Seeking the Formula to Shame Free Mothering

It’s just a shame that some women choose to formula feed.

Everyone knows breast milk is best for babies! They are smarter and healthier-

Less likely to be obese!

I can always tell the difference between babies who are breastfed and formula fed-

They stop suddenly as I walk through the door, unsure whether or not I, the as-far-as-I-know-it only mom who formula feeds her baby, had overheard their conversation.

And of course I had. How could I miss overhearing the very same thing that loops in my mind

every time I shake up a bottle

or see another mom successfully and without pain nurse her child.

But here, in real time, during the first horrible week of taking my second baby girl to daycare at the end of maternity leave, the loop had eyes, mouths, bodies.

It’s not that I didn’t try, once. Or, rather, try for four painful and difficult months.

With my first girl the shame loop was so loud that I pushed through all the warning signs of not being built right for breast feeding:

The lactation consultant sighing when she saw my flat, inverted nipples.

Then her grimace when I showed up months later, cold and shaking,

to ask her if it was normal for nipples to be so raw, so red,

normal for a mother to cry though each feeding and pumping session.

I was so set on being a “good” mother that I wound up spending my first night away from my baby girl in the ER after a fever rose to 104 degrees, the infections in my breast spreading in my body dangerously close to my heart.

I breastfed for two more months after that. Shame is a mighty motivator.

The first time I offered the formula to my beautiful girl I wept uncontrollably, not with relief.

Everyone knows breast milk is best for babies! They are smarter and healthier-

When I was pregnant with my second the first thing my mind went to was whether or not to try to breast feed again. My partner, usually a strong supporter of what I choose to do, insisted that I go straight to formula. It pained him to see me go through those months of agony. But I knew I had to give it a shot.

My big, beautiful second girl arrived and immediately latched to my chest when the midwife placed her on my belly. I was high as a kite (not from any painkillers mind you). I let her stay there, sucking for an hour, afraid that it was just a dream.

But the same old symptoms reared their head when, two hours later, she cried for more.

As my partner, who had to insist on getting formula from the nursery and that yes we knew what we were doing, offered my baby a bottle I wept uncontrollably again.

I can always tell the difference between babies who are breastfed and formula fed-

Shame, you are a persistent demon.

Deep down, I don’t believe the loop. Somehow this formula fed baby grew up to graduate with distinction from college, earn two awards in her masters program, and be accepted to a top-notch research university for her PhD. Other lines of defense: I rarely am sick. I have long lasting relationships, some going on twenty years. I will refute all your theories. All those things you hear will happen when you choose to formula feed rather than breastfeed…I suppose me, my partner, and our siblings are just all strange anomalies.

Or is it just that our culture is always after some way to shame a woman, some way to knock the ones who take care of the weak down to the lowest rung? Why else are there so many lactivists on social media, proudly displaying their functional breasts and healthy, happy babies? Why else do they hold nurse-ins? Or share story after story of being yelled at, kicked out, side-eyed for feeding their children? And yet…

Yet how many times have I felt ashamed for formula feeding my girl in public?

I remember the first time I nursed in public. I had been stuck at home for weeks with an infant on me almost 24/7. This extrovert was losing her mind. A dear friend who had a babe just a few months ahead of me said, meet me at the mall. Today is the day you will get your confidence to do this! We sat in the corner of a Starbucks and she casually lifted up her shirt to feed her baby. Meanwhile I fumbled with the cover and the nipple shield and the wriggling baby who surely sensed my anxiety.

But I did it. We did it. It was an incredible feeling. I felt like woman of the year, mother earth or Mary or more. I felt mighty and sacred all at once. No shame, only insane pride.

Flash forward to child two as I fumble with a bottle and formula packet at another Nashville coffee shop. I slip the nipple of the bottle into her mouth but there is no pride, no sense of Womanhood herself providing for her child. I hardly lift my eyes for fear of the loop being triggered again.

Everyone knows breast milk is best for babies! They are smarter and healthier-

If it’s not shame about how we feed our children, it’s shame about how soon we go back to work, or shame about not going back to work. It’s shame about epidurals or home births. It’s shame about the daycare we send them to. It’s shame about letting them cry it out or co-sleeping until they are two years old. It’s shame, 24/7. I cannot tell you how many mommies I know who feel it in their own distinct ways. We all have our loops. We all know what triggers us.

How can I get the loop out of my head? Maybe it’s high time I posted a selfie of myself on Instagram formula feeding my beautiful, smart, fat, giggly baby?

-Casey Thornburgh Sigmon