The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I was nervous they were all judging me for formula-feeding and in her typically honest fashion, she admitted that if she didn’t know me, she’d probably be making similar assumptions and judgments about my parenting too. The truth was that I was already on the defensive. Not long before, I had been the one judging formula-feeding moms and now I was one.
Breastfeeding came naturally to me at first. Within moments of being born, my son lay naked on my bare chest trying to find his way to my nipple. He latched easily, and the lactation-trained nurses at the breastfeeding-friendly hospital where he was delivered helped me fine-tune my technique. By the time I brought him home from the hospital, I’d mastered how to do almost everything while simultaneously breastfeeding, including eating, walking, and going to the bathroom. In just a few days my son had almost regained his birth weight, and by two months it had doubled.
In fact, I couldn’t believe how much milk there was. I woke up in puddles, and sprayed milk as I stepped out of the shower. I got a special device to catch extra milk as I breastfed on one side because my letdown was so strong. I could tell when it was time for my son to eat just by how full my breasts felt.
When we started attending regular activities and trying to meet other moms, I couldn’t believe how many parents I saw casually feeding their babies formula. Wasn’t that a thing of the past? Hadn’t everyone gotten the memo that breast was best? Was this the cultural norm in the suburbs, where we’d just moved from the city? These were intelligent, caring parents, which only further confounded me. Why weren’t they breastfeeding?
Amidst the recommendations for lactation consultants and power pumping, someone said something I will never forget: “Feed the baby. Whatever that means. Just feed the baby.”
I felt confident that breastfeeding was not simply a preference — it was a moral imperative. The Office on Women’s Health lists a number of breastfeeding benefits, including reduced risk of asthma, childhood leukemia, childhood obesity, and SIDS. They go on to say it could lead to a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer for breastfeeding moms, and might even result in weight loss. Breastfeeding, studies claim, benefits not just you and your baby, but society as a whole. Armed with this information, I wondered who would knowingly choose not to breastfeed? Was the decision to use formula a case of miseducation, or, worse, a blatant disregard for their child’s well-being?
Slowly, though, I learned that every woman has a perfectly valid reason for breastfeeding, including simply choosing not to breastfeed. I realized from getting to know these women that some found breastfeeding to be excruciatingly painful. For others, formula resolved their babies’ stomach issues in a way no other diet change had. I met moms who had cancer, who adopted, or who just never produced enough milk. I also met women who exclusively pumped and bottle-fed, and others who practiced extended breastfeeding until well after 2.
As I got to know these women — women who were struggling with the same parenting issues I was — I internalized a lesson I’d already learned too many times in my life: don’t be so quick to judge. You don’t know what a person has been through, or why they’ve made the decisions they have. As I matured as a parent, I also realized that everyone is just doing the best they can, making the choices that feel right to them in that moment. Just because something was right for me and my kid didn’t mean it would be right for someone else. And, as I would learn, just because something worked for me one day didn’t mean it would work the next.
The one thing about motherhood that had felt so effortless seemed to be slipping through my fingers. My body, which I had been so proud of, had stopped working. I was harder on myself than I had ever been. I had let my son, my family, and myself down. I couldn’t do the one thing that had come so easily to me. And coming to terms with my new reality hurt more than I’d ever imagined.
I didn’t even notice when my own milk supply started to decline. It took the pediatrician telling me that my son had lost a few ounces for things to click. I didn’t even realize that when my 4 month old started almost sleeping through the night, my body had gotten confused and started producing less milk.
My husband and I bought a scale and weighed our infant daily. I breastfed and pumped as much as I could to try to increase my supply. There were nights when I fell asleep to the whirring of the breast pump, only to be jolted awake with the realization that I had literally been milked dry and had but an ounce to show for it. I made smoothies and cookies that were supposed to aid lactation; I drank mother’s milk tea and took fenugreek pills until I smelled faintly of maple syrup. And nothing worked.
I felt like a failure. Suddenly the one thing about motherhood that had felt so effortless seemed to be slipping through my fingers. My body, which I had been so proud of, had stopped working. I was harder on myself than I had ever been. I had let my son, my family, and myself down. I couldn’t do the one thing that had come so easily to me. And coming to terms with my new reality hurt more than I’d ever imagined.
I posted about my new breastfeeding challenges in a moms’ Facebook group and got dozens of supportive suggestions to help boost my supply. Each bit of advice for how to make more milk, however, felt like a judgment. A silent acknowledgement that no matter the stakes, I must try to continue breastfeeding. But amidst the recommendations for lactation consultants and power pumping, someone said something I will never forget: “Feed the baby. Whatever that means. Just feed the baby.”
I realized my own prejudices were getting in the way of my son’s health. Not only that, but pumping made me miserable and took away valuable time when I could be interacting with him. My husband and I hemmed and hawed, and finally bought some formula.
Behind the shame and guilt, I was surprised at how freeing not relying on breastfeeding felt. I could more easily leave him with family without having to worry about transporting and supplying enough frozen breast milk. My husband was able to take over bedtime duty. And, most importantly, my son was happy and thriving.
Despite my efforts to be less judgmental towards my friends who formula fed, I sobbed the first time I gave my baby formula. I felt like a failure of a mother who was poisoning her child. If only I’d been smarter, or tried harder. Meanwhile, he was happily gulping away, finally getting the sustenance he so clearly needed.
We supplemented for a few months, and my son instantly gained weight. He had no problems adjusting to the formula, no issues switching back and forth between the breast and the bottle. But I continued to be hard on myself, believing this was just a temporary solution. Early on I felt the need to explain to anyone who’d listen. I wanted them to know I was feeding my son formula because I had to. It was the tragedy of low milk supply, and I was only supplementing; this wasn’t a choice I made of my own, uneducated volition.
But behind the shame and guilt, I was surprised at how freeing not relying on breastfeeding felt. I could more easily leave him with family without having to worry about transporting and supplying enough frozen breast milk. My husband was able to take over bedtime duty. And, most importantly, my son was happy and thriving. Now, at nearly 2 years old, he’s healthy as can be and securely attached to both my husband and I, an epic cuddler who has clearly been unfazed by his breastfeeding days being cut short.
Now that he’s older no one cares what he ate as an infant, or when he walked, or what his first word was. I don’t sweat the little stuff as much anymore, and I’m able to adapt to new phases with greater ease.
And a little research shows that while breast might be best, its benefits have been exaggerated and formula babies thrive as well. A 2005 study by Health Services research examined siblings who were fed differently and found the “long-term effects of breastfeeding have been overstated.” Breastfeeding is not the magical panacea it has been advertised to be, and breast is not best for everyone. I learned that the hard way.
Slowly, without even realizing it had happened, my son weaned off the breast. I don’t remember when our last breastfeeding session was; I only know that it wasn’t difficult for either of us. It was quite beautiful, actually.
As I see this experience with increasing hindsight, I realize that it made me a better parent, friend, and person. The decision to give my son formula felt so epic and emotionally fraught at the time, but now that he’s older no one cares what he ate as an infant, or when he walked, or what his first word was. I don’t sweat the little stuff as much anymore, and I’m able to adapt to new phases with greater ease. I’m acutely aware of how quickly things can change. I know that what works for me and my family might not make sense for someone else, and that what worked for me today might not work tomorrow. So I try to stay off that high horse of mine. I try to remember that few things in parenting go as we expect, and everyone is just doing the best they can. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you feed the baby.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.