When Breast Isn’t Best

Tuesday morning I sat nursing my four-month-old son, scrolling through my Facebook feed on my phone when I saw it: Breastfeeding Awareness Week. My heart fell.

For a nursing mother, I have, perhaps, an unexpectedly low tolerance for the pro-breastfeeding social media blitz that is Breastfeeding Awareness Week. It seems to me a bludgeon, brought down on formula-feeding mothers again and again and again.

Because I’m one of those too: a formula-feeding mother.

When my oldest son was born four years ago, I intended to exclusively breastfeed. I tried to exclusively breastfeed. But my boy was very big and very hungry and my milk didn’t come in soon enough, so my poor baby spent most of his first few days screaming his head off. And losing weight. By the time we brought him to the pediatrician for his three-day appointment, he had lost almost 15 percent of his birth weight.

My milk still hadn’t come in. (It wouldn’t until day five.) And the baby seemed so pathetic and miserable and hungry and 15 percent was too much anyway, so with a very serious look on his face, our pediatrician handed us a bottle of pre-made formula and said that the baby needed to have it right away, right there in the office.

I have never seen anything that broke my heart more than the relief on that poor, hungry baby’s face when he took his first sips of formula. I felt awful. Awful that I couldn’t provide him with what he needed, awful that I might never be able to, awful that he had suffered because I had been unwilling to let go of my pride and just give him a bottle, already.

The anguish continued for months. I still couldn’t satisfy my boy’s hunger once my milk came in, he still wasn’t gaining back his birth weight on the small amounts of formula we were providing him at first, and he still wasn’t gaining weight when (at two months) I stopped feeding him formula altogether because I thought I’d finally built up my milk supply enough to satisfy him.

All the while, I was driving myself insane with the anguish and the guilt and the work of it all. I would nurse for an hour (sometimes two), then I’d make a bottle, feed a bottle, clean the bottles, pump, clean the pumping equipment, and start all over again. I’d sit in the rocker nursing until my tailbone could no longer take it. I’d go for appointments with a lactation consultant. I’d bring in my baby for weight check after weight check. I’d cry and then cry some more. I’d argue with my husband, sometimes blaming him because my own sense of inadequacy made me eager to shift the blame to someone, anyone else.

I was miserable.


Four years later, I’m still capable of feeling that misery as if it were fresh. A few weeks ago I looked through my son’s newborn pictures to grab a few for a blog post and I was surprised at how hard it was to see them. It was hard for me to look at photos of my own baby. Each seemed its own little trauma; I knew the pain and the sense of failure hidden in each and every one.

When my second child was born, we had a similar experience, only this time the baby didn’t lose as much weight because we started to feed him formula once we recognized those anguished, can’t-be-satisfied-by-mommy cries. Again, my milk didn’t come in until day 5 and again, it was never, ever enough for my boy. At least with him, however, I was able to nurse (probably more for his comfort than nutrition) for 12 months. My first son had rejected nursing after only five. (Do you know how hard it is for me to refrain from typing “rejected me”?)

Then we had a similar situation with my third son. Before he was born I was just sure nursing would work this time. I will never make that mistake again. Because when it didn’t work, oh how very bitter the disappointment tasted. My milk came in at day 3 and it didn’t matter. He was too hungry to latch on. I was right there before him with milk to provide and all he could do was scream. The child had no idea that such things as formula and bottles existed, but when they were presented to him, he accepted them eagerly, a far cry from the frustrated reluctance with which he nursed.

All of this would have been hard enough. All of this pain and work and rejection would have been hard enough for a new mother to handle, but then salt was repeatedly poured in my wounds by “Breast is best” memes and “Every woman can nurse her baby” internet chatter. And worse, by “well-meaning” women insisting on giving me breastfeeding advice.

(I hope you’ll forgive the quotation marks around “well-meaning.” Some women, I’m sure, are genuinely well-meaning when they give you breastfeeding advice. They love you and they sympathize with what you’re going through and they want to help you. Other women, however, seem so attached to the idea of breastfeeding that they give advice out of loyalty to it, not out of love for you.)

“Nurse every hour!” they would say, when I was still nursing at that hour mark. “Pump between feedings!” they would say, when I had virtually no time between feedings as it was. “Drink plenty of water!” they would say, when I’m pretty much already a fish. “Breastfeeding babies just don’t gain weight as quickly as formula-fed babies!” they would say, when they weren’t the one holding the baby screaming from hunger.

But the worst thing a woman ever said to me when I was crawling through the trenches, struggling to do the best for my baby in those first few weeks of his life, was “Breastfeeding is a very unselfish thing to do.” Yes, a fellow mother told me that. She implied that it was selfish of me to supplement with formula. When I was barely hanging on. According to her – and to too many other women, I’m afraid – I revealed my selfishness the moment I first let that scoop of formula drop into a bottle of water.

Doubly selfish: using formula and counting on the four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

Doubly selfish: Not only do I use formula, but I count on my four-year-old to feed it to his brother.

A couple of months ago, once I got through my initial surprise and pain at yet again not being able to exclusively breastfeed, I thought I was done with my sensitivity on the subject. After three babies, I had finally come to accept that nursing and supplementing with formula is what works for us. It’s what our babies need to be well-nourished, it’s what I need to keep myself sane, and it’s what allows us to be a happy, functioning family.

I have three strapping, healthy boys, after all. For all the “breast is best” talk, my boys are thriving. They’re solid and tall, they have no allergies or asthma, they’ve never had an illness more serious than a simple virus, and they’re cuddly and well-attached. They didn’t need my breastmilk. They just needed to be fed.

With my body’s naturally measly level of milk production, I don’t think I’d ever be capable of exclusive nursing without a major, strenuous, time-consuming effort. And I’m simply not up for that. I need my sanity and the other members of my family need me too much for me to ever go through that. So should we ever be blessed with another baby, I am resolved to welcome that child with a bottle of formula sitting at my elbow. If, after a couple of days, my baby seems to need it, I will provide it with no hesitation, and hopefully, no guilt.


Helping bottle-feed since before he was two years old.

That’s where I was a couple of months ago: being practical, moving forward, determined to not let those mean ol’ lactivists (I jest – kind of) get to me anymore. But then those newborn pictures sucker-punched me. And soon after, I found myself in a ballroom at The Edel Gathering, twisting open a bottle of pre-made formula while other mothers nursed their babies a few feet away and still more sat on the floor pumping milk for their babies back home.

But I, I had to suffer the indignity of pulling a bottle out of my bag, handing my baby to the kind lady behind me, and pouring that fake milk from one plastic vessel to another. “I just nursed up in our hotel room!” I wanted to shout to the room at large. “I only supplement with formula!” “I can’t produce enough milk!” I felt so ashamed and left out and alone and I realized I’m not over this.

How awful that I should think it undignified to feed my baby.

No one says to a woman struggling with infertility, “Every woman can conceive a child.” Yet we hear again and again, “Every woman can nurse her baby.”

This week, I’m not the only one who is feeling the pain and the unwarranted shame of not being able to nurse, or to nurse exclusively. Amy wrote a terrific post on the subject on Monday. The Washington Post ran a beautiful piece on it yesterday. I know I’m far from alone, and I know that I’m blessed to have been able to nurse my babies at all.

It’s just that I wish enthusiastic breastfeeding supporters would cool down a bit. I’m pretty much never a fan of “awareness weeks” to begin with. I think they’re a little silly and I don’t know what they actually achieve. I think they’re too often excuses for niche interest groups to become their own biggest cheerleaders. But all that aside, the breastfeeding debate has become something that hurts mothers. It hurts mothers who are already suffering exhaustion and physical pain and the emotional turmoil of not being able to satisfy their hungry babies.

So the terms of the discussion need to change. Breastfeeding can be a beautiful thing; it is right and good to tout its benefits, to encourage mothers to attempt it, and to provide support to those who are willing and able to commit themselves to it. But breastfeeding can also be horrible. It should never be advertised as the only good way to feed a baby and it should never be advanced by shaming women.

Let’s remember that this issue is not, at its heart, about breasts or breastmilk. It’s about mothers and babies. Not mothers and babies in the abstract, mind you, but individual mothers and babies who have real needs and unique challenges. Let’s make sure that we speak and act out of a loving commitment to them, not to an idea.

Answer Me This

I’m on something of a link-up kick right now. This here post is my fourth in four days. Whew! I’ve been using the link-ups as a kick in the pants to get myself back in the habit of regular blogging after my post-baby hiatus. (Speaking of which, look who’s one month old today!)


I promise to emerge from the pattern soon. It’s about time to post something a little more original. And whether it’s my four (link-up) posts in four days or some brain synapses that are recovering from pregnancy and newborn-hood, there are a bunch of topics I’m excited to tackle soon.

‘Till then, welcome to “Answer Me This,” a new link-up from Kendra at Catholic All Year. Each Sunday, Kendra invites bloggers to answer a new set of questions. I was a little hesitant to participate at first, because really, I kind of doubt anyone will be interested to read about my beverage preferences or whether I think I’m becoming my mother. But! I always enjoy reading such things from other people – so maybe, just maybe somebody out there will enjoy reading mine. Here we go!

Answer Me This3


1. Are you becoming your mother?

I don’t know. Mom, what do you think?

It’s certainly been strange, in the handful of years since I became a wife and mother, to see myself doing things that I’ve always associated with my mom. But as far as becoming her goes, I guess I think that would require us to be more similar, personality-wise. And I think I inherited more of my father’s temperament, so… maybe I should consider whether I’m becoming him?

2. Coffee or tea?

Coffee, mostly. But also tea.

I kind of dabbled in coffee a bit in college, but didn’t develop much of a fondness for it (or a reliance on it) until I started lobbying. At that point, work was (at times) so relentless that I needed that caffeine crutch to get me through it. Also, it was really, really nice to take a break from all the pressure/frustration/wandering/strategizing/waiting to saunter down to a cute little coffee shop for a sugared-up pick-me-up. And a scone. I love scones.

When I married Brennan, my coffee attachment became more of a commitment. Because he’s pretty much obsessed with the stuff. He actually roasts his own coffee. He buys raw coffee beans (online) and roasts with his fancy roaster about three times a week. Then we grind them up in his fancy grinder and brew them up in his fancy coffee machine. And on weekends when he’s on an espresso kick, Brennan dolls them all up into the most wonderful, proper cappuccinos with his fancy espresso machine. Yum.

This is what a home coffee roaster looks like -- or ours, at least. There are different kinds, but for the most part, they're all glorified popcorn poppers.

This is what a home coffee roaster looks like — or ours, at least. There are different kinds, but for the most part, they’re all glorified popcorn poppers.


Here are some coffee beans before they’re roasted. What a lovely shade of drab olive green.

In progress.

In progress.

And... the perfect light roast!

And… the perfect light roast!

So, I’ve been spoiled. It’s hard for anybody else’s coffee to compare. Starbucks? Not even close. Though I do enjoy the place for the convenience factor and the social aspect. (Yay for mommy dates during preschool!)

It’s even harder for anybody else’s coffee to compare for Brennan. He’s an admitted coffee snob. But (and this is a little random), do you know where we – to our great surprise – tasted the best cappuccinos of our lives? Not in Italy, nor Austria or Germany or any of the other continental European countries we’ve visited. Not in a major American city. Nope – it was a small town in rural County Clare, Ireland, in the back room of a touristy little gift shop. Let me tell you, that stuff was amaaazing. Just perfect.

We actually had lots of other great coffees and cappuccinos on our (honeymoon) visit to Ireland. We couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised – we’d figured Ireland was more of a tea country. (Undoubtedly it is a tea country, but they sure can do a decent coffee!)

Which brings me to tea. I like it, especially on a rainy afternoon with an interesting book to read. (And the TIME in which to read!) My favorite is a good Earl Grey, with milk and sugar.

3. What foreign country would you like to visit?

I’d really like to visit the United Kingdom. I always kind of figured I’d get there first, before visiting any other foreign country. I considered it a stepping stone, of sorts, into international travel. But lo and behold, I got to Canada first, then Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Ireland, and the Cayman Islands. And I’ve still never visited the U.K.!

I’ve read so much British literature and history and news, I feel as if I’ve been there. I’ve known bunches of people from the U.K. A decent portion of my ancestry is English or Scottish. So… someday, hopefully, I’ll get there. Someday when we’re in another international-travel period of our lives, I suppose.

4. Do you cry easily?

Not usually, but sometimes, yes. That is, though I’m not generally much of a crier (nope, didn’t cry when I got engaged or married; didn’t cry when my kids were born), I cry quite easily when I’m the least bit hormonal or when I’m over-tired. So, umm… in these newborn days? Yes, I cry. This afternoon I started to cry over a country song that I must have heard hundreds of times before. Tonight I just about started crying because I was hungry and tired. (I know, I know: Eat a snack and go to bed, Julie!)

5. How often do you wear heels?

Almost never. I used to wear them all the time when I was in the professional world, but now I stick to my comfy Clark’s flats. I do, however, keep a few pairs of heels in reserve for when I attend the odd wedding or formal dinner. Of course.

6. Do you play an instrument?

Nope. I took clarinet for two years in elementary school, but I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t enjoy it much. When we were made to choose between band and chorus in middle school, it was an easy decision. I went with chorus and never looked back – I’ve sung in choirs for something like sixteen years of my life and I’ve cantored for seven or eight years. So I suppose my voice is my instrument. Kidding – I’m kidding.


Alright. Thanks to Kendra for hosting this fun new link-up. And thanks to those of you who were interested enough to read my contribution to it. Head on over to Kendra’s for the rest!

The Thing About Having A Full Plate

This past weekend, my situation was clarified for me: I have quite the full plate at the moment. It’s not full of bad things or scattered, abstract things or things that are worth wasting time worrying about. It’s full of two big, hearty, substantial portions of meat, if you will. Two portions that simply must be dealt with. Now.

Here’s the deal: I’m due to have my third baby in a little over five weeks. And like all expectant couples, my husband and I have a lot to do before the little guy arrives. Here’s our (conservative, whittled-down-to-the-bare-minimum) list, because I’m a list-maker:

  • Finish the bigger boys’ Big Boy Room.
  • Transform this mess (I’m not even exaggerating, am I?) into a nursery/guest room/laundry sorting space/catch-all room.


  • Do all that baby-readying stuff like washing baby clothes and linens, digging the baby gear out of the attic, cleaning it, etc.
  • Clean out the minivan and rearrange the seats and car seats.
  • Pack overnight bags for myself and the boys.
  • Put away the Christmas decorations. (What?! It’s only March.)
  • Deal with no fewer than a dozen boxes of papers and junk.
  • Move/construct no fewer than 20 pieces of furniture. (That job is reserved for the hubby, which would be obvious to you if you could see the way I’m waddle-limping around the house these days.)

What’s with the last two, you ask? Why would any sensible person tackle tasks like that a month before having a baby? Well, it’s because having a baby is just one of the Big Life Changes we’re preparing for right now. It’s just one of those substantial pieces of meat I was referencing.

We’re also about to welcome my mother-in-law into our home. Permanently. Brennan’s stepfather passed away in January, prompting Brennan’s mother’s need to find a new place to live. So she’s moving here, all the way from Minnesota.

While we’re aware that this new living situation will involve a tremendous adjustment for all of us, we’re confident that we’re doing the right thing. And we look forward to many wonderful things about having Hilde (pronounced “Hildy”) living with us. (First and foremost, our boys will actually get to know their grandmother! Currently, they only get to see her once a year. Also, you know how newborns want to be held at all times? Solution: Grandma!)

The original plan was for Hilde to arrive at the beginning of June. But now it looks like she’ll be here in… two-and-a-half weeks. So it’s not like we even have five whole weeks to accomplish the tasks on that list. For most of them, we’ve just got 2.5.

Two! Point! Five! To ready our home and household for two new people. With one of the primary workers partially incapacitated by third-trimester fatigue, a big huge belly, and a bum hip joint. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a full plate.

But the thing about having a full plate, I’ve found, is that it tends to do what it did for me this past weekend: clarify things. All-of-a-sudden, necessary things are made more obvious and unnecessary things fade into the background. You (or at least I) become more business-like, more matter-of-fact about what you need to do. Those tasks that have been swimming languidly along in your mind for months are suddenly lined up, alert, standing at the ready.

So, despite my fatigue (and another annoying post-nasal-drip, sore-throat thing), I’m ready to get this thing done. Yesterday afternoon, I finally finished up a task that I’d left hanging for months. A handful of more afternoons like that and we’ll be in good shape.

At this point in the game, I’ve got to believe that all this is doable. I don’t have the luxury of worrying about it or letting it overwhelm me. I’ve just got to move forward with purpose and determination… and love. We’ll get there. And we’re doing it for a good reason, for people we love.


Also, do you want to know a little bonus about having this particular kind of a full plate? I’ve been thinking so much about logistics in the past few days that I haven’t had any time at all to devote to the subject that had been lurking in my mind, making me uneasy: labor and delivery. Let’s just put that one off as long as possible, shall we?

The Best Gift A Parent Can Give

I heard a really moving story this morning on the radio. “Beating The Odds: Making The Grades Without A Mother’s Help” told about a Washington, D.C. teenager named Jennifer Hightower. Jennifer has excelled in school (earning a 3.9 GPA!) without the help of her mother, who has struggled with drug addiction and illness.

I’ll write more on it later, but I have something of a left/right ideological tug-of-war going on in my mind on some subjects. (On others there are no struggles at all – my mind is firmly on one side of the ideological divide.) Poverty-related issues most definitely fall into the “tug-of-war” category. Jennifer’s story was interesting to me in part because it satisfied both sides of my ideological leanings in this area: The left-leaning side was gratified that the story shone some light on the daunting (and often ugly) challenges that so many Americans face in their efforts to succeed – or even just to function – in our society. The right-leaning side was proud of Jennifer and her commendable efforts to excel despite those challenges. (Not to mention her happy, positive outlook on life and her forgiving attitude toward her mother.)

The story also broke my mommy heart a little. The idea of a small child taking on the responsibilities of keeping her home clean, cooking, and excelling in school without a mother’s guidance – it’s hard to take in. But a simple image is what touched me most: “I had to teach myself how to tie my own shoes,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t have somebody to sit down and tell me this bunny tie that you do. All that stuff you see on TV, I didn’t have that.”

For the umpteenth time since I became a parent, a small image of trial and deprivation took the wind out of my sails. On a daily basis, I worry about keeping my home orderly, washing the dishes, cooking decent meals for my family, getting my boys enough run-around-outside time. And yes, all of those things matter. But at the base of it, what really matters is that my husband and I love our boys powerfully, unreservedly, consistently… in all the best ways one can love. And that we take care of them in the big and the little ways. Our boys don’t have to wonder whether they are loved or whether they will have their needs met. Those thoughts don’t have to cross their innocent little minds. At times like these (thinking of Jennifer’s story), that seems like such a luxury. Countless children don’t get to have that sense of security. I feel so humbled and so very grateful that I received that gift from my parents – and that my husband and I are able to give it to our boys.