At the precise moment I was giving birth to my daughter, Fox was airing an episode of The Simpsons that parodied breast-feeding purists. Marge, who is formula-feeding Maggie, encounters a circle of breast-feeding hipster moms decked out in ironic T-shirts and artisanal slippers. She is so intimidated that she pretends to breast-feed Maggie underneath a hooter hider, but the jig is up when the bottle of formula rolls out onto the floor. The other mothers gasp in horror and immediately turn on Marge; she has to use the bottle of formula as a weapon to jab her way out of the room.
After two unsuccessful weeks, three lactation consultants, and a very hungry child, I tearfully gave up on breast-feeding and switched to formula (organic formula! Please don't stone me). When my daughter was four weeks old, we were invited to a group playdate at the home of another local new mom. I was dying to meet some other women going through first-time motherhood, but I was so terrified I'd have a Marge Simpson experience that I spent the entire night before the meetup tossing and turning.
I do live in Brooklyn, after all, epicenter of the organic swaddle. It is assumed that you will breast-feed for the American Association of Pediatrics' recommended six months, if not longer. I also have been writing for women's websites for six years, and have read the frenzied and awful comments sections on articles that dare say that formula-feeding is not so bad. For example, in response to my Slate colleague and friend Hanna Rosin's oft-cited and well-researched Atlantic article, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding," one typically incensed commenter wrote, "'I don't want to' is not reason enough [to stop breast-feeding] and if you think that, you probably shouldn't procreate."
I walked into the apartment of a fellow mom with my entire body clenched. I was ready with an arsenal of self-deprecation — cracks about how I knew my daughter would never get into Harvard because I wasn't breast-feeding — in case anyone said something insulting. But to my surprise and delight, the moms were all incredibly supportive. While I was the only one exclusively formula-feeding, no one told me that my daughter was eating poison, and no one shamed me for not trying hard enough to breast-feed. One mom, struggling to produce enough milk for her son, shrugged her shoulders while she supplemented her breast with a bottle. "I need to formula-feed too," she said.
Was I just lucky to encounter understanding peers, or is this a sign of a change among newly minted mamas? Though it's tough to gauge such cultural shifts, I spoke to some women who have written about the subject in the past few years. The consensus is that while the average parent is a little more accepting of formula-feeding and aware of the class issues involved with breast-feeding since articles like Rosin's, Alissa Quart's, and Jane Brody's have come out, the breast-feeding purists — like Jamie Lynne Grumet, the mom pictured on a Time magazine cover breast-feeding her 3-year-old — remain as stalwart as ever.
Amy Sullivan, who wrote an article for The New Republic last year called "The Unapologetic Case for Formula-Feeding" said in an email that the response from the breast-obsessed was predictably harsh. "One dude told me I should have gotten a wet-nurse (are we in the 19th century?) or purchased milk from a milk bank," she wrote. (Though maybe that suggestion of a wet-nurse was not as far-fetched as it sounds, if this New York Times article is any indication). But Sullivan says she "does get the sense that parents are slightly more secure in defending their choice to formula-feed" in recent years, "and they feel less guilty about it as well."
One website that has helped women to feel less guilty and defensive about formula-feeding is Suzanne Barston's Fearless Formula Feeder. Its tagline states its mission succinctly: "Standing up for formula feeders…without being a boob about it." Every Friday, Barston has a guest poster who explains her experience with feeding her baby and strives to create a community for all women of newborns, regardless of how they feed their babies.
Barston said via email, "I do think minds are opening, albeit slowly and with some resistance. Personally, I've encountered quite a few lactation professionals who have visited Fearless Formula Feeder and read the stories I publish from women who've 'failed' at breastfeeding, and say that they have totally changed their approach because of it."
She also added that the public is becoming more aware of difficulties, both physical and structural, that keep women from breast-feeding even if they want to. Indeed, many working women — particularly part-time and contract workers — don't get maternity leave at all, and hourly workers do not get paid for the time they would be taking out to pump milk, making breast-feeding an often insurmountable burden. "Perhaps we've made it clear that many of us aren't choosing formula because we're uninformed of the benefits or don't give a crap about our kids," Barston said. (Nationwide, nearly 77% of babies have ever been breast-fed, but only 36% are exclusively breast-fed at three months, according to the CDC.)
She also said, however, that her website is a target for militant pro-breast-feeders who focus their rage on new moms at their most vulnerable. As a first-time mom, I can attest to the fact that you're constantly worried about doing things wrong and very sensitive to criticism. These breast vs. bottle arguments "can be very triggering to a hormonal new mom who is already feeling like a colossal failure," Barston explained. "And comment threads can easily turn heated and bring out the worst in people."
Considering how intensely people tend to feel about breast-feeding vs. formula, I wonder if my peers have been so accepting of me because I am an appropriate failure. At least I tried to breast-feed, so I clearly see the benefits of it, and rather than being loud and proud with my formula-feeding, I feel guilty and insecure about it — despite knowing that formula is still a pretty healthy way to feed my child. I winced reading recently that breast-feeding may protect against celiac disease. Even though there would be no way to prove that it was lack of breast-feeding that caused it, if my daughter couldn't eat gluten, I would feel like it was partially my fault.
Sullivan said that she is one of the few unapologetic moms who endorses formula-feeding "as the first and only choice parents might make for their baby." She added that some of her breast-feeding friends had a very defensive reaction to the piece. "It was interesting that they saw an argument for the benefits of formula-feeding as questioning their choice," Sullivan said in her email.
We have a long way to go before women stop feeling judged about their feeding choices. Still, Barston's website shows that the more women are honest about their struggles with breast-feeding and scientifically sound reasons for choosing formula, the more awareness there is about all issues surrounding how we feed our children — for both breast- and bottle-feeders.
This gives me hope for my generation of moms and the ones following us: We're constantly accused of over-sharing our most intimate experiences, but the more new moms speak out about their idiosyncratic situations, the more we can begin to understand and support one another instead of shouting at one another over the internet. If my circle of moms is any indication, there is hope for all of us to get past the noise.
My daughter is 3 months old now. As time goes by, I feel more and more confident about formula (momentary fears about gluten intolerance notwithstanding). She remains hearty and healthy, and as I gaze down at her while she eats her last bottle of the day with ease, I'm grateful that I had a viable choice for feeding her that didn't involve pain for me and struggle for her.
Jessica Grose is a freelance writer and editor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad.