It’s scary how quickly a parenting issue can be the most important part of your life and then suddenly it’s so far behind you in the rearview mirror you can’t see it anymore. It reminds me of when I had my first son and he had a little rash or scratch on his face and my cousin said that babies’ cells regenerate so fast, cuts heal or breakouts fade in the span of just one day, and she was right. This is how the formula shortage feels—to my relief, it’s far away from me—but that’s also freaky, given how long and how intensely formula was a part of our lives. I still remember the tacky feeling of damp formula powder that hasn’t been properly washed away, the heft and curve of a full warm bottle, the stench of old formula, truly one of the worst smells in the world. But my kids are old and independent enough now to procure themselves a drink from the fridge or sink, and if anything would rather have a Gatorade or, maybe someday, a Coke from a vending machine—or, dream of dreams, a 7/11.
The shortage, when paired with the fait accompli reversal of Roe, feels like a systematic rollback of the already limited choices women have when it comes to parenthood. What will come next? A requirement that you must meet a certain pain threshold to receive an epidural? Having to provide a timecard to prove you have a reason for enrolling your kid in daycare? A rule that postpartum women have to resume wearing pants with a fitted waistband once their child is six weeks old? (I was debating replacing that joke with another example that women can’t say no to sex after 6 weeks but wasn’t sure if that was too dark or too accurate.)
The formula-by-choice new mom is enjoying a certain spotlight in the shortage conversation. “Why don’t mothers just breastfeed?” dummies ask, before they regret asking a stupid question when angry folks point out how many parents can’t breastfeed for myriad reasons. The can’ts receive a dispensation over the won’ts—not unlike the abortion conversation. A woman is much more defendable if she terminates her pregnancy due to a health concern or traumatic circumstances around inception. Less easy for people with limited imaginations/empathy/intelligence to root for are women who could have a baby but decide it’s not the right time. It’s similar with the formula-by-choice people. I see them being defended out there but they’re never the first ones brought up when it comes to why parents should have formula. If there was some hypothetical strict rationing of formula, surely the parents who could breastfeed if they just gave it a shot should go to the end of the line compared to those who cannot.
When I chose to formula feed, it was one of those special pregnancy moments where you can, in a few moments, Google yourself into believing you are a total piece of shit criminal who shouldn’t even be alive because you dared think of your own preferences and comfort. I had personally Googled myself into believing I’d meet a strong resistance from people who would give me a hard time for choosing not to nurse, but ultimately this wall of resistance lived entirely online. But in the real world, nobody cared, just as in the real world, nobody truly cares if you wear your baby or do Baby Led Weaning but when you’re in new motherhood world it seems like life or death, both in terms of your baby and your reputation.
New mothers (and not new mothers) should never take the word “selfish” seriously, by anyone. I am not a veteran mom but I have almost ten years now under my belt and it gets so much clearer how to do the job your way as you get to know your kids better and yourself as a mother better. You are able to discern what truly matters to you, and lucky for you, no one is watching because you’re just a mom with a noisy dirty unprofitable kid. But when you are a brand new mother with a precious unsullied baby, you understandably know nothing. “Selfish” is a term used for women who make choices that they hope will work for them instead of opting into a set of choices that are all deemed best for baby. Not your baby, just “baby.” As in not you, bitch.
I was lucky to have the choice to formula feed without fear of lack of supply. I was induced 3 weeks early with little warning and after three days of little sleep with a half-functioning epidural, I can’t imagine having to immediately switch to the pressure of producing milk. My husband was the first person to feed both boys and I think it was a sign of our parenthood partnership to come. Thanks to formula I was able to get more people to help me. I was able to get out and do more. And the kids? They are as superlative as my unsullied breasts.
Formula feeding by choice should still be more normalized, in my opinion, but until it is, sticking up for those who choose definitely should be. It’s not as if there is so little formula going around that the won’ts are taking from the can’ts. It’s just some fresh meat for people to express that if a new mother somewhere in the country has a choice, she better not make it out of her own convenience or comfort, which she should be deriving naturally from the experience of motherhood.
I wish people defending new parents would stop saying “but some mothers have no choice and thus should have the choice” and instead say “Either do something, or shut the fuck up.” None of the early parenthood choices are great ones, to be clear, but the scant choices we have are apparently still too many for some, so we should guard them all.
Thanks for reading Evil Witches, a newsletter for people who happen to be mothers. Feel free to forward this issue to someone who might feel this. If you haven’t yet, I hope you consider becoming a paid subscriber which gets you bonus content and threads! Earlier this week we traded meatball recipes and favorite birthday meals.
The archives live here. If you want to flip through some semi-relevant old posts, here is one on a company that analyzes breast milk to make you feel like shit, when an insurance company refuses to pay for your breast pump rental after you just had triplets, stinky baby mouths, and talking more about how moms can’t win with Jenny True.
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I desperately tried to breastfeed my first baby after a traumatic emergency C-section after which I went into shock. This was in what was called at the time a "baby friendly hospital" in NYC, which meant that they had agreed to "promote" breastfeeding exclusively and did not supply any formula samples, information about formula feeding, etc. If your baby went to the nursery or NICU and was physically capable of breastfeeding, they would bring it to you every few hours around the clock to nurse instead of "allowing" supplementation with formula. But they also did not have any lactation specialists on staff. Nursing "help" was provided, if at all, by the regular, overworked, non-expert nurses. At home, I frantically googled for something that would reassure me that my baby would be fine on formula and found NOTHING. My son would not latch properly, and nursing was so painful that I sobbed through every session. Every time he started stirring and I thought he would need to nurse my anxiety started to build and I sometimes started crying just in anticipation of the pain. I swapped to a pump, which was less (though still) painful, but since I was told that pumping would lead to a poor supply, I woke up every 3 hours around the clock to pump instead of letting my husband swap out some of those feeds. Eventually I started bleeding into the pump. We got an appointment with a private LC (for which I had to pay out of pocket) and when I told her about the blood she said, and I will never, ever forget this: **"oh, that's no problem, a little blood won't hurt the baby."*** I continued pumping and bottle feeding for 4 months, pumping every 3 hours around the clock. Even after all this, when I swapped to formula I felt like a complete failure. (When my second baby was born 6 years later, my husband made me swear that if breastfeeding was at all difficult, I would swap to formula because of how miserable the experience was with my first. I agreed and even bought a can for the pantry so it would be there to remind me of my promise. But this time I had a less traumatic delivery and somehow managed to find a decent LC who diagnosed me with adhesions on my nipples and arranged for my OB to prescribe something; she also gave me explicit permission to use formula if the pain was intolerable. That permission was EVERYTHING. I ultimately ended up breastfeeding my second baby for 18 months. And guess which one has the food allergies?)
Do something or shut the fuck up. How do we make that our national motto?