[This post originally ran on the National Catholic Register in December of 2011.]
At my last prenatal visit, I saw a new midwife. Her exam room had all the usual distracting mobiles and soothing photos of crocuses and placid water birds. It also had, right on eye level as I leaned back on the paper-covered table, this photo (WARNING: not for sensitive viewers).
I was stunned—first, from the incredible insensitivity of displaying the image. At 38.5 weeks, I am barely keeping my head above the flood of a thousand anxieties about my baby, myself, my family. Maybe I’m a pampered American brat, but when I recline to hear my baby’s heartbeat, I don’t expect to be confronted with horrors. But there was a suffering child, one who was not saved, and the image of her suffering was six inches away from my head.
Even worse was the message the image implied: that formula kills.
Now, I am the breastfeedingest mother ever. I’ve spent nearly a third of my life doing little else besides producing milk. Sometimes it’s easy (people tend to give my babies nicknames like “pork chop”) and sometimes it’s very hard; but I am thoroughly convinced that breastfeeding is physically healthier for babies and mothers alike, and that the little ones are drinking in more than nutrition when they spend hours and hours folded in their mothers’ arms, fading in and out of sleep as they are fed.
So why would I object to the pro-nursing message of the photo? Because—yes, this particular child probably died because she was given formula. But she also died because because the water was likely contaminated; because formula is expensive and was probably diluted to save money; because if she had other medical needs beyond basic nutrition, these were likely ignored, because she was just a girl. The third world is flooded with medical technology that promotes sex-selective abortions, perpetuating a disastrous societal preference for baby boys.
Formula didn’t save this baby girl’s life; but it was ignorance, extreme poverty, and cruel sexism that caused her death.
So in rural, impoverished countries, formula can kill, and in most cases, breastfeeding can save lives. But showing this picture to an American woman who is already receiving prenatal care, the picture is a lie, and a cruel, manipulative one. The hand-lettered caption explained only that the mother was told she could not breastfeed both twins, and that the bottle-fed baby died. The message is clear: don’t want a skeleton for a baby? Then you had better breastfeed.
This is simply not true in most of modern America. Mothers have a moral obligation to take good care of their children, and good care very often takes the form of offering them the best possible nutrition, which very often takes the form of breast milk. But not always. It is shameful and irresponsible to tell attentive mothers who use formula that they are slowly killing their babies.
There are mothers who want desperately to nurse, but have horrible difficulties, either physically, emotionally, or logistically. There are moms who were sexually abused, and cannot see their bodies as nourishing. There are moms who get no joy or peace in the first several months of their babies’ lives, because they struggle so long and fruitlessly with trying to breastfeed.
For me, breastfeeding is easy and pleasant. But there are lots and lots of moms who are just different from me—they have different lives, different attitudes, different needs, different priorities. They love their babies as much as I do; they simply take care of them in a different way, which makes more sense for them, for where they are in their lives right now.
I remember vividly the crushing guilt and pain I felt when, four years ago, I brought my newborn preemie in to be weighed, and the nurse gently told me that, once again, the little one had lost ground. She was losing weight on my milk, not gaining. Despite all the care and sympathy and support I was given, I felt worthless, useless. I COULDN’T EVEN FEED MY OWN BABY.
I’m glad I persisted with breastfeeding (aided by pumping and finger feeding and a round-the-clock nightmare of written schedules, trips to the hospital, and a thousand tiny silicone bits of machinery to sterilize). But if, in the midst of this ordeal, I had seen that picture of that poor skeletal baby girl whose mother COULDN’T EVEN FEED HER OWN BABY, I think I would have thrown myself in front of a truck.
Breastfeeding should be encouraged and promoted, and mothers should be given generous support by family, doctors and employers when they are trying to nurse their children. Breast is best. But there is a difference between educating women and bullying them, and many well-intentioned breastfeeding activists cross the line, in their eagerness to promote good health.
Bottle-feeding moms deserve encouragement and support, too. Caring well for our babies is a moral issue; breastfeeding is not.