nursing: in the middle

3 Feb

For those of us who can’t breastfeed exclusively, but really, really want to, I think there is a special set of social issues and questions. And sometimes it can feel very lonely, like no one else has ever experienced this (which is, of course, not true).

Here is the problem I had:

I support nursing. I support every woman’s right to nurse anywhere that she and her baby have the right to be. Personally, I also support the idea of being courteous if you’re aware that you are making people uncomfortable and maybe finding a quiet corner to breastfeed in or taking care to be discreet, at least if you’re showing a lot of boob, but that’s just me; legally and practically speaking, you can nurse however, and almost totally wherever, you want.

I support your baby’s right to eat in a nice place, not in a bathroom, and I support your right to have the time to pump at work if you’re a working mom.

Okay, straightforward enough, right?

Where this gets murky is that I, personally, had to give my babies bottles. I nursed my son for his first ten months, but he always got bottles, too. And, although it’s taken me years to get to this point, I have finally managed to come to terms with the fact that I am not a failure for that reason. I am a successful mother because I did the best things I could to give my baby a good start in life: nursing, plus adequate food!

But I still felt, every time I got out a bottle in public, like I would be judged for that. This is particularly silly because bottle-feeding is the norm in this area–most moms use formula here. But any time I started to mix a bottle, I felt this weird urge to explain it, to tell anyone who could see that I DID try to breastfeed and I had a real problem and I wasn’t one of those women who give up because it’s inconvenient…and so on and so forth.

Obviously, this feeling is troubled from the get-go because I don’t believe that there are very many women who choose to use formula for bad reasons. If you choose formula because breastfeeding hurts too much, because you are in desperate need of sleep and have to be able share the co-parenting to stay sane, whatever–I respect that. You are the best judge of what is right for you, and your kid is going to be JUST FINE. Even if you choose formula for a reason that I find silly (like, for example, to preserve the perfect symmetry of your lovely little breasts–which doesn’t work since pregnancy does a number on them anyway, by the way), that’s your right and I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong.

And yet, I always felt that people might be watching and judging me for MY choices, even though I also felt confident that they were the best choices I could make with the options I had.

When I was nursing in public, I always knew that if anyone complained, or gave me a dirty look, or asked me to leave, I was in the right and I could politely decline to move before my baby was done eating. And in any event, I was never once the recipient of any kind of negative behavior for nursing. People were nice about it. They would smile at me and move on, not stare; a lot of mothers would give me that wistful look that said they were remembering nursing their own babies (a look that I have grown to know even more intimately now that I feel it on my own face when I see a mama nursing her baby). No one ever made me feel uncomfortable or asked me to do anything different.

But the idea of someone judging me for bottle-feeding was different, because a person who thought I was a bad mom for using formula wouldn’t ask me to leave. They would just make a decision about what kind of mom I was, based on the bottle.

Of course, there is no reason I should care. A person whose opinion I care about is a person who probably already knows my situation anyway. A total stranger’s knee-jerk judgment about me shouldn’t make the slightest impression on me, especially since they would probably not voice it. But it did, frequently, make me feel uncomfortable and unhappy whenever I had to mix a bottle and feed a baby in public.

I realize that it’s highly unlikely anyone except me even noticed, especially since I do not live in an area where most mothers breastfeed. This particular fear is almost entirely the reflection of my own sense of failure. But the reason I feel self-conscious is that the judgment certainly exists, especially in the “semi-crunchy” communities I tend to seek out when I have the choice.

The only point of this post is to say this: if you feel this way, too, fight it. Don’t let it make you feel like you’re not a GREAT mother. A mom who puts the needs of her kids first, who does what she can to keep them healthy and safe, and who feeds them when they need to be fed is doing a good job.

The fact that the judgment against formula feeding is less vocal than the judgment against moms who nurse in public does not have to mean that it’s any less wrong or socially unacceptable. You can be a voice for the better. Assume, until you know otherwise, that every mom you see is doing the right thing for her family, and say so if asked. You can break down the set of assumptions about the non-nursing (or partially-nursing) mother, just as the big push for acceptance of nursing in public is breaking down assumptions about the breastfeeding mom and opposition to nursing in shared spaces.

If you are one of the mothers, like I was, who nursed AND fed formula, it might feel like you’re in the middle and no one at all understands or supports you. But you can see it the other way, too: you’re in the middle and you can see the value of what every woman chooses. That means that you can help increase tolerance and nonjudgment for all kinds of moms.


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