Breast, Bottle, and the Beauty of Motherhood

I had my son when I was thirty years old, ten years ago, and as green as one can be when it came to any and all things parenting related. While pregnant, I thirstily drank in every word of the handbook for hip-mothers everywhere  – The Hip Mama Survival Guide – with its list of cool songs to which to breastfeed, and 18 ways to “chill out” when your screaming baby is making you crazy. I was also given a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting and read through it somewhat suspicious of its overly chipper yet authoritarian tone (“don’t eat too many of those tasty treats!”). I perused the books of Dr. Sears and Dr. Spock for advice on breastfeeding and parenting with their practical and no-nonsense information. The Internet provided nowhere near the well of resources or communities on motherhood as one finds now so I satisfied my need for as much information as I could possibly consume mostly by way of books like these.

And with the information collected stamped into my brain, I set to work on crafting the postpartum world in which I knew my baby, my husband and I would blissfully reside. It was a perfect world to be sure (though I didn’t realize this at the time – thinking simply it was what all women experienced, right?). It was a vision that would of course be preceded by an all-natural childbirth with a loving midwife and husband at my side, and blissful days and nights of breastfeeding my newborn baby in the new, wooden rocking chair currently residing in what was to be his bedroom. What could go “wrong”?

You know where this is going, don’t you? The truth is that nothing turned out the way I thought it would. My “perfect” all natural childbirth morphed into a natural childbirth riddled with medical interventions. The days and nights following were a blur of breastfeeding trauma that included near breakdowns of anxiety and sadness over why my son would simply not feed, preferring to fall asleep upon immediate contact with my breast instead; why it sounded to me like lactation consultants were telling me one thing about how to breastfeed him, my midwife telling me another and the experienced, older women in my life yet another. I was exhausted, confused, frustrated and felt completely out of control.

The short of it: after two weeks, I ended up on medication, feeding my son formula and setting out on a path towards motherhood that worked and felt best for myself, my husband, and my child. Feeding my son a bottle, we bonded beautifully and I often experienced the authentic joy and contentment I imagined in my "perfect" vision.

But my breastfeeding vs. formula journey was far from over. In my “first weeks” mothers’ group, the other mothers – with their discussions of shared breastfeeding difficulties and woes – seemed to look at me with a mixture of pity and contempt when I pulled out the bottle to feed my baby. The leader of the group took me aside one day and let me know it would be okay if “you don’t come to those meetings where we talk about breastfeeding challenges since it isn’t an issue for you.”

Some experiences were not so obviously ostracizing. Taking a walk one day in my neighborhood, I passed a neighbor’s house. When my son started crying she asked (and then practically begged) me to come in to nurse him so he’d stop crying before we made the rest of the walk home. I was too embarrassed to tell her I wasn’t nursing him, mumbled an excuse and power-walked back to my house where I could give him the (horror!) bottle that he so loved.

By the time my daughter came along, the clarity I experienced around childbirth and breastfeeding took me down a wholly different path. My daughter came into this world with the strength and relative ease I had always envisioned, and almost immediately nursed voraciously straight through until she was three years old (and she would have nursed longer than that had I not decided the time had come for us to bond in ways that felt less “udderly” invasive by then). Nursing her was often wonderful though, for a long time. It was a bonding experience different, though not “better,” than what my son and I had experienced, and we both loved it. Of course, the looks I received in public while nursing her openly as a baby and then as a toddler were equally as ostracizing and judgmental at times, just as when giving my son his bottle.

These memories come flooding back with the current public discussion around breastfeeding in both the media and among new mothers. The dialogue centers on the emotional, health and even mental benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child. Breastfeeding your baby promotes “better bonding”.  Breastfed babies may have higher IQs. Mothers who breastfeed may have a lower risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. And while some of this information is not necessarily new it is eliciting much more attention as of late. The spotlight has also created a springboard for many mothers, who don’t want to breastfeed, can’t breastfeed exclusively, had or have difficulties breastfeeding or who have breastfed and simply don’t buy all of the “hype” to speak up.

With my own history of breastfeeding, one might assume that I’d be strongly rooted on one side of the emerging “breastfeeding wars” or the other. Don’t breastfeed; your baby will be perfectly healthy and happy without it! Or, nurse until your child is twelve years old – it’s the only certain way to bond, ensure your offspring’s brilliance and protect against disease for yourself.

But here’s the thing. I’m not on either side of that fence. I’ve made very different choices with each child and I can tell you, as with any and all women’s reproductive health experiences, there are as many different ways to experience these situations, as there are women in the world. And while exclusive breastfeeding certainly has a multitude of benefits, not the least of which is that it’s free, when it’s possible it’s possible. When it’s doable, it’s doable. And when it’s not, there are (thankfully and gratefully) other satisfying, excellent options for women in this country.

This might sound overly simple. However, the pro-breastfeeding mantra and air of associated judgement has become overbearing and suffocating for many women who don’t or can’t breastfeed, even for women who both breastfeed and bottlefeed their babies. On the other hand, the fact that more women in this country are not breastfeeding, when they could be (and receiving immense joy and satisfaction from it as well), is a loss as well.

In “The Case Against Breastfeeding” Hannah Rosin writes that while she “dutifully breastfed each of my first two children for the full year that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends” when she had her third she thought about escaping the “prison” of breastfeeding after becoming convinced of a couple of things. First, that the so-called conclusions about the benefits of breastfeeding were too inconclusive and second, that in fact breastfeeding was not the nirvana that women were being sold:

From the moment a new mother enters the obstetrician’s waiting room, she is subjected to the upper-class parents’ jingle: “Breast Is Best.” Parenting magazines offer “23 Great Nursing Tips,” warnings on “Nursing Roadblocks,” and advice on how to find your local lactation consultant (note to the childless: yes, this is an actual profession, and it’s thriving). Many of the stories are accompanied by suggestions from the ubiquitous parenting guru Dr. William Sears, whose Web site hosts a comprehensive list of the benefits of mother’s milk. “Brighter Brains” sits at the top: “I.Q. scores averaging seven to ten points higher!” (Sears knows his audience well.) The list then moves on to the dangers averted, from infancy on up: fewer ear infections, allergies, stomach illnesses; lower rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Then it adds, for good measure, stool with a “buttermilk-like odor” and “nicer skin”—benefits, in short, “more far-reaching than researchers have even dared to imagine.”

Rosin might drawing a caricature, but her frustration is clear. She takes issue with what she sees as an unrealistic or incomplete image of what breastfeeding is really like for mothers – the time commitment, the physical toll, the exhausting juggling necessary for working mothers. Though she decides to continue nursing her third child, her reasoning straddles the two sides of this debate with the beauty of the uncertainty and gray areas in which most mothers’ decisions are made: 

Breast-feeding does not belong in the realm of facts and hard numbers; it is much too intimate and elemental. It contains all of my awe about motherhood, and also my ambivalence. Right now, even part-time, it’s a strain. But I also know that this is probably my last chance to feel warm baby skin up against mine, and one day I will miss it.

On the other hand, Jennifer Block, author of Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care, and a tireless advocate for maternal health writes in her article, "The Backlash to Breast is Best", that while she understands some of Rosin’s protestations (“There are some relationships that remain unclear, such as whether breastfeeding makes babies smarter or moms shed pregnancy pounds more quickly”) Rosin is offering a careless assessment of the overall clear benefits of breastfeeding:

Rosin is right that the individual risk of formula-feeding her children may be relatively small, but public health is about the collective, and among a population the risks of not breastfeeding are significant. For example, formula fed babies will have more severe diarrhea and respiratory infections. One could argue that such consequences aren’t a huge deal if they are born into families with good access to health care (like Rosin and her friends). But however treatable these ailments, they become more serious among poor families in the U.S., and it’s clear that in non-industrialized countries they cause babies to die.

The truth is they are both right. And I want more than anything for new mothers to hear this. Sometimes breastfeeding works or works well and sometimes it doesn’t. For some women it comes easier than for others and it’s okay to live in the beauty of the gray and uncertainty. Embrace the possibilities but “get zen” with what you feel you can realistically do. Yes, breastfeeding is nutritionally wonderful for your baby. It can also be an emotional high; a powerful physical relationship incomparable to anything else. But so can holding your baby in your arms, free from anxiety or exhaustion, gazing into each other’s eyes, as you nourish her with a bottle filled with formula.

The real focus should be on creating the societal support necessary for mothers to experience new motherhood as optimally as possible. Do we offer adequate paid family leave for new mothers? Do we allow new mothers respectful and comfortable spaces in which to breastfeed in public if they so choose? Do new mothers, regardless of income level, have access to the information and tools, including free formula if necessary, to make the best decisions for themselves and their babies? Right now, the answer to all of those questions is no. When instead we can answer “yes” to all of those questions, I have no doubt the breastfeeding “debate” will resolve itself to a large degree and the guilt or frustration mothers feel, along with the scrutinizing and judging, will dissipate.

Whether we breastfed our babies, fed them formula, or whipped up our own special combination of both, we are left with a human being with whom we are blessed to be able to walk through life for many years. As mamas, our relationship with our children is ever evolving and most certainly does not rest with this one decision. We have many miles to walk and many choices to make and the journey will rarely be easy, the “right” decisions rarely clear. More likely, we do the best we can with what we’ve got. If mothers can support each other in our voyages, knowing this is the real beauty of motherhood – doing our best with each individual decision – then the actual choices made become secondary to the love and intention behind them and the support received and accepted for all. 

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  • invalid-0

    I particularly appreciated this sentiment reminding us what really counts, at the end of the day is that people have the resources they need to take care of themselves and each other. I also appreciate your willingness to inhabit the gray of uncertainty, which to me has been a lot of what parenting and life is about.

  • progo35

    I agree that there are issues with people not reacting appropriately to women breastfeeding in public, but I disagree that “free formula” still needs to be made available and that it is society’s job. It is society’s job if the woman is in poverty and can’t afford formula, but if she isn’t in poverty, she does not have the right to “free formula” and society is not lacking in this respect.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • nancy5

    I’m just sorry that you weren’t here in NYC tonight to hear Ayelet Waldman read her breastfeeding story from "Bad Mother." Would’ve been nice to have had you alternately giggling and snorting in outrage sitting next to me.

  • invalid-0

    I absolutely agree with you that the real issue is making a society that welcomes mothers and babies. However truly supporting breastfeeding will not happen until the use of formula is recognized as an *intervention* in infant feeding and that any changes in infant health are a side effect of that intervention. This need not “guilt” or “bully” mothers… the side effect of various birth interventions are well known and still continue to be utilized by women for a variety of reasons. Breastfed babies do no have “fewer” infections (in the aggregate), formula fed babies have “more”– just as self-starting births do not have “fewer” cesareans, inductions have “more”.

    Once we are clear on what the biological norm is we can go about supporting that biological norm. Additionally women will have the opportunity to make truly informed decisions. Does that mean that everyone will suddenly breastfeed? Of course not… I have friends who are horrified that I still allow plastic food storage in my home… we all pick and choose the things that are important and practical for our family and would continue to do so with breastfeeding. This is simply to suggest we do it with intellectual honesty.

    This is equally true with regards to infant care in general. As Donald Winnicott, the English psychologist, has said, “There is no such thing as a baby, there is a baby and someone.” It is in this respect that we need to acknowledge that infants separated from their mothers show increased levels of anxiety and stress.

    If biology inconveniences our modern life it will be our modernity that needs to change, because our attempts to change biology have be fraught with problems. This is as much true for birth, breastfeeding, infancy as it is for the fact that we are programed to crave sweet foods in a world filled with high-fructose corn syrup. You may raise your fists to the heavens and curse the gods, but the human animal has adapted to the world that existed for the last 150,000+ years, not the one that has existed for the last 100.

  • amie-newman

    Women who are in need and cannot breastfeed or chose not to for one reason or another need to be able to feed their children. I am not proposing free formula programs for families who can afford it but I can think of fewer more important issues than the care of our children – society’s children. The larger issue is about choice and ensuring all women have the options available to them to make the best decisions they can make for their families, in order to give our children the best opportunities for a wonderful and healthy life. 


    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • amie-newman

    about the reading!! Thanks for the kind words, Nancy. Not that I wouldn’t love to be sitting next to you snorting & giggling but I’m curious about what the reading was like? 


    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    As I sit here looking at my happy, healthy, 10 month old daughter, whose relationship with my breasts has been complicated, yet amazing and has worked great for us, I am so thankful for your words about the gray area in between what is “right” and “wrong” about bottle or breast feeding. It’s not a simple problem, yet, the simple answer is for new mothers and mothers of many to agree that we need a society where any and all women’s choices on the subject are honored and respected and supported. And that begins with moms supporting other moms in their choices and challenges. Thanks, Amie for putting this out there. It’s a big step in that direction. Happy Mother’s Day!

  • invalid-0

    …address as much: JUDGMENTAL MOTHERS! Come on, women. Is it any of your business whether another mother breastfeeds or uses formula? I’m guessing that the ones who look down on others are the ones breastfeeding, and doubt that the ones using formula are looking down on those breastfeeding mothers.

    This kind of thing ebbs and flows. During the ’50s, formula was all the rage because that’s what the upper-class women could afford. Now breastfeeding is what’s “in” because it’s what women who don’t have to worry about working 60 hours a week just to be able to make ends meet and provide for their children have the luxury to choose to do. (No, I’m not saying that no women who don’t make a sizable chunk of change breastfeed, but my point is, those who don’t have jobs have the easiest time breastfeeding.) I’m pretty uncomfortable with the whole classism issue that crops up within this larger issue, as you described, Amie.

    I haven’t yet been blessed with children, but the judgey-wudgey holier-than-thou mothers are the aspect to which I look forward the least, by a long shot. As long as I’m not abusing or neglecting my child (and to me, yeah, that includes overfeeding them to the point that they’re obese by age six), the choices I make in mothering are none of your business, and we would be well served to all remember that! If women would just begin supporting each other, maybe we would all be able to work together and combine our resources to get things like proper paid FAMILY (mother AND father…we need to get the mother first, of course, but let’s shoot for the stars!!) leave. For God’s sake, we’re 51% of the population! If we quit looking askance at each other for long enough, we might be able to get some real change accomplished!

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for sharing your story. I hate this whole debate between breastfeeding and formula feeding. It’s very similar to the debate surrounding stay-at-home moms versus working moms. New moms should NOT be made to feel guilty because they opt to bottle feed, can’t breastfeed, or turn to bottle feeding to keep their sanity. Working moms should NOT be made to feel guilty because they’re setting a good example of work ethic for their children, because they have to work in order to pay the bills, or because they want to work because their work fulfills them.

    I am the mother of a two-year-old. I had an epidural. I had a c-section. I supplemented breastfeeding with formula feeding until 3 months, then I switched entirely to bottle feeding. My daughter is in daycare. I work fulltime for a nonprofit agency getting up at 5:30am and getting home around 7:00pm. Am I good mother? Of course I am. I’m a power mom. Have I been alienated by other moms? You bet I have.

    It’s very sad that we’re so quick to judge others. The bottom line is that a child needs to be nourished, loved, and protected. A bottle or a breast does not make a child who they are, and we should be setting better examples for our children on how to treat others.

  • invalid-0

    Amie, you do a great service to the community of Mothers by encouraging families to find what works for them and accept the unexpected. I believe the current tension around breastfeeding is partially born of the decades of misinformation propagated by formula companies and a general lack of support and facts for new Mothers. Misinformation is divisive as is ignorance. If all families were fully informed and supported and made parenting choices from this place, mutual respect would grow easily. It is difficult to feel judgemental of a Mother who has put her heart and mind into it and worked out what feels right. I would like to add that women who choose bottlefeeding need just as much accesa to information and support as those who breastfeed. Mainstream formulas are made with corn syrup solids which are associated with a variety of problems. There are good alternatives out there. Let us all strive to support one another in making parenting decisions with consciousness and awareness.

  • invalid-0

    I am a stay at home Mom and I am not upper class and maybe not even middle class. I am not home because I can afford to be home, just as you are not at work because you “have to.” I choose to be totally broke for a few years because that’s what feels right to me. You work cause that feels right to you. The bigger question is, “how do we understand and support each other?”

  • amie-newman

    You are 100% correct. Taking this one step further, we need to make sure that no matter what choices mothers make in regards to the feeding of their babies, they are as informed as they can be. Formula that contains additives that are clearly terrible for babes or formula that is given away for free without the proper information and resources is not helpful for anyone. 

    It is so important that we continue to have these conversations and arm our fellow mamas with knowledge and support so we all feel empowered to rightfully claim what we and our children need to be healthy!


    GREAT comments! 


    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    Thank you so much for this article! I too had idealized notions of motherhood-my baby contendely nursing and us “bonding” over this included. I tried invain to nurse my daughter. For 3 weeks I tried, used a hospital-grade pump (~$180 to rent), saw 3 different lactation consultants (I don’t even remember how much all that cost) took herbs my OB recommended, and took prescription reglan to stimulate my milk supply. The reglan made me incredibly sick but did nothing to increase my milk supply to over 1 oz at a time. No matter what I did, I could never get more than 1 little oz of milk. For those 3 weeks, my life was nothing but one failed attempt after another to get my milk into my baby. I finally realized that I was so focused on nursing her that I was losing out of her. So after a final consult with a lactation person, I gave up and switched over to formula. Thank GOD I did! My baby needed it to survive and thrive. I am so sick of all the nursing-nazis out there. I wish they would mind their own business and shut up. They have no idea what any body is going through. Will the domination of women never end? Now they want to force every woman to carry every pregnancy to term. What next? Forced natural childbirth only bc that’s “supposed” to be best? Forced nursing only because that’s supposed to be best too? Us women and moms can make up our own minds what’s right for our lives and our children. Thank you again for this wonderful article. Oh, and my daughter is a very healthy 2 year old now who I love more than anything. I’m thankful for formula too.

  • invalid-0

    At least this article looks at the issues in a balanced way. What is appalling about the breastfeeding lobby in the Western World is that it targets women when they are at their most vulnerable physically and emotionally and speak of women who use formula as having failed! It is little wonder that rates of postnatal depression are soaring- so much expectation to do things perfectly and little support! The women least likely to establish breastfeeding are those who have suffered from traumatic birth experiences (such as myself) and those who develop postnatal depression. There was the case recently of an English woman in New York who committed suicide after her difficulties with breastfeeding. I have no doubt that such cases will continue unless we subscribe to the ‘Mother knows best’ approach! And stop all this ridiculous and damaging judgement. So many women I have spoken to, both breast feeding and formula feeding agree that the debate is damaging to the early experiences of motherhood for millions of women.

    It is incredible is what other evidence is ignored in this debate such as the life long effects of a depressed or stressed mother on the emotional and health outcomes of children! They are well documented but never discussed as part of this debate.

    Increasingly even breastfeeding mothers are seeing, that all things being equal, there is little difference in the outcomes of infant feeding choices. Genetic and environmental factors are always going to be hugely more influential. Surely, there is room for both to be respected and supported?

    Sadly, these sorts of harsh and damaging judgements are being heaped on women by other women for every aspect of motherhood- I have a friend who feels like a failure for having an emergency c-section! Madness!

    I wonder if it were men having babies, would these sorts of debates even surface? I suspect not!

  • invalid-0

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