This morning, while preparing to host a dear (and newly repatriated to America, yay!) friend and her two young boys, I hastily wiped down a sticky kitchen counter and swept a handful of breakfast stragglers into my arms. As I loaded dirty plates into the dishwasher, my eyes drifted back to the glistening laminate (can laminate ever truly glisten?) and I spied a can of formula still taking up real estate. Hastily and almost guilty, if I’m being very honest, I snatched up the can, shoving it into the depths of the pantry and pulling the doors closed.
I wouldn’t want to explain that to her, I thought to myself in a surge of unbidden shame.
I felt shame because my friend might see a can of formula on my counter.
This is ridiculous for a couple reasons.
First of all, this is a close friend. She handcrafted my wedding bouquet, for goodness sake. Why on earth would I expect her to care, let alone to comment negatively, about what I’m feeding my baby? Is the sight of a can of powdered milk going to send her running from 7 years of relationship?
Even more disturbing, at least to me, was the unbidden and automatic guilt that sprang to my mind as I stashed the offending canister.
Why do I care what anybody else thinks about this? Why do I assume feeding my baby certain foods makes me a good – or a poor – mother?
Because I don’t live in a vacuum. And because as much as I’d like to consider myself above the petty fray of the infamous (and largely digital, at least to my experience) “mommy wars,” I’ve still internalized a lot of the messages therewith:
Good mothers breastfeed
Happy babies get plenty of uninterrupted mommy time each day
Well adjusted siblings are spaced at least 3 years apart
And so on.
These are logical fallacies. Or at least what I’ve done with them is. Because yes, good mothers do breastfeed. But the reverse is not necessarily true: that breastfeeding makes a mother good.
Even though I’m living a vaguely countercultural lifestyle and I am able to laugh (sometimes charitably and sometimes not) at a lot of what passes for “expert” opinion on birth and childrearing, I’m not immune to the cultural milieu of which I am a piece.
So yes, I felt shame over my sad little can of (organic! top quality!) baby formula. Because for me, it represents a host of perceived shortcomings and disappointments that I didn’t want to compound with a friend’s potential disapproval.
I’ve breastfed each of my children, but with each subsequent baby the duration of our nursing relationship has shortened. Joey was a ripe 13 months when he bit me goodbye and we said hello to whole milk. John Paul, after a dalliance with exotic Italian baby goods, made it to almost a year. Evie was 8 months when her delayed growth plus my dwindling supply teamed up to push me into the baby aisle – scratch that, the pet food and cleaning aisle, with a single shelf of baby goods – of Whole Foods, clutching a slip of paper with the best kept secret in baby formula scrawled in furtive script, a recommendation from my crunchy best friend.
And now here we are, 7 months in with Mr. Luke, my sweetest and happiest baby yet, and I’m supplementing him.
And that’s okay.
It’s more than okay, as I see writ plain across his chubby, joyful face. He’s thriving, he’s securely attached (as fistfuls of lost hair can attest to,) and he’s frankly disinterested in where his milk comes from, so long as it comes.
Breastfeeding was never going to be a walk in the park for me. My mom struggled with it, and had no qualms about introducing formula for most of my siblings past a couple months of age. She and I and all my sisters have hypothyroidism, and one of the side effects is low milk supply. I knew that going into motherhood, but I dismissed the possibility that I was going to struggle because, well, it would be different for me. I just knew it! Plus, I’m stubborn as hell.
Well, it has been different, but it hasn’t been perfect. I’ve seen the lactation consultants, used the highest grade pumps, taken the recommended supplements, and sat in the support group circles. I’ve nursed in the Sistine Chapel, at Mass in St. Peter’s with the pope, on trains, on planes, and in (parked) automobiles. I’ve nursed as much as I’ve been able, but as I’ve aged and had more children, it’s become more challenging, both physically and logistically.
And this is where another nasty little lie from the mommy wars creeps into my mind: you know, if you’d spaced your children more carefully, you wouldn’t be damaging them by denying them the best food nature has to offer. If you hadn’t foolishly gotten pregnant so soon (I had one woman tell me this on an online breastfeeding support forum when I was pregnant with my second) your child would be so much better off. How selfish.
That’s for sure a lie, and some dubious science, to boot.
Ideal child spacing is a fantasy we’ve been lured into entertaining with the advent of contraception, believing that we have complete autonomy over our fertility. (There’s even a fun Catholic version of this myth that starts circling as early as pre-Cana NFP prep, touting the wonders of ecological breastfeeding for surpassing one’s return of fertility. And it really does work! For some people.)
Well, as a friend to multiple sufferers of infertility, both primary and secondary, and to countless dozens who struggle on the more fecund end of that spectrum, I’ll call it what it is: bullshit.
And isn’t that the diagnosis for most of what passes for gospel in the mommy wars trenches?
We take a bunch of ordinary practices and parts of daily life with kids: feeding, sleeping, transportation, etc., and we turn it into some kind of maternal talent show, looking over our shoulders and hoping the invisible judges see that we’re using this particular BPA free orthodontist approved pacifier, and that we just sterilized it in mineral water.
Nobody is watching though. At least, there’s no objective panel of judges.
All we have is each other, other moms and even women without children, passing imaginary judgments on themselves and, unfortunately but much less frequently I’d wager, on each other.
I’m done. I’m too old and I’m too tired to care if anybody sees me nursing without a cover while sitting on a patio somewhere this summer. And when I asked a flight attended last week for some water to mix into a bottle, he didn’t bat an eye. In fact, he proceeded to serve me free margaritas for the duration of the flight, so it may have worked deliciously to my advantage.
I’m bowing out of the mommy wars which I didn’t even know I’d waded into, and I’m doing so first and foremost by taking control of my own deficient internal monologue; the one that says anybody who matters cares a whit about whether my breast or a silicone nipple are in my baby’s mouth, and that it should bother me if they do.
And the next time I catch myself musing silently that “a good mom would ______” right now, I’m going to stop and remind my sour-faced subconscious that “Actually? I am a good mom. And a good mom takes care of herself so she can take care of her children, too.”
And sometimes that self care involves a plastic bottle and a little rounded scoop.