The lovely Ashley Poland over at Domestic Chaos recently mentioned my blog, Fearless Formula Feeder, as "a good resource for mothers." This was incredibly sweet of her, especially considering that Ashley is a (wonderful, positive) breastfeeding advocate. In her description of FFF, she also admits that "it's hard sometimes to read the entries. As someone who would love to see more people interesting in and trying breastfeeding, I occasionally interpret the attitude is Breastfeeding is useless."
This comment stopped me in my tracks. If this was someone who just performed a cursory reading of the blog, it would be one thing. But Ashley is a loyal reader, one with an incredible level of intelligence, sensitivity, and self-awareness. If she is getting that impression, then I think it's safe to say that I am (however unintentionally) giving that impression.
I spend my days attempting to prove that formula feeding is a safe option for parents. I care most about women who've been abused by the system, and harmed by the breastfeeding rhetoric, having those precious first day/weeks/months of motherhood stolen from them by a tornado of judgment, fear and expectation. The claims about breastfeeding are often misinterpreted. I don't seek to promote breastfeeding because I feel like that's being done -- and done to such an extent that it's harming parents and sometimes even children, and allowing our society to put responsibility for the health of the nation onto the already overloaded shoulders of women.
But do I think that breastfeeding is useless? Hell no.
Actually, I would tell any prospective mother who is on the fence about how to feed her child to give breastfeeding a fair, educated, eyes-wide-open, and optimistic shot. Because all things being equal, formula feeding SUCKS. It's inconvenient. It's messy. It's expensive. It's confusing. And choosing to formula feed pretty much guarantees you a lifetime of explaining yourself; feeling judged; and questioning your dedication to motherhood (not that I condone any of these things -- they are exactly what I'm trying to destroy -- but this is the reality, at least for now).
I was thinking about this the other day, as a few of my good friends are adding solids to their breastfeeding babes' diets. One mentioned how inconvenient and annoying solids could be - remembering to bring food along on outings, etc. I was confused for a minute, until I realized that duh, this woman was used to being able to walk out the door anytime and have food readily available for her son. As long as she was there, he could be fed. Awesome. Who in her right mind would chose a path requiring sticky, expensive powder, and a feeding method which requires bottle-washing, wondering about the right kinds of water, comparison shopping and trying a zillion formulas and bottles before finding the right one for your kid -- when the other choice simply requires holding a warm, delicious baby near your naked chest? All things being equal, breastfeeding is not useless; breastfeeding is by far the easier, more rewarding choice.
But all things are not equal, for many women. The reason I feel so strongly about protecting formula as a choice is because I feel so strongly that breastfeeding rocks. If someone either actively chooses to formula feed, or ends up formula feeding due to extenuating circumstances, then there is a reason that they are doing so. These reasons are not mine to judge, nor are they anyone's (especially the clerk at the grocery store, your pediatrician, or random snarkettes on the interwebz). That said, I operate under the assumption that mothers (and prospective mothers) are well aware of the benefits and advantages of breastfeeding. If they don't know the beauty and satisfaction that it provides, that is sad; I hope that breastfeeding advocates can take a hint from that, and perhaps stop harping on about the dangers of formula (a tactic that doesn't really work, if our long-term breastfeeding rates are any indication) and begin extolling the positive, empowering, enjoyable aspects of the act.
Since anyone with an internet connection (i.e., anyone with the ability to read this post) knows why they should be breastfeeding, I think it stands to reason that if they aren't, there's a pretty damn good reason. Now, that reason may be something seemingly trivial, like a fear of not being able to return to eating nothing but SlimFast and Diet Coke. But for a recovering anorexic? That's a pretty significant fear. I'd much rather they formula feed than force themselves into a psychological mind-fark. Or what about the woman who has to go back to work 3 weeks after giving birth? She might not want to sludge through the inevitable 6-week "learning curve" for breastfeeding (and there is one, for most women. I think coming clean about the realities would help keep women breastfeeding, rather than scare them off it. I had one friend who pushed through 2 months of exclusive pumping and futile attempts to nurse, but who ultimately succeeded in having a beautiful nursing relationship with her son. She also had tremendous support from friends who had similar struggles, and were open about it, and this is what helped push her through), but rather enjoy the short time she has with her baby. These are the choices women make, and the ones they should be respected for making, because they are making them in the context of the formula feeding is risky/breastfeeding makes you a perfect mother meme. You better believe that these women had good reason to choose what they chose.
Make no mistake: breastfeeding is not "useless". Breastfeeding is incredible. I just want breastfeeding to be promoted without stooping to overstated scare tactics, or relying on poor science. In fact, I don't think we should promote breastfeeding for it's "health benefits" at all. We've all gotten the message. It's turned into something we have to do, rather than want to do, and that makes me sad. I know too many women who love breastfeeding to believe that it has to be treated like going to the dentist.
Make no mistake: breastfeeding can be easy, and instantly gratifying. I just want breastfeeding researchers and care providers to look beyond their own experience, listen to what women are saying, and react accordingly. Women are not lying about insufficient supply, latching issues, pain, and allergic reactions to human milk. If we stop living in denial and do proper R&D into these problems, perhaps we could help women work through them without too much emotional duress on their parts (because no new mother needs additional stress, in the world we live in. A world, incidentally, which is in no way similar to many of the environments used to back up the "natural", "instinctive" nature of breastfeeding... there is such a thing as social evolution).
I hope that we can do these things, because make no mistake: breastfeeding is worth it. But so is a mother's sanity, health, and sense of autonomy. One does not supersede or cancel-out the other.