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.
There are times when I question whether this blog does more harm than good; times when I think that no matter what anyone does or says, people will always find a way to make parenting an us vs. them team sport.
And then I read a story like Cat’s, and I think, yes. Exactly. This is why. This is how. For people like her, who deserve better.
Happy Friday, fearless ones, wherever you are, and however you feed.
I thought I had prepared for just about everything as the due date for our first baby approached. My husband and I had talked about how we would feel and where we could find support if our child had special needs of one kind or another; I was prepared for my intended medication- and intervention-free birth to go awry and end in a C-section; I had thought a lot about how we would cope with the coming sleepless nights and the possibility of colic; we even had a plan for how our dog would keep getting walks. I am an avowed information junkie and I read piles of birthing and baby books. The only thing I hadn’t given a second of thought to was how our child would be fed.
I would breastfeed of course, exclusively and for as long as I could, but at least until a year. I had duly prepared for this through our prenatal classes, whose teachings supported my firmly held assumption that if we met any breastfeeding challenges, my baby and I would overcome them. “Virtually all mothers can breastfeed.” Sounded good to me.
The birth was smooth and natural, exactly as I had hoped, and our beautiful, tiny daughter Emily was handed to me immediately after she was born. No one thought anything of the fact that I didn’t produce any colostrum or that my breasts hadn’t changed at all over the course of my pregnancy. My midwife helped me plan a pumping regime and work on Emily’s suck. We were home the same day, but that night, we called our midwife. Emily was rooting around and screaming with hunger, and nursing wasn’t making any difference. Our midwife suggested we syringe some formula into her mouth. Formula? Why would we have formula in the house? We ransacked the house and found a free sample we’d gotten from somewhere, read the instructions, mixed some up, and gave it to Emily. She drank it down and fell into a satisfied sleep. I returned to my breast pump, determined to make nursing work.
Weeks later, after days spent seeing more of a breast pump than my newborn daughter, taking herbal supplements and galactogogues, and struggling with finicky supplemental nursing systems, it became clear that my breasts were hypoplastic; I had insufficient glandular tissue. My midwife finally had to say to me, “You need to think about what to do if you’re not able to produce a full milk supply.” That hadn’t occurred to me, even after a month and a half of my intense pumping regime. Everything — everything — I had read indicated that if I tried hard enough I could make this work. That night, my husband came in to find me weeping on the bed with a copy of Dr. Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding on my lap. “She’s going to be stupid, and diabetic, and obese, and have asthma and ear infections, and it’s all my fault.” The anguish and guilt I felt at not being able to exclusively breastfeed were consuming. When my daughter wound up in the hospital at six weeks with viral meningitis, nothing could persuade me that it wasn’t my fault that she was sick. My husband, a family doctor, showed me studies and explained that this had nothing to do with breastmilk, that Emily would be fine, that formula was a great way to feed our baby. I didn’t believe him.
I was still trying to make the SNS (supplemental nursing system) work one terrible night when my husband was out at a work function and Emily would not settle. I had nursed her and nursed her, though I could see she wasn’t getting anything, and had used the SNS and a syringe to give her formula, but I could tell she was starving. I ran around the house, wearing my hungry, screaming infant in a sling, crying along with her while I ransacked all of the baby gifts people had given us looking for a bottle. Finally, at the bottom of a closet full of baby gear, I found one, and was about to fill it with formula when I thought that maybe I needed to sterilize it first. Wasn’t that a thing people did? Still crying, still trying to bounce my starving newborn, I Googled “how to sterilize bottles” and was presented with piles of conflicting information that in my distress I just couldn’t understand. Then I remembered that friends had given us a sterilizer! I dug it out from under the pile and, after a few tries, I understood the tearstained instruction booklet in my shaking hands enough to make it work. My new baby daughter screamed and screamed while the sterilizer was in the microwave and I scalded my hand on the steam as I took the bottle out to fill it with formula. I screwed the lid on tight and put the nipple to Emily’s lips. She sucked hungrily and, finally, silence prevailed. My husband came home to find us sitting on the couch, Emily peacefully asleep with a full belly at last. I remember smiling tearfully when he came through the door. “I guess we’re using bottles now.”
I had no idea that people would comment on how I fed my baby. I was already embarrassed to be seen in public giving my daughter a bottle; I had never wanted to cover up this badly while nursing in public. The first time it happened was our very first meal out with our new baby: I almost dissolved into tears when a waitress asked why I was giving Emily formula. My sadness turned to anger at these insensitive women — it was always women — and I later called a woman by the pool in Florida a sanctimonious bitch for asking me if I didn’t know that breast was best. I caught dirty looks and raised eyebrows at playgroups; I went to great lengths to work “medically unable to breastfeed” into conversation with people so that they wouldn’t judge me when I gave my daughter a bottle. I became scared to feed my daughter around people.
I can see now how woefully ill prepared I was for the trouble I had. All the information in my prenatal class and all the reading I had dutifully done hammered home the same messages: If you try hard enough, breastfeeding will work for you. And you will try hard enough, because it is the only healthy way to feed your baby. When I needed to give Emily formula, I didn’t know what to buy or how to mix it safely. When I needed to give a bottle, I wasn’t sure how to sterilize it or even if I needed to. I didn’t know anything about bottle feeding or even where to look for the information, because it wasn’t in my baby books. I didn’t know this blog existed. I wasn’t Googling “fearless formula feeding”; I was Googling “risks of formula feeding” and being terrified and lashed with guilt by the results. I was so scared that I wouldn’t bond enough with my daughter because I couldn’t nurse that I forgot to focus on just bonding with my daughter, and I was so obsessed with how she was fed that I was missing my daughter’s infancy. I didn’t know what to say when strangers asked me why I was bottle feeding. I felt like I must be the first person to fail to breastfeed a baby. Surrounded by supportive friends and family — not to mention an amazing husband who brought me Gatorade, ran out for more fenugreek supplements, made me sleep, and was the one to finally figure out how to make the SNS work reliably — I still felt utterly alone, completely lost, and like an utter failure as a mother. My daughter was eight weeks old and already I had screwed up this parenting thing, comprehensively and irrevocably.
Emily never got more than 30 percent of her nourishment from breastmilk, mostly far less. She is now 27 months old, a bright, beautiful, healthy little girl who rarely gets sick. Her language skills are very advanced for her age and I no longer fear that formula has damaged her in any way. I have since read more about the somewhat shaky science behind this formidable push to breastfeed and question why on earth we put so much pressure on moms to feed their babies this way at all costs.
Our second child is due in five weeks’ time. I know that I will not be able to nurse him or her exclusively — it seems unlikely that my breasts will have grown more glandular tissue between pregnancies. This time, we will be prepared: we will have sterilized bottles ready and a good formula in our house. And I’ll have some choice responses prepared to the people who will choose to judge me. I remember joking about writing “Don’t judge me — I tried!” on the side of our bottles with Sharpie last time around; I think this time I might do it.
What I desperately don’t want is for future mothers to feel like I did. The act of becoming a parent already comes pre-loaded with stress, challenges, and guilt enough. Let’s not heap more of all three onto mothers who can’t or don’t want to breastfeed. Time magazine asked, “Are you mom enough?” Yes, you are. We all are. There is a little girl who calls me “Mommy” and, for that reason alone, I am and always will be mom enough. And my answer to that question has exactly nothing to do with how I feed my baby.
Want to share your story with the FFF audience? Email me at email@example.com.