YouI held the newborn, swaddled in my arms. She was only a few hours old and was already asleep. I was grateful. She would be hungry when she woke up. The young doctor sat at my foot. I had a question but didn’t know if I could get through it without crying. His face was young. I imagined him still living at home, and his mother—so proud!—Ironing his white starched doctor’s coat. If he had an answer about how to feed my daughter, I didn’t want to hear it from him. He didn’t have children, I could tell. And he didn’t have breasts.
But, then again I didn’t.
In response to the national formula shortage, there are some who are calling for women to “just breastfeed.” Many women, already burdened by limited childcare, full-time jobs, and managing a continuing pandemic, will do just that. But for other women—for Numerous women—“just breastfeed” isn’t an option.
Learn More Five Parents Talk About the Pressure of Feeding Their Children in a National Formula Shortage.
The mantra “breast is best” gets hammered in at every doctor’s appointment, every birthing class, every semi-cultish-new-mother Facebook group. This message was passed on to me by my four children. Until it wasn’t an option.
Baby #1: I exclusively breastfed my first son for six months until I couldn’t produce enough milk to keep up. Next, I started formula. The CDC estimates that 40% of infants follow the same path, with breast milk starting first and formula following six months. Women who start breastfeeding, but have to stop have plenty of reasons: it’s not working, they’re worried about their babies’ weight gain, they can’t take their own necessary medication and breastfeed at the same time, and—this should come as no surprise to anyone who’s done it—it’s too damn hard. These numbers are only representative of the women who breastfed successfully from the start. They also don’t include adoptive parents or parents whose children were born to surrogates.
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Baby #2: This was my second child. A seven-pound gourmand-in-training, he refused anything but the breast. Even refusing to drink pumped breastmilk, the jerk. In the U.S., only 1 out of 4 infants are breastfed exclusively for six months. My one child was among my four.
Thanks to God.
He grabbed my breasts and held them in his hands every time he fed. His small, fat hands pulled me off a hundred times.
That’s where, when he was 10 months old, I found the tumor.
Baby #3: I didn’t think I could get pregnant after cancer. But I was mistaken.
We went to the ob-gyn for a scan when I found out I was pregnant. On the exam room wall hung a poster of a baby at a woman’s bare breast. I turned my back. My only option was to have bilateral mastectomy. Without one, my chances of recurrence were only 40%.
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We didn’t know if the pregnancy would be viable. Herceptin was the immunotherapy drug that I still took. She had already been given two doses of Herceptin. The effects on the embryo were not researched. We didn’t know if my embryo would be healthy before we did a scan. I wondered—briefly—if maybe it would be better that way. I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed this baby. That’s how strong the “breast is best” message is. There was also the constant nagging feeling I couldn’t say out loud. It made me feel stupid and reckless for having my baby so early after the treatment. It could happen again, was the thought that consumed my thoughts. I’d leave my three young children, now grown up, motherless.
The guilt I felt at having let down this child only made it worse once she was born. It was the first time I saw her alone in hospital. Autopilot should have put me on my way. I was having my third baby. But as I looked around the room, I realized I didn’t know how to feed her. What was I supposed to do? They were in a drawer. How would you feed your child if she wakes up?
Liam, 5, Braden 2,5 and Makayla are just a few days apart
Courtesy Sara Herchenroether
That’s when the young doctor came in, the one who couldn’t possibly understand. Soon after that, an apparently more knowledgeable doctor entered the room. I was certain that she would not only be able tell me what to feed my baby, but also ensure that the formula babies are healthy.
I don’t remember most of what this doctor said. She was wearing glasses. She was a mother to her children. I do remember was her telling me formula would be the difference of “losing a few IQ points.”
Doctors, don’t do this.
Before the doctor, I sobbed. I don’t cry in the presence of doctors. That’s what the upstairs hallway, the foot of my bed, the shower is for.) My tears came out when I returned home. Every time my daughter got a drink, I sobbed. We ate together, so I took her little onesie off and pulled mine up, putting my skin on.
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After a week, I had given up on my grief. She sucked down those bottles so fast—it was clear she didn’t care, and she didn’t know the difference. She could be fed by my husband without me. Not because formula was used, she was happy because her parents knew the best.
What is baby #4? I handed that kid a bottle and didn’t think twice.
In America, we ask too much of women’s bodies.
Many women who formulafeed don’t have their breast tissue removed from the twin skin pouches across their chest. However, no matter what the circumstance, parenthood is difficult enough without anyone judging. Women who formula feed are no different than women who breastfeed: they’re simply trying to be the best mothers they can be. They should be allowed to do so.
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