Formula Isn’t Poison

Story written by author Teresa Strasser about breastfeeding. The best line: “Yes, I liked nursing. It was pretty sweet knowing I could keep my baby alive with my boobs.”

Formula Isn’t Poison

Every week, I go to a breastfeeding moms support group. I stopped nursing three months ago.

At first, I tried to blend — made my baby a bottle of formula beforehand and fed it to him during the group hoping people would assume it was previously pumped breast milk. But I’ve gotten brazen. Now I just take out my little bottles of Good Start and feed him right there, as the other moms try not to stare in horror.

I guess I’m just lonely.

Any guilt I had about weaning at 4 months is healed by these weekly meetings — the nonstop obsessing about what size breast shields to use, what kinds of supplements to use, how often to pump and for how long, how to wake up in the middle of the night to pump so the supply doesn’t drop, the best way to freeze and store milk, how to deal with plugged ducts and babies that need to nurse every hour through the night.

Sometimes, I want to raise my hand and say, “Listen, you crazy mamas, it’s not all about the breastfeeding. I’m sure you can bond with your babies in lots of ways that don’t involve turning your lives inside out just to make sure you never expose your baby to an ounce of formula. It’s not poison.”

But I was one of those crazy mamas. I took the herbal supplements and drank the tea. I tried to go as long as I could, but at 4 months, supply just couldn’t meet demand. Did I want to make motherhood all about nursing, or did I want to let go knowing I did the best I could?

Well, I didn’t want to let go, but my body was in charge, and that’s how it went. The well ran dry. To see the pressure these women put on themselves is to look in a mirror. Would I have been a better mother if I chose to get up every couple of hours and pump so I could keep nursing? Or would I have been a sleep-deprived mess who let myself get brainwashed by my peers?

So I go to the group. Maybe just to kill time, but maybe also to feel better about the formula thing because these moms look downright miserable. In the end, instead of feeling inferior, I just feel relieved. I have enough crazy obsessions without adding this one. And as much as I truly understand that breast milk is superior, I wonder about all the struggles that seem to go with nursing a baby.

It’s natural.

It’s right. It’s what Mother Nature intended. And yet, so is breathing, and most moms don’t go to breathing support groups. My pediatrician says we need help to nurse properly because we no longer live in communal situations with aunts and cousins and elders who could show us how to do it. Stores and groups and books are the new “village” it takes to raise a child, or at least to nurse it successfully.

The dark secret for me is that I had to work. Worse: I chose to work. I had a book to write, and I went off for four hours a day and let the baby have a bottle. Maybe that’s why I stopped making enough milk. The less I made, the more formula I needed to use, the less I produced, the more I used formula, the more demand shrunk, supply shrunk, the whole thing unraveled, and it’s all my fault for working. Or that’s what I tell myself when I’m kicking myself in the butt about the whole thing.

The pendulum has swung so far since the days when doctors advised moms that formula was best, when nursing was seen as radical and kooky. Now, if you don’t nurse your baby for at least six months, you are a selfish failure. In the tacit competition between moms over who can nurse the longest, the competition that may exist only in my mind: I LOSE.

Yes, I liked nursing. It was pretty sweet knowing I could keep my baby alive with my boobs. I did feel like a natural woman. At the pediatrician, I felt like a rock star. Around formula-feeding moms, I felt a potent mixture of superiority and pity. And after awhile, I felt like an idiot for my nonstop focus on how I could keep it all going.

When I see what these nursing moms are going through, I don’t miss it. I’m angry that the unintended consequence of this well-meaning “breast is best” movement is to guilt working moms into nursing on demand, all the time, all night long, for six months or until most jobs won’t want you back. The accidental message is that if you don’t press the pause button on every aspect of your life to nurse your baby, you are the worst thing in the world: a bad mom.

So maybe I don’t go to the nursing moms support group just because I’m lonely. Maybe I go because I’m guilty.

Teresa Strasser is an Emmy-winning television writer and a multimedia personality. She is the author of a new book, “Exploiting My Baby,” the rights to which have been optioned by Sony Pictures.

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