As a member of numerous mother's support groups online, this is a topic that frequently comes up for debate. A bottle feeding mother protests or leaves a group because they feel unfairly judged by breastfeeding moms. Women report they feel like failures as mothers because they were unable to make breastfeeding work, and are tired of getting flak from doctors, family members and even women in grocery store lines. Breastfeeding advocates and health care workers exclaim that "breast is best," suggest that even a small amount of formula can cause a child permanent harm, and argue that formula should be available by prescription only.
On the other side of things, bottle feeding mothers claim that the battle to establish breastfeeding exceeded their family's mental health quotient and that once they began to bottle feed, they could actually revel in and bond with their child. Formula-fed mothers of the current generation comment that despite the studies, they are generally healthy and allergy-free and suffer none of the many maladies with which breastfeeding advocates claim formula babies will be saddled. Working mothers who know they are going back to work and either won't practically be able to or won't want to pump either wean early, or don't see the point of struggling to establish and then quickly wean from breastfeeding to begin with.
Increasingly, mothers find themselves on opposing sides of a battle that some consider a public health issue and some consider a private decision that should not be open to public debate and scrutiny.
Aren't mothers who work hard to breastfeed, often overcoming pain or troubled starts, who spend their breaks at work pumping breastmilk, and who give up evenings out with friends or time alone in order to breastfeed on-cue allowed to feel proud of their decision? Personally, I feel like I worked hard to breastfeed and overcame some significant pain and challenge. I give up a lot of things that other mothers take for granted (and we're not talking about pedicures and spa days – currently I can't yet participate in parent meetings at my older daughter's school because I need to be home at bedtime for my younger daughter). In all honesty, sometimes I have to let myself feel proud or, yes, even superior, for making what I perceive to be the "harder and healthier choice" – otherwise, what would it all be for?
But don't bottle feeding mothers who have made an educated choice deserve to have everyone else stay out of their business? Do mothers who didn't have adequate support to breastfeed despite their efforts need to have it thrown in their faces every time they turn around? Do they deserve to be told over and over again that they should have worked harder, tried longer, and are robbing their child of health and mother love? Does our satisfaction and pride with our decision and outcome need to come at their expense?
Parenting choices, no matter what side we are on of any particular debate, create a highly charged issue. We all need to feel as though we are doing what is best for our children and our families…it's the only way we can make it through each day! For most issues, there will never truly be a "right answer" for how children should be raised, and there will always be debates, agendas, and conflicting studies. We all know this… so why all the rancor? Why is this such a charged topic – why does it seem to divide women into two camps?
I think it starts with the assertion that "Breastfeeding is Best." You are not going to get far these days arguing it. I believe that most who try are rationalizing. A close (not quite equal, but often necessary for many, many reasons) second-best is pumping and feeding breast milk. A third-best is appropriate replacement nutrition given by loving and attentive mothers or caregivers. These are valid and common options, and sometimes the only options. Ironically, even through exclusive breastfeeding is still the minority choice in the United States, the "Breastfeeding is Best" statement has become to powerful in the medical and parenting community, that those who choose not to breastfeed are somehow becoming a marginalized majority.
So – if breastfeeding is best, are breastfeeders "better" mothers. Of course not. It's a ridiculous statement. Yet somehow this notion is alive in both breastfeeding and bottle feeding mothers – as pride, as guilt, as regret – in whatever form. And because it is there, and real, it is worthy of exploring and deconstructing.
I invite you to engage in this discussion in the BellaOnline Breastfeeding Forum. I'll be posting some of my initial thoughts and invite you comment and contribute as we explore this difficult and sometimes contentious issue.
Forum Thread for Are Breastfeeders Better Mothers