One evening, soon after we’d made my second pregnancy public, we had some friends over for dinner. The wife of the couple, a close friend who had breastfed for the recommended year, asked if I was going to try and nurse, this time around. “I mean, why wouldn’t you at least try?” she asked, innocently.
This was a rather loaded question.
Twenty months earlier, when I’d entered the hospital to deliver my first baby, I had arrived armed with a new nursing bra, a weathered copy of The Nursing Mother’s Companion, and the full intention to embark on a mutually advantageous, successful breastfeeding journey with my son. And then I gave birth, and all hell broke loose. First came the soul-crushing postpartum depression. Then latching issues. A nerve problem in my left breast. A supply problem in my right. Seven different “lactation consultants.” A tongue tie. A frenulectomy. A switch to “exclusively pumping” rather than nursing. A formerly rock-solid marriage straining under expectations and disappointment. A milk/soy protein allergy. And a partridge in a pear tree.
Eventually, I threw in the nursing cover, packed away the pump, and began formula feeding. I was racked with guilt, but also infuriated at the lack of support for formula feeding parents, so I did what every other middle-class, overly-analytical mom in America does when they need an outlet: I blogged about it. I had stumbled on an unfulfilled niche, so the hits came fast and furious, and before I knew it I’d become the unofficial spokesperson for “breastfeeding failures” around the world. Obviously, when I got pregnant with my daughter, the questions inevitably began. Was I going to try breastfeeding again? Depending on the person asking and the day of the week, my answers would range from “of course!” to “hell to the no.” Both were honest. I truly didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d paid lip service to breastfeeding, claiming that I would have continued had I not faced all our problems. Now that I was facing the prospect of a clean slate, though, my view was murkier.
As much as I did believe in breastfeeding, I felt I harbored some post-traumatic stress from our experience with our son, Leo. I knew it was irrational, but when I thought of nursing, I thought of pain, depression, frustration, craziness, and most of all, failure. My word associations with “formula” were salvation, ease, freedom. Along with those positive associations came others, too. Like selfish, lazy, unfair. Cheater.
I felt tremendous guilt over these emotions. I was a bloody hypocrite. Here I was telling random women all over the world that it was okay to choose formula, that a happy mom meant a happy baby, that there was no shame in not breastfeeding…but when it came to my child, this didn’t hold water. How could I justify not even trying with my daughter?
This brought a harsh truth to light. I’d claimed my blog, Fearless Formula Feeder, stood for feeding freedom; that I would fight for every woman’s right to feed their child as they felt fit. Reading through the past 16 months of posts, though, the focus was on women in extenuating circumstances--sexual trauma survivors, women with rare illnesses and conditions, cases of extreme postpartum depression and incompatible medications. There was little attention paid to women who decided to formula feed for less dramatic reasons, reasons like having a bad taste in your mouth from a bad breastfeeding experience with your son.
I decided I’d give it the old college try, but then the nightmares started. I dreamt of a trio of Macbeth-like lactation consultant witches, trying to force my baby onto my breast. Of a zombie version of me, submitting to an endless cycle of pump, feed, pump, while Leo cried neglected tears in the corner.
These dreams were stupid, and I knew it. Still, my subconscious refused to let it be. I started feeling obsessed with the decision, and it was coloring the latter half of my pregnancy. I felt like the guy in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, just a day away from starting his prison sentence, which of course made me feel guilty. A few of my friends were also pregnant with their second kids, and they all kept talking excitedly about tiny newborn clothes and sleepy newborn cuddles. I wanted to puke. I wondered if I was just missing the maternal gene.
Considering the bulk of parental responsibility for a newborn consists of feeding it adequately, it made sense that I felt defunct. According to all of the medical literature, all the websites, all the popular social media, I had failed to feed my first child correctly. It didn’t matter that breastmilk made him sick; there was no way a human could be allergic to its mother’s milk--I just hadn’t cut out enough foods from my diet. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t latch; if I’d forgone the bottle of formula to treat his jaundice, he would have breastfed successfully. It didn’t matter that he was tongue-tied; a quick snip should have fixed that, so I probably hadn’t tried hard enough to counteract his aversion to my breasts. It didn’t matter that I was drowning in depression and anxiety; breastfeeding should have improved my mood, and even if it didn’t, I should have pushed through for my son’s sake. It didn’t matter that he thrived on formula; that was simply good luck, and of course, there was still time for the repercussions to develop. And most of all, it didn’t matter that I felt with every bone of my body that formula was the right choice for our family. That made me selfish, ignorant, and irresponsible. It made me a bad mom.
It had been easy to brush that all aside once my peer group stopped breastfeeding, and once Leo grew and gave me a million reasons to feel proud of my parenting. Once my daughter was born, though, it was all going to start again, and this time it would be way worse. This time there were no excuses. If I chose to formula feed from the start, it wouldn’t be for her benefit. It would be for mine.
In the end, my only decision was to make no decision. I approached the situation like a science experiment. I would let my daughter lead the way, not push her to latch if she couldn’t, and not go to any heroics. I would let whatever happened, happen organically. No expectations.
I didn’t know what I wanted. I didn’t know what I hoped. I did know one thing, though. My daughter might not end up getting as much breastmilk as her brother had, but she would get something else Leo never got, in those first months: a real mother, one who be focused on her, rather than the number of ounces dripping out of a Medela pump.
Labor went quickly, the second time around. Singing along with Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days,” about happiness hitting like a bullet to the head, I pushed through one contraction, and laughed my daughter Lucy into this world.
The nurse handed her over and I laid her on my bare chest. I wasn’t thinking; I was in a state of pure emotion, pure instinct. Lucy looked up at me with sleepy, calm, newborn eyes, and latched on. Perfectly.
I breastfed my daughter for three blissful days. I nursed her until the nerve pain started; until the first fuzzy shadows of postpartum depression began creeping into my peripheral vision; until the pump started talking to me, whispering yousuckyousuckyousuck, just like last time. But this time, I knew I didn’t suck. I knew she’d thrive on formula like my son had. This time, the decision would be mine, and not made for me by fate, or the formula company, or the breastfeeding police.
And in the end, she was fed. And in the end, she was loved. And in the end, that’s really all that matters.
The foregoing is adapted from Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, And Why It Shouldn’t, by Suzanne Barston. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from University of California Press, 2120 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA.
Suzanne Barston is the former editor-in-chief of a regional parenting magazine who now works as a freelance writer, a social media advisor for a parenting website, a blogger, and the mother of two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. Consequently, she is battling an addiction to caffeinated beverages, and often leaves the house with Yo Gabba Gabba stickers mysteriously adhered to her backside. Her blog, FearlessFormulaFeeder.com, provides support, perspective, and community for bottle-feeding parents in more than 50 countries.