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Why I Won’t Apologize for Formula-feeding

A couple of weeks ago my mom was visiting our house. We were talking about the upcoming birth of my son and what, if anything, my husband and I might still need to purchase. Serge, my husband, mentioned that we were still looking for an electric breast pump. I mentally cringed.

Can open, worms everywhere.

I did not want to have this conversation – again.

My mom breastfed all four children, so on the few occasions I’ve admitted (admitted – as if I’m confessing a sin!) that I’m not really into the whole thing, I sense her disapproval. Hell, it’s written all over her face.

This time was no different, although she’s learned to carefully navigate this particular conversation with me. Once again, I explained to her that I didn’t think I was going to breastfeed. Oh, I’d give it the old college try, I told her, but I didn’t anticipate going that long. I told her my boobs were already something like a 40 DD and I didn’t think I could take the bowling balls for any longer than absolutely necessary. This isn’t really the reason I don’t want to breastfeed – at all. But I didn’t want to get into the real reasons. So I set up a scenario in which I breastfeed for only a short time, hoping that anything longer than two weeks would seem a like a victory to her.

Oh, the games we play.

Breastfeeding is something I feel passionate about. Clarification: I feel passionate about a woman’s right to choose whether or not to breastfeed – without getting a bunch of grief and judgment from the world at large.

But some feel passionately the opposite, it seems.

I’m thinking of the comments I received in response to a blog post I wrote recently over at Being Pregnant, “In Which I Admit I Am Not Keen On Breastfeeding.”

Here’s an example:

It is less maternal not to breastfeed. Denying your baby what is natural and scientifically proven to be healthiest is not what any woman in her right mind would call maternal. Fine if someone wants to forgo the bonding that breastfeeding provides but the health?? The blog post seems to be nothing more than a self absorbed mother who has so much baggage she doesn’t know what is truly best for her child. Rationalize all you want: bottle is not best for baby, any scientist can show you the factual data to support that statement. Kudos to the mothers that commit to giving their babies the best start in this world: THE BREAST!

And then there’s this one:

“You should see a counselor. If you feel so uncomfortable doing : the most basic and primal [thing] a human women can do (: breastfeeding) you really should get help. Heck, if you had an eating disorder you’d get help, if you were depressed you’d get help. The truth is that if you were any other mammal on earth and you felt uncomfortable feeding your baby it would die.”

Sanctimony and fear-mongering at their finest – someone else called me a reptile (so much for just being an inferior mammal) because I don’t want to breastfeed.

This is the kind of grief women give other women around breastfeeding, and I think it needs to end. I shouldn’t feel obligated to explain to anyone why I don’t want to breastfeed. Even if I simply found it uncomfortable or was under the illusion that it would change my boobs, that should be no one’s concern but mine. Yet here I am, explaining away.

The real reason I’m not breastfeeding is deeply personal and deeply embarrassing: I’m not comfortable with the concept of busting out a boob anywhere. Sometimes not even my own bedroom. Yes, I have issues. I’m well aware, as is my long-suffering husband.

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A lot of it has to do with my being raised a Mormon. You could say I grew up ashamed of my sexuality. I developed early and often wore a regular bra, a sports bra and two t-shirts to hide my burgeoning bosom. I was constantly reminded by well-meaning relatives and religious leaders not to let the boys touch my private parts. I even had to discuss in detail with my bishop (Mormon version of a priest) about letting a junior high boyfriend touch me “inappropriately.” I was told to repent immediately and never let it happen again. I wanted to get married in the temple, didn’t I? Hanky-panky with the opposite sex was no way to accomplish the ultimate goal of every virtuous, young Mormon gal.

So, when I turned up pregnant at seventeen, I felt like a failure. I doubled down on my sin and went ahead and had an abortion, the news of which spread all around my high school. The experience scarred me. I was led by numerous adults to believe I was shameful and unclean. Sex is bad, and sex before marriage? Hell and damnation await all transgressors!

What I’m saying here is that I’ve always associated nudity, especially breasts, with sexuality and then sin and shame. And because breastfeeding involves breasts, it’s gotten tangled up in those associations.

Intellectually, I understand they aren’t connected. I understand how beneficial breastfeeding is for a baby, and the fact that we can keep our babies alive and thriving with our own bodies is amazing and awesome. Still the concept makes me feel supremely awkward. I don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding in front of anyone besides my husband, I just don’t. Other women breastfeeding in public make me feel uncomfortable, too, even though I think it’s good that they’re doing it. I can’t help that reaction, it just happens. I can disguise my discomfort, I can smile at the breastfeeding mothers, and I do, but I can’t control how I feel on the inside.

I’m sharing extremely personal issues to encourage the breastfeeding bullies to back off. The period after a baby is filled with anxiety about What To Do and What Not To Do, it is not the time to pull the rug out from underneath the very tired feet of a new mother or to greet her with pursed lips and unwanted monologues about how beneficial breastfeeding is for the baby. What and how she feeds her baby is her decision to make – not her nurse’s or best friend’s or mothers – and the reasons for her choice are no one else’s business. And should a woman choose to feed that baby formula, that doesn’t make her any less of a mother than that British lady who is still breastfeeding her 8-year-old daughter who declares breast milk to taste “just like melons.” (Youtube it if you don’t believe me.) In fact, I’d even argue my non-breastfed child may be a tad better-adjusted than the 8-year-old breast connoisseur (but, well, there I go judging).

Here’s my message to other moms anxious about formula-feeding: If you absolutely hate breastfeeding for whatever reason, stop. Let it (and the guilt) go. Breastfeeding may be healthier than formula, but the formula they’re making these days is pretty awesome, too. The extra nutrients and antibodies a woman’s breast milk provides may not be worth crying every time you have to breastfeed. The truth is that your child can thrive on breast milk or formula, but an unhappy mama does not a healthy baby make. So let’s stop using how we feed our babies as an occasion to make ourselves – or other moms – miserable.

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