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.