let the bastards get you down.