“I never shook that feeling that I didn’t try hard enough. I felt guilty that any behavioral problem he had may have been the result of not being exclusively breastfed.”
“Breast is best,” the pediatrician pronounced with an obnoxious grin. He was applauding me for breastfeeding with minimal supplementation. I am “succeeding” at feeding, I suppose. This is my second child, a c-section birth (again), and I am able to breastfeed more this time. So why did this comment make me nauseous?
The truth: Even with this unsettling reassurance that I am doing the “right” thing, I still felt that I was failing. When it comes to being a good mother, movements and messages abound. Sadly, many miss the mark and actually make a mom’s life more difficult by adding to her burden. There has never been a golden age where all babies were breastfed. And yet every single day mothers are on trial for the choices they make around feeding their own children.
With my first child, I breastfed about 30% of his meals. I wasn’t making much milk at the time. He was born after 36 hours of stressful labor with low blood-sugar, so they cleaned him up and gave him formula immediately. We didn’t get off on the “right” foot, many would say. After three months, I had to return to work. The mobile nature of my job made pumping an onerous undertaking. He was also an early teether. After the sixth month, he started to self-wean. I never shook that feeling that I didn’t try hard enough. I felt guilty that any behavioral problem he had may have been the result of not being exclusively breastfed.
“I was getting mixed messages from everyone in the hospital.”
The second time around, everything was different. My youngest son’s first feeding came from me. According to the lactation consultant, my son was an exemplary latcher. My milk wasn’t coming out fast enough, though. My son spent all his waking hours (and mine) breastfeeding for one harrowing stretch of his infancy. He lost more than 10% of his body weight during that time. Meanwhile, I was getting mixed messages from everyone in the hospital. The lactation consultants and nurses were pressuring me not to cave in. According to the nurses, my son may have been feeding more because he was a big baby weighing nine pounds at birth. According to the consultant, I was on the right track. My son was simply “cluster feeding,” they said. Meanwhile, the pediatrician warned that I was putting my son’s health at risk. He pressured me to supplement, and ultimately that is the path I chose.
I moved from feeling guilty for exclusively breastfeeding because he wasn’t gaining enough weight, to feeling guilty when I moved to supplementing four ounces daily because his poop wasn’t always the right color. I worried. I worried that he was not sleeping through the night. I worried about his brain development. I compared him to my first son, who always slept through the night. I stared at my first son and felt guilty that I hadn’t tried harder when he started to self-wean at six months. I felt guilt about my guilt when I thought about all the mothers who can’t breastfeed at all. Finally, I felt remorse when I compared myself to mothers who breastfed exclusively AND had natural labor.
Naturally, this mental loop was exhausting. This is the shame game many of us unwittingly play. We compare, contrast, evaluate, and toil to make sure we are “enough” for our children. Americans used to strive to keep up with the Jones’. Now, there is the out-mothering contest. Is this the right way, or that? Will this screw my kid up, or that?
“We compare, contrast, evaluate, and toil to make sure we are “enough” for our children.”
Finally, I hit a wall. I stopped all the mental gymnastics. I began to ask myself: Do I really believe there is any one way to be the “best” at mothering, given how multifaceted and unique we all are? I have seen and heard about women who left their children hungry in an attempt to live up to the unfortunate “breast is best” proverb. I also know women who wanted to breastfeed and couldn’t produce any milk or whose children are allergic to dairy or who suffer intense anxiety when attempting to breastfeed. I feel for all these women. I want an end to the patronizing, black-and-white advertising campaigns that signify there is any one “right” way to feed a child.
The nonprofit organization Fed is Best was created to offset the damage done by the “breast is best” school of thought. This organization empowers women to choose what “best” means for them. They provide information about how to successfully implement formula into a feeding regimen. Given that it is increasingly regulated in the United States, mothers will hopefully feel more and more free to make educated decisions for their families. Unfortunately, this movement has also drawn controversy for making unsubstantiated links between dehydration and autism. Still, as a platform of anecdotal evidence, it has made a tremendous contribution in providing mothers support as they navigate these controversial and difficult choices.
Please know, if you aren’t producing the milk to feed your child exclusively via breastfeeding, or if you have a health deterrent, or if you simply have a preference and line of reasoning that you don’t care to explain to other people—you are not alone. To me, succeeding at feeding means keeping our babies fed while also minimizing the stress we experience in the process. These decisions are multifaceted and personal. Moms, we need to be kind to ourselves as we take on this impossible job of raising human beings.★
Jamie Parganos is CEO and Founder of Mommy Hacks, a subscription box service designed to help you win at parenting. She is also head Wonder Mommy here on the blog. Jamie is dedicated to empowering other mothers and creating a community for moms to share their stories and support one another. Before founding her companies, she worked as a program director in the New York City public school system.
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