I thought I had come to terms with my decision to formula-feed my baby boy months ago. To this day, I consider it the best decision I have made so far as a mother. Breastfeeding ruined my first three weeks of bonding with John, as I’ve discussed before. I was convinced that I had to be the world’s worst mother because there were times when I found myself second-guessing my decision to have a child. I was even more self-deprecating because objectively-speaking, I had a great baby. During those first three weeks, he ate well and slept well. He figured out breastfeeding without any difficulty, and I didn’t find it to be overly painful. And yet I was miserable.
My entire pregnancy had been shadowed by the looming reality of breastfeeding. As John’s due date approached, countless women offered me advice about childbirth and breastfeeding. Many of them advocated breastfeeding in public with or without a cover, and some of them even went so far as to suggest that women who did not breastfeed in public were traitors to mothers everywhere. I had never been comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding in public, but during those months, I just kept my mouth shut. I just assumed that this was something that I was going to have to endure. I might be miserable for a year or more, but at least I wasn’t going to be a traitor to all mothers everywhere.
But then John was born, and as the days past, our first public outing loomed near. In the end, I chickened out. And that was exactly how I felt. I made the decision to switch to formula just three days before our first scheduled outing, and there was a huge part of me that felt like I was a wimp. I was not a good mother. Breastfeeding was often presented as the one thing that a mother could do that a father could not. It was proposed as the ultimate way to bond with your child, to establish yourself as this little baby’s mother, as someone unique and valuable to the child. It set you apart from the baby’s father, who could love and care for him, but who could never nourish him, could never provide him with this life-sustaining breast milk. Some women had even gone so far as to suggest that breastfeeding was a mother’s way to continue to give this child life- as if giving birth to him hadn’t been enough.
I ignored all of these sentiments though, scanning parenting emails regularly and deleting the ones that made me feel inadequate as a mother. I started deleting all parenting emails that even mentioned nursing or breastfeeding, because more often than not, a well-meaning mother made some comment in support of the “breast is best” movement. I ignored all the looks that I received when I pulled John’s formula-filled bottles from my diaper bag. I ignored the looks when I took a box of formula powder off the supermarket shelf or handed it over to the cashier to ring up. I did my best to ignore the looks and the judgments passed, repeatedly telling myself that I had made the right choice.
I focused on my friends who supported my decision, the ones who didn’t let differing parenting choices get in the way of our friendship. I tried my best to surround myself with supportive family and friends, people who were able to remind me that I had made the best decision for my son and myself. Because contrary to the popular tagline, breast is not always best.
If the slogan “breast is best” only meant that breast milk is more nutritious than formula, I would wholeheartedly agreed. I did all the research; I’ve read the countless studies and articles about the benefits of breast milk for a growing baby. During the months of my pregnancy, I was desperate for more reasons to breastfeed. I hoped that one article would convince me that it would all be worth it. I never did find that article, but I know enough to know that formula is just a substandard imitation of breast milk- there’s a reason that formula companies are constantly trying to create better forms that more closely resemble breast milk. If that’s all that was meant by “breast is best,” I wouldn’t be able to object in the least.
But that’s not all that the slogan means. When you see that catch phrase, it is often followed by all sorts of benefits not just for baby, but for mommy as well, benefits that extend beyond nutrition and health perks. The slogan does not just suggest that breast milk is best, but that breastfeeding is best. And with that concept, I wholeheartedly disagree.
Breastfeeding was definitely not best for me. My first days of potential bonding with my firstborn son were ruined because I hated nursing so much. I will never get those days, those weeks, with my son back. If I could go back and relive those first three weeks of John’s life, I would formula-feed from the very beginning. I would ignore all the pressure to breastfeed, ignore the judgmental looks, and I would just go for the bottles. I would choose to be happy.
I am convinced that bottle-feeding really was the best decision for me. Frustration that could have easily become depression was avoided because I chose to switch from nursing to formula. I know that I made the right decision, and I have not regretted my choice at all. Up until just recently, I thought that I had completely overcome those initial fears about changing; I thought that I had blocked out the whispers that suggested that I was an unfit mother because of my decision to formula-feed. This past week, I realized that I might not have been as free from the doubt as I had originally thought.
I was talking to a priest from a neighboring parish, explaining that John can often have very different reactions to Andrew and myself. What works for one of us doesn’t always work for the other. We can try the exact same tactics, and my efforts might lead to a fifty minute nap with minimal fussing beforehand, while Andrew’s might lead to twenty-five minutes of fighting and crying before finally succumbing to a twenty minute nap. I sit down with John to give him a bottle, and he’ll finish the entire meal in just twenty minutes. Andrew does the same thing, and one bottle can take more than two hours to empty. As I sat with the priest, I marveled at how the same exact tactics could have such different results. His explanation was simple: you’re his mother, and children have a special bond with their mother.
Without a second thought, I found myself disagreeing, reiterating the fact that Andrew and I do the same things for John. We both feed him, we both play with him, we both put him down for his naps and at bedtime. The only real difference is the amount of time that we spend with John. Since I only work in my office two and a half days a week, I’m home with our son more often. But as far as what we do, Andrew and I play the same role. There is nothing that I do for John that Andrew cannot do.
The priest paused for a moment before responding. Then he reminded me that it’s not about what Andrew and I do; it’s about who we are. We might both feed John, and put him to sleep, and play with him, but that doesn’t mean that we are interchangeable. I am John’s mother. I carried him in my womb for nine months. My body gave life to him. I gave birth to him, bringing him into this world. I am also a woman, and as a woman, I love John differently than Andrew does. No one can love John the way that I do.
As I walked out, I wondered why I had been so adamant that I needed to affirm that Andrew and I did the same things for John, and why I could not accept the priest’s explanation. But the more I thought about it, the more obvious the answer became. For the past seven months, I have read countless comments about the benefits of breastfeeding, and they all suggest the same thing. Breastfeeding is the ultimate way to bond with your child. It is the one thing that is unique about motherhood, the one gift that only a mother can give her child. Fathers are capable of providing so much for their children- they can change their diapers, rock them to sleep, comfort them when they’re sick, and play with them- but only a mother is capable of providing this nourishment, giving their baby life itself. Every one of those concepts did nothing but make me feel inadequate, and despite my attempts to ignore the “breast is best” campaign, I was not immune to its effects.
Thankfully, that priest reminded me that there’s a lot more to motherhood than breastfeeding. Breastfeeding does not make a woman a mother. A baby does. Women who cannot or do not breastfeed are not somehow less of a mother because of their situation. They are mothers because they love their children. They love their children as they hold them close and rock them to sleep. They love their children as they tickle them and dress them in their pajamas. They love their children as they mop spit up from their hair, ears, eyes, or any other orifice that it might invade. They love their children as they cuddle with them on the couch and feed them, whether it be with a bottle or the breast. And there is nothing that can compare to a mother’s love.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!