When my son was 6 weeks old, I drove to the hospital to return my rented pump. I’d spent the majority of his young life hooked up to that machine in order to provide him with the best nutrition possible, and all it had brought was pain – for both of us.
My son’s gastrointestinal tract had been ripped apart by a severe milk allergy that no part of my elimination diet could eliminate, and I developed postpartum depression (PPD) that worsened with every failed lactation consultation and fruitless attempt at getting my child to latch.
To save my sanity, and my son’s health, something had to give. I bought a month’s supply of hypoallergenic formula, packed up the pump, and handed it back to the nice woman at the hospital lactation center. Then I got into my car and burst into tears.
Throughout my pregnancy, it had been drilled into my head that exclusive breastfeeding was the most important thing I could do for my baby. Avoiding formula became an unhealthy obsession, leading me to spend nearly $1,000 on lactation assistance and paraphernalia and to measure my self-worth in ounces of pumped milk.
My experience isn’t unique: According to a 2005 study “formula use has come to be a source of tension and conflict for mothers,” especially for those who intended to breastfeed. While 88 percent of the bottle-feeding women in the study felt “relieved the baby was being fed,” nearly half felt uncertain they were doing the right thing.
And it’s no wonder. As new parents we are surrounded by the “breast is best” imperative. The media embraces breastfeeding as a matter of public health. The medical community compels us to nurse but offers almost no practical assistance. Online and real-life mommy groups portray exclusive breastfeeding as a badge of honor, and formula feeding a scarlet letter.
“If we’re told that the only good mom is a breastfeeding mom, of course women who can’t will feel inadequate and guilty,” says Shoshana Bennett, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Bay Area and author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies.
In fact, although the current consensus is that breastfeeding helps prevent PPD, more recent research suggests that women experiencing breastfeeding problems have higher rates of depression after delivery.
Formula feeding saved me
For me, stopping breastfeeding was the first step on the path to PPD recovery. But formula feeding had its own share of emotional roadblocks. When I asked our pediatrician about organic formula, she blithely informed me that “nothing would really make formula feeding better” and that I should choose whichever one would “help me sleep better at night.”
Searching online for how much formula to feed an 8-week-old, I had to skim my way through screeds about the importance of human milk. The anger and confusion I felt inspired me to begin writing a blog and eventually a book about the sociological impact of breastfeeding pressure. And with every woman I interviewed, every email I received, I realized I wasn’t alone.
The silenced sisterhood
I heard from Amy, a 27-year-old mother of two in Detroit, who switched to feeding her first son formula after breastfeeding him triggered memories of past sexual abuse so debilitating that she fantasized about giving him up for adoption. “After I switched [to formula], on one hand I felt better,” says Amy, “but on the other hand I felt like a failure.”
This feeling was only made worse when she applied to a public aid program to help with the costs of formula and had to sit through a video on the benefits of breastfeeding while she sobbed uncontrollably.
Eleanor, a Vancouver mom of two, came from a family of breastfeeding pioneers, but discovered that the pain and frustration she experienced while breastfeeding made her feel “like the baby and I were in hell.” It wasn’t until the first time Eleanor gave her baby a bottle of formula that she “got that ‘bonding rush’ everyone talks about.” Finally enjoying motherhood, she went home to visit her family and was told that her newfound maternal happiness “was based on me ignoring my baby’s basic needs and rights.”
In Ohio, Deirdre, a 31-year-old mother of a 3-year-old and 15-month-old, talked to her pediatrician when her formula-fed infant son was suffering from diarrhea. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘This is why we breastfeed.’ I left his office in tears, thinking I should have asked him if he was going to pay my therapy bills if I were to resume breastfeeding.”
What’s striking is how socially acceptable it is to scorn these struggling new moms who are reaching out for a lifeline. “We need to step up and say that it is not only ok, but actually admirable, for mothers to take care of themselves,” says Deirdre. “We tend to be a culture of sacrificial motherhood. And that mentality keeps a lot of women who struggle with postpartum mood disorders from making lifestyle choices that benefit them. That needs to stop.”
But until it does, the best way to counteract outside pressure is to own our decisions. “When you learn to validate yourself by saying, ‘I am the best mom I can be for this baby, we are making the best choices we can for this kid and the rest of our family,’ and you really get that, you become much more impervious to outside pressure,” says Dr. Bennett.
Breastfeeding doesn’t make you a mother
It’s also helpful to remember that while our species’ ability to lactate may indeed make us mammals, our individual ability (or choice) to do so is not what makes us mothers. Walker Karraa, a maternal mental health specialist and mom of two in Los Angeles, was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after the birth of her second child.
After undergoing two mastectomies, she says she learned that “my body parts have nothing to do with my inherent ability to love my child. I fed, nurtured, loved, and parented without (my breasts) and still do. My advice is to write down on a piece of paper: ‘My breasts have nothing to do with my love for my child.’ And keep it where you can see it.”
If I’d had that message stuck on my dashboard the day I returned my pump, it might have helped me feel more confident in my choice. But I’m not sure it would have stopped me from crying. Because although I wept partially from insecurity, anger, and grief at losing out on the nursing relationship I’d craved, those tears I cried weren’t all bad. In fact, most of them were tears of relief.
If you think you may have postpartum depression, answer these simple screening questions.