With a devastating baby formula shortage affecting the supply of critical nutrition to infants and young children across the US, some are using this crisis to shame mothers, urging women in need to “just breastfeed.” This idea grossly misunderstands who uses formula and why, not to mention the real cost of breastfeeding.
Just after I had my first child, me, my husband and our now-five-month-old baby moved to the UK for a new job. I was starting an exciting new position at the BBC, but I was determined to continue exclusively breastfeeding my son. I felt a lot of pressure not to let work stop me from doing what I was told was best for my baby. So, I bought a fancy, expensive pumping device and I committed to an extensive pumping schedule at work. For the first few weeks, I managed okay, though it was exhausting and it never felt like I was getting enough to last my husband, who was home with the baby, the whole day. Eventually, the stress of the job made pumping as frequently less feasible. Sometimes, in the rush to get home before the throngs of other central London workers flooded the Oxford Circus tube and my chances of getting home before bed time disappeared, I forgot the milk I’d diligently pumped in the fridge at work. I was a wreck, it was killing me to manage both, but any alternative felt like a betrayal of motherhood.
One day, my husband texted me that he’d run out of milk and the baby was hungry. Could he buy formula, he asked. I was gutted. I’d let my son down. I’d let myself down. The mix of shame and regret and heartbreak I felt doubled me over and I almost said no out of a deluded sense of what was right. Of course, we made the decision to combo feed, to take the pressure off me, and it saved us all, made everything easier.
I’m not alone in using formula to make a necessary healthcare decision for my family, and I’m certainly not alone in feeling immense pressure to continue exclusively breastfeeding, despite the toll it was taking on my mental and physical health. New mothers are often told “breast is best,” and scared away from even considering formula as an alternative, even when their bodies are not producing enough milk, or latching is difficult and their infant is not getting the nutrition it needs with breast milk alone. At times, I felt like not breastfeeding my child 24/7 was failing him, failing myself, and ultimately failing motherhood. Formula doesn’t just help those who can’t feed, it allows women freedom from the feeling that they must be tied around the clock to the physical duties of mothering, no matter the cost to them. This shortage threatens babies, yes, but it also threatens mothers.