Anybody who knows me already knows I'm about the biggest promoter of breastfeeding as there can be. I own my own lactation consulting practice for heaven sakes. To say I'm pretty dedicated to promoting breastfeeding as the most biologically appropriate, normal and dare I say "best" is an understatement.
That being said...two of my three babies have been formula fed to some extent. With the first I got pregnant and lost my supply completely when he was 9 months. I had always heard people nurse through pregnancy and assumed that would be the case for us. Nobody told me it's actually more common to lose your milk supply due to the hormones needed for pregnancy. If I would have known...I might have waited.
My second I was able to be home a very big majority of her first year and am happy to say not a drop of formula passed her lips.
Now, with baby number three I should be a seasoned veteran of breastfeeding right? I've been professionally educated on breastfeeding! No obstacle is too big for me right? Wrong. I had to return to work when she was only 3 months old. Now this is the bare minimum time I was afforded by FMLA and I firmly believe more time with a baby after birth should be a thing in our country but that is a different post for a different day. My return to work would start a slow erosion of my milk supply. My job is difficult, and so are a lot of other mom's jobs. Unfortunately I am not able to leave my patients every 2 to 3 hours to pump for 20 minutes. We just don't have the staff and it's not safe for me to be gone like that. Yet...that is the time it would take to maintain my milk supply. Going without pumping those three days a week decimated my supply. Nevermind that I also fight a hormonal war due to a condition known as PCOS which can have a severe impact on milk supply. By the time Ellie was 10 months old I could not ignore it any longer. She was small, my smallest, but she hadn't gained more than 4 ounces over the course of 6 months. Then her diaper count began dropping, a sure sign she is not getting enough nourishment from me.
I tried. I tried every trick in my book and then some others. I pumped and pumped, but like most women I don't respond exceptionally well to a pump. I took medications, herbal supplements. Tried a supplemental nursing system that she wanted nothing to do with. You name it and I did it. There was no getting around it though...my baby needed nourishment and I was not enough. I had to give her formula.
Since then her diaper count has normalized, her weight is now increasing as it should and she is a happy and healthy baby. My health on the other hand. Well, my mental health I should say. It is in shambles. Here I am this certified breastfeeding specialist who has her baby on formula. Many nights passed with me sobbing quietly into my pillow. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I fed her bottles of what some members of the mommy online community would tout as poison. I became depressed, deeply depressed over it. I'm still struggling that fight but I hide it well. Nobody felt the pain of my heart breaking when I realized she had nursed for the very last time. Nobody felt the pain I did when I realized I lost that unique position as her one and only food source. That was something very special, only I could make that milk and now anybody can scoop the formula out of the can. Nobody feels the heartache when I plop that container on the belt at the store, ashamed, worried somebody might see me and judge me. Nobody knows how much it hurt to know I failed. There is a happy-ish ending to this part because a wonderful angel contacted me and was able to donate breastmilk to us. It may not be coming from me but at least I know she is getting the benefits of breastmilk. That numbs the sting a little bit, a band aid to my broken heart.
Now one of the things that swirled around in my head is a phrase that is told to many an online community: Fed is not best, it is minimum. I get where this comes from, really I do. Breastmilk is the most biologically appropriate and best food for human babies. That being said, the tone in which this is usually said can be extremely hurtful. This saying makes mothers like myself who have tried so hard and ultimately needed formula feel like complete failures. I've seen comments such as "I'd never feed my baby that poison, fed isn't best it's the minimum! I would get my baby donor milk if I couldn't breastfeed." That's great and all but not all moms have access to donor milk and to equate formula to poison?! Really?! Do we need that insinuation that I might as well be loading up her bottle with arsenic on top of my own personal guilt? I've seen things such as "What would they do if formula didn't exist? If I can breastfeed why can't they?!" This hurts a lot. To know that you think I didn't try hard enough when I worked my TAIL off to make it to 10 months. Formula is a last resort for many and for those who need it, it's truly a blessing and we are thankful. In another time far far away we might be able to find a wet nurse or a more available donor but the times we live in those things aren't around anymore like they used to be. All these comments do not serve to help mothers. They do not serve to build them up and encourage but rather tear them down.
Fed may be the minimum to some but sometimes feeding your baby formula is doing the best you can as a parent. You're doing the best by ensuring your child is nourished. This does not make you a bad parent, you are being the best parent you can be and that is what matters. So for me I say "Parenting, including choosing the way in which you feed, in such a way that provides your child with the best choices and life possible within your means and ability is best." Sure it's not as catchy but at least it's accurate.