Formula: The Mommy War Within

My baby took formula for the first time today – and I am flooded with grief and relief, and grief for feeling relief.

It’s not really a big deal, but it is. My lactivism and breastfeeding advocacy is widely known among my friends and followers so my daughter’s “Exclusively Breastfed” (EBF) status is kind of a source of pride for me. I now realize that a lot of this pride stems from my first breastfeeding experience – I told people that my first daughter was EBF, only to later learn on a mommy thread that I had been dead wrong. A mom wrote in response to a post about a mom who mostly breastfed and casually used formula:

“If your baby has ever received one drop of formula, they are NOT EBF”

I was crushed by that reality, and the accusing tone of the author. I felt like she was pointing a finger at me, calling me out as a fraud. My first baby breastfed for almost two years, only being supplemented in her first month, and then again later when I went back to work. In the beginning our formula use had been based on fear, fear of jaundice and Bili lights. Then, when she turned six months old and I went back to work, her occasional formula bottle let my mother feed her easily out and about. It gave me reprieve from the stress of being the sole source of nutrition for my little baby, making pumping much less stressful – and therefore more successful.

Pumping at work is an unpaid "break" where I sit in a tiny, stark white room and hook myself up to a machine and scroll through my Facebook feed at least twice a day while my colleagues and clients form bonds and collaborate.

Pumping at work is an unpaid “break” where I sit in a tiny, stark white room and hook myself up to a machine and scroll through my Facebook feed at least twice a day while my colleagues and clients form bonds and collaborate.

Pumping at work is boring, time consuming and stressful. It was nice to have something to fall back on. But I had never considered that my baby wasn’t “Exclusively Breastfed”.

So when my second was born I was excited when I seemed to have milk-a-plenty. I shed my “first-time-mom” fears and nursed in public with reckless abandon, shared my breast milk with a friend’s newly adopted newborn, gave well intended advice to new mothers and used breast milk to cure every ailment that made it’s way into my home. I was proud that this time, THIS TIME, I had an EBF baby. No one could take that away from me!

Then, again, when my second and final baby was six months old I went back to work and baby girl went with grandma. After four months of stressing about pumping; finding a place, making the time, keeping up with my work while taking extra unpaid breaks throughout my day, explaining to too many judging faces (“you said your baby is HOW OLD?”) that I was nursing and needed accommodations, cleaning my pump adequately and storing the milk appropriately – my padded stash started to dwindle. The final straw was when we all got the flu. We were now sending milk to grandma’s house on a day-to-day basis. I couldn’t help but feel that my body was failing me.

Me breastfeeding my first born at 8 weeks. This photo was my profile picture on Facebook for World Breastfeeding Week. It was reported as "Nudity/Pornography" within hours.

Me breastfeeding my first born at 8 weeks. This photo was my profile picture on Facebook for World Breastfeeding Week. It was reported as “Nudity/Pornography” within hours.

I was stressing so hard about being able to pump and produce enough that my mom tried a formula bottle. Baby girl took one taste and spit it right back out. The same response happened three times in a row. I beamed with pride – what a smart baby I have! She knows what’s up! But at the same time I felt my fears and inadequacies creeping up on me. We moms, we do this to ourselves so much. I should have pumped more diligently and taken Fenugreek daily. Why didn’t I make oatmeal this morning?? I could have pumped again at work if I hadn’t had lunch with my colleague. What if I can’t keep up? What if I spill some? I brought myself to tears thinking about it every time I pumped less than four ounces. Ironically I later learned that the WHO definition of EBF suggests that after solids a baby is no longer EBF, so she wasn’t technically EBF after six months anyway! All of that worry about some status for NOTHING.

Nursing my youngest at four months old.

Nursing my youngest at four months old.

Then I stepped back and asked myself “What is this angst?! There are women who try and try but can’t breastfeed at all, what are you complaining about?! Your first child took formula and you NEVER second guessed yourself! What’s so different now?”

What is different now is that I am entrenched in the mommy community. I belong to groups upon groups of support networks for moms, and I love them. In no other groups have I seen a mother ask for help so timidly and be barraged by helpful advice and words of support so quickly – no judgement, just information and experience sharing. But on the opposite end of this you find social media threads where the magical anonymity of the internet begs for callous judgements full of “you should”s. This is why my rule is “don’t read the comments”. Every time I break this rule I lose a little faith in humanity. While mommies have this innate gift for creating community to uplift each other, there is a dark side where we tear each other down with no mercy. This is aptly named “The Mommy Wars”.

 

Discussion and open dialogue over important issues are invaluable to successful and savvy Mommy-hood, and the one thing most moms have in common is that we really just want to do the best that we can do for our babies. I love hanging with other moms. I get really excited when they share some of the core values I apply to my parenting, but I have yet to meet a mom that does EVERYthing like me. Some vaccinate, some don’t. Some use cloth diapers, some use disposables. Some use formula, some breastfeed. But the ones I am closest to? The ones who accept our differences and continue to share information and celebrate what we do have in common. We take our differences, turn them into discussions, and don’t take any of it personally. These are the moms that I rely on to hash out the hardest decision I have to make as a mom.

I look at each of my mommy friends and I see women who would do anything for her baby, and does everything that her current situation permits. If she breastfeeds like me I tend to get excited because we share something unique in common. If she decides to consider formula I will do my best to give her the support (Successful breastfeeding really takes a village!) she needs to continue to breastfeed. If it so happens that her situation doesn’t permit her to continue breastfeeding I will not to judge her. It is better to be a sane and present mother than a breastfeeding mother. I will try to assume the best of her – that she is doing the best she has with what she’s got, and trust that she made the right decision for HER situation.

So I think about my situation – my baby is ten months old. She will get some formula, but it will allow me to relax a little and continue to breastfeed her because I will also continue to pump at work. I had zero reason to feel bad about that, but I did. Why? Because ONE mom shared her snotty standards of Exclusive Breastfeeding on some mommy site – and it wasn’t even directed at ME!! Our words are so powerful, and we sling them all over the interwebs, pulling down mommas we don’t even know. It has to stop.

We all just do our best

We all just do our best

I see this “look” on another moms face sometimes – the one when I tell her I did something differently than she did. It’s a combination of fear and curiosity, a look of expectant judgement. It always makes me wonder what I did wrong to make her think that I would judge her, but I know it isn’t me. I know it’s her experiences with people who think like me. I know it might be because some militant crunchy mom on her hospital tour accused her of trying to kill her baby with her choice to get an epidural. I know it was probably another woman, who probably didn’t even know her, who shamed her for not “trying hard enough” to breastfeed. I’m sure I get this look on my face, too, when I tell a bottle feeding mom that I am still breastfeeding at 18 months or when I need to nurse my baby in a public space. It is a shame that women treat each other this way so often that we expect it, and it IS almost always coming from other women.

For example; a mother here in Austin was told to leave a store by a female employee after asking to use a vacant dressing room to breastfeed her young son. She *could* technically have legally nursed anywhere in the mall, but this employee chose to humiliate her. When the media blew up the comments made me question my faith in humanity. Uneducated childless people said things like “Go in the bathroom!” or “Gross, you might have spilled some breast milk in that stall!” but it wasn’t these that offended me most. It was the other moms. The moms who said “that’s what a pump is for” (no, just no. See above photo.) and “I support breastfeeding, but only if you are modest and use a cover” (if you have to say I support something, BUT… you probably don’t really support it). And even the moms who said “You should have just whipped it out! You don’t have to ask, be a strong woman!” (it is important to support a breastfeeding mom REGARDLESS of their personal comfort level when nursing).

And in that same vein; a breastfeeding support page, The Leaky Boob, found out that a picture that they had shared – intended to inspire women – was taken and perverted into something else.

It was a photo of one of the admins after she gave birth. Her birth had rendered her temporarily quadriplegic and the photo showed a nurse holding her newborn to her breast, giving her the support (emphasis – SUPPORT) to begin a breastfeeding relationship despite the circumstances. Beautiful! But another parenting site took the photo and added a tag line that suggested that women who weren’t breastfeeding weren’t trying hard enough. They turned something uplifting and encouraging into judgement and belittlement.

That’s right. It comes from both sides. So no matter what a mother does, she is ridiculed. If we breastfeed we are shunned and embarrassed when we feed our babies. If we formula feed we are made to feel inadequate. Guess we might as well do what we want anyway, right?

Take a time out and look at this sleepy-time drool face. She is sweet and precious and healthy, and that is all that we can hope for.

Take a time out and look at this sleepy-time drool face. She is sweet and precious and healthy, and that is all that we can hope for.

We can never judge the life of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path. ~ Paulo Coelho

Think next time you join in a discussion with another mom, think: is what I am going to say informative, or judgmental? Is it helpful or hurtful? What can I say to uplift this momma? I know it will be a challenge and none of us are perfect, but I’m going to do my best to control my knee-jerk judgements. I’m going to try to gently inform where it is welcome and otherwise be the change I want to see in the world. I hope you’ll join me in trying to change the dialogue in the Mommy Wars to an information based discussion. None of us learn from being hurt and belittled for our choices. When we know better, we do better. Let’s do better. It might have a bigger impact than you expect.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Body is a Good Thing: An Oath

Photography by http://www.steve-rogers-photography.com/

Things just got real: Julie Gillis speaks as I interpret her powerful message

The other day I was hanging out with my three(almost four!!!)year-old playing dolls and such when she shifted her legs a certain way and got a distant look in her eye. As she shifted slightly back with curiosity I said “Hey, whatcha doin?”

“It feels good”

Dammitdammitdammitdammitdammit… what do I say?! Don’t screw her up! I rack my brain for the latest and greatest articles on age appropriate sex education. Don’t shame her! Um, but I don’t want her to start walking around telling strangers about her “feel good” spot, either. DAMMIT. Things just got real.

“Yea, it does feel good sometimes, but that is just for YOU, not for anyone else.”

Crap…. technically one day she will share that feeling with someone, so that’s kind of a lie. I want to be honest, but she is only three – why is this so complicated?!

This inspires her to tell me all of the words she knows, proudly spouting off the genitalia of everyone she sees regularly and of course tops it all off with the story of how baby sister came out of mommy’s vagina. I am proud that she knows these words, and I know that it empowers her to know about her body, but it is weird to hear someone say “vagina” and “penis” without the inherent hush in their voice, much less with such vigor. I think about how long she will be able to say these words with such naivety. She is so innocent.

We are once again pulled back to our dolls as she reanimates the ribbon snake that refuses to leave our poor princesses alone – I am relieved. That might be bad. Or normal. It’s just another body part! But… it’s also not. I am glad that I have more time to consider my responses to her future ponderings.

I don’t think I scarred her for life during – what I was pretty sure was – our first “sex talk”. My response wasn’t perfect, but it will do for now. I just try to remember to do my best to be as honest, and as age appropriate, as I can be.

A few months ago my friend, Julie Gillis, performed a paramount piece about sex education in the state of Texas at Bedpost Confessions. We live in a state that allows schools to teach from a curriculum that compares their sexuality to a chewed up piece of gum. She spoke about having this conversation with her son and goes on to say:

The less access to education and resources kids have the more problems we’ll have. The less resources young folks have around how to love, learn, consent, respect? The harder things will be for them as adults.

Say it!

Say it!

This resonates with me, and I want to be a resource to my daughters, but at the same time sometimes it can be hard to know what to say in the moment. So when the talented Ebony Stewart joined Julie on stage and challenged the crowd I knew I had to share what she spoke. An oath for every adult who is around, near or has children to pledge (hint: that probably means you).

I hope you will take her oath with me:

Ebony Stewart

Ebony Stewart

“My name is Ebony Stewart aka The Gully Princess aka “I’ll eat cho cupcake.”
And as a Sex-Ed teacher in this he’er great state of Texas I believe it takes a village to raise our adolescents.

I’m here to DEPUTIZE YOU!

On this day November 21st and every day forward before my friends, strangers, bartenders, BedPost Confessions, a sex-ed teacher, and all the gods we serve…

I will, if asked and in the most consensual and ethical manner with good boundaries and only if I feel safe in doing so, teach adolescents how to affirm and respect themselves as sexual persons (including their bodies, sexual orientation, feelings and to respect the sexuality of others).

I will increase comfort and skills for discussing and negotiating sexuality issues with peers, romantic partners, and people of other generations.

I will stay current in all the latest music, relationships and sex scandals (such as KimYe because Brangelina is not relevant anymore).

THINGS HAVE CHANGED since “back in my day.”

I will not use the phrase “back in my day” anymore!

I will explore, develop, and articulate values, attitudes, and feelings about my sexuality, their sexuality and the sexuality of others.

I will reject double standards, stereotypes, biases, exploitation, dishonesty and harassment.

I will acquire knowledge and skills for developing and maintaining romantic or sexual relationships that are consensual, mutually pleasurable, safe, and based on respect, mutual expectations, and caring.

I will be honest in talking to adolescents about sex.

I will actually use the word sex.

I will also use the words vulva, clitoris, penis, arousal, erection, and ejaculation.
Instead of whoowhoo, peepee, whoHA, Jimmy, nut, bang, blowpop, or pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey when talking to adolescents about sex.

We DECRY the act of shaming.

Sex is not bad.
If sex was a bad thing none of us would be here.

If I don’t know, I will say I DON’T KNOW!
I will find a way to get the best and most accurate answer by contacting Ebony or any of the BedPost Confessions team and we will Google the answer TO-GETHER!

I, Ebony will always be available to help parents and adults learn how to talk about all this!!!

In closing,

The body is a good thing.
I am a good thing.
Therefore,
I am worthy of good things.

And so too, then are the teens of this great state.
So say you AYE??”

AYE!

AYE!

What it boils down to is: all we can do is our best to be honest and open with our youth. Will you take the oath with me? Say AYE!

The photography for this blog post was done by : http://www.steve-rogers-photography.com/

Victory Bird: A Cancer Recovery Story (Part 3 – For the Love of The F Word)

Redbird smiles

Redbird smiles

Brooke's partner in crime, Gracie

Brooke’s partner in crime, Gracie

When I went to photograph Brooke I went with the intention of helping her see how beautiful she was with her new look. I felt so blessed that she trusted me with taking photos of her newly shaved head and I was inspired by her vulnerability. I knew that she had been surrounded by overwhelming positivity and encouragement, and might just be to that point… You know, the one that everyone reaches when something turns your world upside down and the whole positive attitude thing starts to get old? When you just want to be allowed to kick something? Yea, that feeling. I was ready to go there with her if it served her.

I arrived and we were all smiles. I slowly took pictures, figuring out my camera settings as we talked about the past and the stuff of life. I remember as she looked out the window I thought “This is just like before. She is the same old Brooke, just with awesome scarves for hair.” I went through her accessories with her to help her complete her outfit choices. It felt just like when we would help each other get dressed together before we went out for a fun night during college, so much fun! We tried different combinations with different shots and angles. Gracie, her dog, relentlessly tried to photobomb us and we laughed about her obsession with tennis balls. It was fun; we giggled and sighed together just like old times. After some time I could see Brooke was starting to get a little tired but we really wanted to get some shots outside. She made a slow and purposeful wardrobe change as I grabbed the walker she requested. The trek down the stairs was slow and painstaking. This was the first time I had seen Brooke start to wear out, and we had barely been moving around in her room. I realized that my assumption that this was the same old Brooke, just without hair, was way off base.

Brooke's Cancer Kickin' Boots

Brooke’s Cancer Kickin’ Boots

It was beautiful outside – a perfect Fall day in Texas. I got a few shots of her smiling as she told me about her dress, and her victory boots. As we went on I could see the exhaustion on her face and I knew it was time for the patch. I handed it to her and at first we laughed about the simultaneous appropriateness and absurdity of the F-word (One of my personal favorites. Brooke? Not a frequent user). I got smiles from her, but I knew it was wearing thin. I told her I wanted her mad face. All I got was a smile and a laugh.

Brooke failing miserably at making a mad face

Brooke failing miserably at making a mad face

That’s when things got real. We talked about how cancer has taken her power, her mobility, her hair. We talked about the pain of putting your life on hold and finding out who is really in your corner. We talked about being able to address these feelings and put them in a place where they can be noticed, accepted and dis-empowered. All of those raw feelings, angst and pain adequately expressed in two words: Fuck Cancer. That’s when I got this picture.

Fuck Cancer

Fuck Cancer

I love this image. She is so fierce, the epitome of finding power in owning your anger.

I had been holding onto the image, not sure what to do with it. It was beautiful, and I loved it, but I didn’t know where it belonged in all of this. It probably wasn’t for everyone, for sure, but I knew it had a place, a place where it would help people – people who were looking for an outlet for their pain and anger. A few weeks later as she began to taper off of the steroids that had helped her get through radiation Brooke’s body faltered. She kept landing herself back in the Emergency Room, weak and dehydrated. I felt angry. Brooke didn’t deserve this pain and I was pissed that such a warm, loving person was hurting so much. It was all so unfair. So, in a moment of my own anger and frustration, I posted the Fuck Cancer picture on Facebook with this caption:

I have been going back and forth as to whether I should post this image or not because it has an ugly word in it; I thought it might be offensive to some. But you know what? We SHOULD be offended. Cancer offends me. Cancer is ugly. It is mean and it is a bully. It turned Brooke’s life upside down and has put her through more than most of us can even comprehend. Today Brooke visited the ER due to complications from tapering off of her steroids. She has been through so much pain that she doesn’t deserve. I can’t help but get mad sometimes and think: Fuck you, Cancer.

True Beauty

True Beauty

It quickly went viral, my most popular image as of yet. The comments and support were amazing – and I suspect that they came just in time for Brooke during one of her most difficult trials. “Likes” and comments of support kept coming, words like “With a capital F, but louder!!” and my favorite quote from my own father “Rather than being appalled by language be offended by injustice”. Brooke’s own response was perfectly executed:

“If you know me well, you know that the sound of me trying to say this word sounds silly. But, I will say, it doesn’t mean I haven’t had feelings or thoughts about my situation that would be well represented by this.
A little back story on this, Mandi gave me this patch. She asked me to take a picture of it when she took those awesome raw and authentic shots of where I have been during the season. literally, where I am at; like, my bedroom for most of the last four months & my view from my window with all my books around. When she was taking this picture she wanted me to make an “I hate you cancer face”. I’m not very good at holding intense faces with out giggling. It was difficult at first. Then Mandi started listing the things that I have experienced over the past four months, out loud. It was emotional and I felt permission to be angry. And that is when my demeanor got real, like this … But with the expression and the patch, it gave an authentic representation of what I was feeling in that moment … There is freedom in being outwardly honest with how you are feeling. It loses any power that is keeping you from being at peace … As I started to be authentic in my quiet time with God it was emptying out the space in my spirit for healing, forgiveness , and faith to fill it back in. God already knows how we are feeling, and he is a relational God. So, like confiding in a friend, it creates a closeness and provides a space for healing in our mind, body, and soul.”

Her words about “permission to be angry” kept resonating and I knew the post had been made at the perfect time. I was glad I had waited. Then, out of the blue, I got an email from a film student who was making a documentary about Brooke’s journey – and they wanted to use my image! I was thrilled and terrified about the prospect of publicity. I had doubts about it belonging in her inspirational story, so I offered up some of the other images and left it in the film maker’s hands.

Brooke talks about her experience during the Q&A session

Brooke talks about her experience during the Q&A session


Brooke, Lea and I at the Victory Birds screening

Brooke, Lea and I at the Victory Birds screening


I was invited to view the screening of Victory Birds, produced by Jennifer Brofer and Audrey Long. There were so many people there. I knew no one but Brooke and our friend, Lea, who came with me, but I could feel the love resonating in that space. We walked in to see pictures of Brooke throughout her life lovingly placed out on a table. I saw her in the distance on her laptop, opening more Skype windows than I have ever seen on one screen so that her family could watch from afar. It was really awesome to meet some of Brooke’s biggest supporters; of whom I had mostly only interacted with on Facebook. The founder of the Brain Power 5k, Kelly Bolinger, was in attendance along with some who had run the 5k with her. Those who had shaved their heads in solidarity with Brooke were also there. A room full of beautiful, authentic, people. Everyone waited quietly, unsure of what to expect.
Brooke watches as her story plays on the screen

Brooke watches as her story plays on the screen


The film itself was so touching, so inspiring. It portrayed a powerful parallel between Brooke’s hurdles and her race at the Brain Power 5k, ending with her crossing the finish line. Not one person left without shedding a tear. The part where I lost it, where I could no longer deny the effect Brooke had had on my heart, was when the film ended and my photo – the Fuck Cancer photo – flashed up onto the screen. All of my fear of judgement over that one word was wiped out as the entire audience threw their hands in the air and cheered.

What I have learned from Brooke and her journey is that being positive doesn’t mean pretending everything is fine, it means we choose to be happy and thrive despite our circumstances. Addressing our frustrations is vital to our survival, because when we bury them deep they eat at us from the inside. Being vulnerable and real, as Brooke has made herself by making her story so public, gives us strength to carry the weight of our burdens.

My three-year-old daughter caresses Brooke's head without judgement. Her only remark was "I like it, it's soft".

My three-year-old daughter caresses Brooke’s head without judgement. Her only remark was “I like it, it’s soft”.

I will leave you with this:

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

To read more from Brooke herself, check out her blog: http://beincreative.blogspot.com/