About Me,  breastfeeding,  infertility,  motherhood,  NFP,  Parenting

A good mother does _____

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.

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 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.20160315_152452

 

21 Comments

  • Eireann

    St. Therese’s mother, St. Zelie, had difficulty breastfeeding and had to send her children out to a wet-nurse. The separation from her children during their early months and first year was absolutely heartbreaking to her. From a modern point of view, she would have been considered a bad mother by leaving her child in the care of someone else. Even one of her children died due to neglect of an alcoholic wet-nurse. But when it came to her children’s health and life, she knew that leaving them with a wet-nurse was the best option. So, basically, St. Zelie did not breastfeed and she was not integrally present during the first year of some of her children’s lives except for brief visits, and all of her children are (even though some have yet to be) canonized.

    Even the saints show us that one mold does not fit all, and that one idea(l) of motherhood does not ensure that we or our children will become saints. To each his own, according to God’s will.

  • Julie

    How funny that some things never change. I remember feeling SOOO guilty when I had to stop breastfeeding number six after one week. One week. But a beautiful friend assured me (and she was a gloriously good breastfeeder), “You do what is best for you and your baby. Not what others think is best.” So after that, I never cared what others said, I only cared if my child was happy and I was happy. Nuff said.

    As for spacing, I made a (Godly) discovery. Since we really just trusted God with all our pregnancies, we had our first five in six years. It was very difficult, but strangely it was also easy. The kids were all playmates and I didn’t need to be the cruise director. Then our last three were spaced, oh just about three years apart. They are impossible! They all had enough time to be the “chief” before the next one was born so when they “play” together, they all want to be the boss! I’ve had to do more refereeing with them then the first five! It has been quite the learning experience (thank you Lord) with both “families”. I guess, the bottom line is: just trust that God knows what He is doing and go with it. He is still in charge if you let Him be!

  • Denise

    It’s absolutely insane that in the same five minute scan of the internet I find Martha Plimpton wearing a dress with “abortion” written all over it, claiming that her two abortions helped her fulfill allll her dreams (she has absolutely no shame) while you are home with four children feeling ashamed for supplementing with formula. You’re a loving, devoted mom, and they will remember that, not how many months you nursed or didn’t nurse or supplemented with formula. They’re so young you can always lie about it. 😉

  • Jen @ Into Your Will

    I’ve become rather grateful (in a way) for my inability to exclusively breastfeed (I have PCOS which also causes low supply) and the fact that I need C-sections because it really did make me more aware of the mommy wars and how silly it is. But I also know how easy it is to be judgmental because I was totally there once. Thankfully God knew what I needed to learn to give myself and others grace!

  • Amanda

    And here I am feeling stressed because my 7 month old won’t take a bottle and leaving her at all makes me feel guilty because she’s mad for my husband and he has to take care of all the kids with no baby soothing boob. It’s always something, isn’t it?

  • Heidi

    My daughter weaned sooner than I intended because I tried to get her to take bottles for this wedding I was in where children were forbidden. I’m still mad when I think about it because we couldn’t afford a decent pump and so I tried a bottle of that formula you have there…and then I bought crates and crates of that stuff Definitely top shelf stuff though Or she loved it!

  • Kate

    I wish I could take credit for this little gem but I’m sure I saw it on an Internet meme somewhere, “I’ve formula fed my children, I’ve breastfed my children, and now they’re all eating cold french fries off the minivan floor.”

  • Ashley

    Amen. As somebody who has struggled with infertility, now has littles spaced *very* close together, has breastfed, has used formula – basically everything you talk about here – you nailed this. We’re just all doing our best. I read somewhere that if you’re worried you’re a bad mother, it’s guaranteed you’re a really great one. The truly bad mothers don’t care enough to even consider it.

  • Jean

    Oh Jenny, you’re so right in your diagnosis. My husband and I were “Carnation babies”, i.e. formula prepared with cans of evaporated milk, water, corn syrup and we were supplemented with cod liver oil for vitamin D. We are now pensioners, having survived all that. Our own children were both breast and formula fed. Everyone has post secondary degrees, in several cases more than one. Remember what Jesus said, it isn’t what goes into a person that defiles them but what comes out of them! As long as you do your best with your kids and love and teach them let go of the rest. As for mommies who want to make war they can grow up, realize the universe doesn’t revolve around their preferences/ideals/judgements. Decades from now it won’t matter one iota whether you breast/bottle fed because no one will give a darned about it. Same goes for most of the things we believe to be etched in stone as far as child rearing concepts are concerned. Teach them to be good Christians and all will be well. Take care of yourself in the process because one day all your babies will be grown up and out of the house and you will want to be in good shape to enjoy your grandparent years – comes sooner than you’d imagine! Love to all, J

  • jen

    My kiddo was born at 29.5 weeks after I developed severe pre-eclampsia and HELLP Syndrome. I was too sick to breastfeed that first week and have absolutely no guilt over him receiving formula. Part of being a good mom is knowing what to let go and what to keep.

  • Mrs Goyal

    My husband pointed out that breastfeeding is an industry too, people get paid to sell pumps and be lactation consultants etc so it’s not unreasonable to be wary of all this cultural guilt. I read all the books before baby #1 and thought breastfeeding was such an emotional need for baby but that just did NOT ring true and hasn’t ever been true with my experience. My two boys just wanted a full stomach and clearly did not care in the least where the milk came from. In fact when I didn’t have enough they had no problem communicating with me that they preferred a full bottle to a 40 min unfulfilling nursing session. To begin with I also did all the right things, pumping etc and still had supply problems, I think a lot more women do than they like you to think. One thing I’m proud of is that with 2 under 2 I’m literally to busy to care what people think and wield the formula unashamedly but I totally sympathize with this issue and none of us should be ashamed of this, there are far more important things to worry about when raising kids.

    • Jean

      Mrs Goyal your Mr has a point. 41 years ago I was the only mum breastfeeding in my community. It was just beginning to become the thing to do by choice rather than necessity after a generation of bottle feeding and the reaction I got from older women around me was “Why would you want to be bothered when there is formula at the store?” Plus, it was seen as somehow shameful. I gave up the nursing when I could no longer waken my baby for a feeding between 12 p.m. and 5 a.m. I was awake with painfully over full breasts and pumping while she was sound asleep. I needed my full night’s sleep and couldn’t see the point in continuing to soak the bed with milk and pump in solitude. The generation to come after mine brought in lactation consultants, lactation clinics and pumps of all sorts. Now I understand it’s the done thing to have appointments and follow up appointments with lactation consultants before and after discharge from hospital. In my day if the baby slept well and had plenty of wet diapers it was assumed they were getting enough, if not out came the formula. No shame there, and there shouldn’t be any now. I understand the nutritional value of mother’s milk, and in particular colostrum, but millions of us thrived and continue to do so into our senior years without ever having had a drop of breast milk. If you’re holding it together caring for two little ones more power to you and to all who are doing so, and don’t anyone feel ashamed for whatever choices you make as long as your babies are well fed and cared for. There will always be critics who can’t mind their own business and so think they have to mind that of everyone else.

  • Bee Bee

    Wanna know something (this from a woman of the ripe old age of 60 something.)? You know you’re growing up when you actually get to the point where you couldn’t care less what others think of what you are or what you are doing, or how you look, or how your house looks. For me, it happened when I was somewhere in my early 30’s. At that point I began to realize I honestly lose respect for people who can’t leave me to make my own decisions. I decided to be myself, and if that was not okay with them, well, then, fair thee well my good (wo)man.

    I love that you caught yourself protecting some false image, and upon reflection thought, “I’m done.” Bravo!

  • jeanette

    I caught a few minutes of a show the other night. It was an interesting little bit of history about infant mortality rates. Babies more commonly died because of a lack of adequate breast milk, so the invention of a formula was a huge improvement for babies. A scientist was studying the components of breast milk and determined that there is a particular bacteria that completely covers the entire intestine, aiding in fighting off illness. So, the bottom line is, while breast milk might be superior in many ways, formula is a Godsend! Truly, when all is said and done, I’ve got an enormous extended family with varying breastmilk/formula histories. Many members of the family have very good health, many have serious health issues, who knows how that breastmilk/formula thing factors in overall. But, in this life, we aren’t trying to be so perfect in our bodies and health that we don’t need God’s help along the way. Sometimes those of us who are weaker will have stronger relationships with God. So, all things work together with God. If your situation is such that you have to use formula, trust that God is okay with it and the graces will be supplied to you to be just the mother He wants you to be. If you can breastfeed as long as you had planned to do, trust that you are given that grace, too.

  • Maureen

    I want to second what Bee Bee says

    “You know you’re growing up when you actually get to the point where you couldn’t care less what others think of what you are or what you are doing, or how you look, or how your house looks”

    For me, it really hit by the time I was 40, but it had been building through my 30’s. And it is about accepting that ‘adult’ status. My mother dying, leaving me as matriarch in the family pyramid may have had something to do with it of course.

    What depresses me is the continuation of the MumsWar that goes on around all the baby related issues; formula vs breast, dummy (comforter) or thumb, baby led weaning or shove in the spoon! Why can we not all get along, and help each other as we struggle to rear children in an increasingly un-child friendly world!
    I watch my children parent their children ( 10 at the last count) and often they are figting the same battles I fought 30 plus years ago.

    Jenny, do what suits you, and yours, and ignore the others. They obviously haven’t got enough to keep them occupied in their own life if they have to get involved in your life:-)
    Go Girl! You can do i t:-)

    • jeanette

      You are absolutely right that we shouldn’t be driven by a need to please everyone, but there are limits to that thinking. For instance, one should care very much what one’s husband thinks about what you do. It is just the “casual observer” opinions that don’t really matter. However, the truth is, we are not working to please anyone, ourselves included. We are working to please God alone.

      Colossians 3:23-24

      Whatever you do, work at it with your whole being. Do it for the Lord rather than for men, since you know full well that you will receive an inheritance from him as your reward. Be slaves of Christ the Lord.

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