You’re pregnant and doing your research on how to best provide nutrients and to feed your baby after your little one decides to make their debut. You are an exhausted new mom, frustrated that you are not producing enough milk for your child and feeling like a failure for not being able to breast-feed your baby when that was your post-birth plan. You are about to enter the world of your career again, worried about how to juggle both career and breast-feeding.
You are a new mom struggling with depression, grappling with the decision to either take care of your mental health by going on prescription drugs, or continue breast-feeding. There are countless scenarios and sources of guilt, grief, and helplessness associated with breast-feeding — whether it is going well and is the preferred choice of the mother, or whether an alternative method such as supplementing or formula feeding seems to be a better choice.
Where is this guilt and shame coming from? There has been an overwhelming message of “breast is best” in our society and culture for years, and this limited view needs to be re-evaluated in order for mothers to truly make informed decisions and break free from the guilt, shame, and confusion.
As mothers and women with uteruses, we are already expected to be and do so much for our children and families. We have been fighting battles to claim our bodies as our own for years. So why do we plague ourselves by tethering ourselves to one way as the best, and often only endorsed, method of feeding our children?
There are many mothers who suffer from post-partum depression, or depression before, during and after pregnancy, and are forced to make a choice between caring for their own mental health or breastfeeding. And with society’s extremely strong view on breast-feeding being best to the point of considering formula feeding harming your baby, the guilt is insurmountable, feeding into the cycle of depression. This impossible position leaves a mom feeling helpless, guilty, and trapped in a situation where she is incapable of either caring for her own needs or her baby’s, not to mention being defined as a mom by her feeding method. And this is not the only reason mothers are unable to breast-feed: Some need other options due to infection, supply issues, physical ailments, or lifestyle challenges.
What if that means formula feeding? Is that so bad? According to Joan Wolf, maybe not. Wolf is professor of women and gender studies at Texas A&M, and wrote a book, Is Breast Best?, which takes an honest look at our widespread belief that breast is the best option for feeding your baby.
Wolf ventures to say that “public discussions of breast-feeding say more about infatuation with personal responsibility and perfect mothering in America than they do about the concrete benefits of the breast.” She also explains her primary concern with the overpowering and unstable breast is that “infant feeding choices are framed by people and institutions perceived to be authoritative.” Wolf first began her research due to what seemed to be a lack of feminists’ interest or questioning in how breast-feeding is a social process. She also mentions the all encompassing toll breast-feeding can take on a mother and wonders why feminists have not grappled with infant feeding to the extent that they have with so many other aspects of reproduction and child care.
As a mom to a toddler, pregnant wife, and feminist, I couldn’t agree more, and I have had those same questions. I have sensed the growing culture of one feeding option being the only acceptable option, and the judgment that comes with choosing any other avenue. In fact, during my hospital stay with my daughter, although I planned on breastfeeding, I was never asked once about my plan for feeding my baby, and the nurse presumptuously brought the baby over to latch just moments after giving birth. Although I was OK with this next step and breast-fed for four months before returning to work, the fact that I was not asked or given the opportunity to voice what was my plan or best for me in that moment was not lost on me.
My decision had been assumed by my doctors, nurses, and even some surrounding family members, who often asked about how breast-feeding was going more than how I was adjusting as a new mom. The feelings of guilt and shame continued when, after returning to work, I didn’t join the new moms pumping at lunch, instead having chosen to wean my daughter and switch to formula. I was unsure of the source of this guilt and shame, and wondered from where this message of breast-feeding being unquestionably the most important aspect of caring for my baby’s nutritional needs, health, bonding and attachment, and even later intelligence, was coming. As Wolf puts it, “breast-feeding has come to be perceived as the holy grail of health, and formula-feeding as the equivalent of giving baby nicotine.” This is a side to the story that I am valuing and truly examining as I approach making the decision of how to feed my second child, while also taking care of my mental health.
Elisabeth Badinter has also fought for women’s equality, and part of that fight has been taking a look at how motherhood often puts restrictions and unrealistic standards on women. In her book The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women, Badinter argues “that the taboos now surrounding epidurals, formula, disposable diapers, cribs—and anything that distracts a mother’s attention from her offspring—have turned child-rearing into a singularly regressive force.”
This includes breast-feeding, and she discusses how our on demand approach with breast-feeding curtails women’s choices. After nine long months of your body not being your own, the physical toll of breastfeeding continues this sense of a loss of ownership over your body. Moms continue to have to make dietary changes, restrictions, and lifestyle changes in order to sustain breast-feeding. Some of these changes are small sacrifices for some women in order to feed their babies with a personally preferred method, but some of these changes mean compromising women’s choices, paths, lifestyle, and even health. Wolf shares a comment by a counselor at a federal women, infants, and children (WIC) clinic “lamenting the tragedy of teenaged mothers choosing to go to school instead of breast-feeding their babies.” If you ask me, something is wrong when women feel shamed for making their education, careers or own bodies a priority or choice after giving birth, when ultimately it is their own decision to make.
There is so much more that goes into raising a healthy, typically developing, thriving young baby and child. Wolf mentions some of the factors that are often overlooked in studies that have been done, including the health care of infants; health habits of the family, including hand washing; responsive parenting; a child’s early learning experiences; how often a child is read to; financial and socioeconomic status of families; the mental health of mothers, in turn influencing attachment; whether the child is in daycare or at home; the list goes on and on. Many of the studies used to promote and substantiate that breast is best fail to control these factors.
You see, there truly is more to being a good mom and raising an intelligent, healthy, and caring little soul than a method of feeding, and I have seen it myself as not only a mother, but an early childhood special education specialist.
There needs to be a cultural shift once again, where we define motherhood based on more than one facet or choice. For some women, breast-feeding is best, natural, rewarding, and the right choice for her and her family. But let’s not isolate those women who need to, want to and make another choice. There are plenty of healthy and thriving young children with mothers who give them overabundant love and care that have been both formula fed and breast-fed. Let’s start honoring the overall sacrifice of motherhood, and give motherhood the credit it deserves — as a multifaceted, challenging, beautifully rewarding job and gift that goes beyond the boundaries of a box of formula or a breast.
Written by Allison Montgomery