When I was forced to give up breastfeeding for the health of my baby, I was heartbroken and plunged into an even deeper and darker postpartum depression. It seemed like a no-win situation: I was failing, and my baby was not getting “the best.” Based on all that I’d been told about breastfeeding, a switch to formula did not bode well for Stella’s mental or emotional health, not to mention her IQ. But then it occurred to me that I had absolutely no in-depth scientific knowledge or statistics about the actual benefits of breastfeeding or actual outcomes for formula-fed infants. All I had were soundbites. In an attempt to inform myself about precisely what formula-feeding meant for Stella, and to maybe try to feel just a little less despair, I started digging around online.
That’s how I found Suzanne. Her increasingly popular blog, “Fearless Formula Feeder,” is catching the attention of formula-feeders and breastfeeders alike, sparking controversy in lactivist circles and heated debate in the blog’s comment section. It’s no secret that after all Stella and I went through with her feeding aversion and NG tube, while I still wish I could’ve breastfed, I have found immense comfort in Suzanne’s blog. You can agree or disagree with her message, but you can’t deny that she’s a courageous woman.
I have a feeling you’ll be hearing Suzanne’s name again soon. She’s currently working on a book about formula feeding and the concept and impact of breastfeeding pressure. And with that, I present my first ten-question “Confident Mom Interview,” with the Fearless Formula Feeder.
Life and Times of Stella: Why did you start your blog?
Fearless Formula Feeder: I was 100% committed to breastfeeding. I went into the hospital with everything going for me – I was educated about nursing from classes and numerous books; I lived in a community where everyone breastfed; all of my friends had nursed without problems; my husband was just as dedicated to the cause as I was and completely supportive; I didn’t have a maternity leave end-date looming over my head (being a writer who worked from home)… basically, I was a poster child for the best candidate for a successful nursing journey. I had the will, the drive, the attitude, the desire, and the support necessary to breastfeed.
And yet, I still ended up formula feeding…
There were a zillion extenuating circumstances that led to this turn of events. Ultimately it was a severe milk/soy protein intolerance that did us in, but before that, we had latching problems, a tongue tie, nerve damage in one of my breasts, a supply issue in the other, and my post-partum depression (and while I am aware Dr. Hale says otherwise, neither our pediatrician nor the psychopharmacologist I consulted could tell me without a doubt that the antidepressants I needed could not harm my nursing child ).
By the time we turned to formula (when my son was about a month), I was more than ready to do so, and all I felt was tremendous relief. But my husband and I had argued nonstop about it. He had read everything he could find on the Internet and was convinced that formula was terrible, that breastfed babies were smarter, healthier, etc… I was a health writer at the time and so I began doing a bit of research myself. And I soon discovered why my husband was so adamant about me nursing, despite all that we had been through – there was NOTHING out there that justified formula as a good choice. If you googled “formula feeding”, all you got was articles about why you shouldn’t do it.
I started feeling really awful about our decision. It didn’t help that I was the only formula feeding mom at any of the playgroups, Mommy & Me’s, and classes that we attended. I felt totally alone and marginalized. And yet, my son was absolutely thriving for the first time in his young life – he was happy, his skin cleared up, he was chubby and healthy and a joy to be around. Not to mention my mood had improved dramatically – I actually enjoyed being a mom, and was able to parent – to nuture and love him, rather than spending my time becoming BFF with my hospital-grade pump. As soon as I let go of nursing, I was able to become a real mom. Still, I couldn’t even admit this to myself, let alone my husband or friends. Formula feeding was a shameful secret and not something to be celebrated.
Then, that famous Hannah Rosin article came out, and the mommy world as we knew it all changed. Suddenly, people were blogging about their guilt over formula feeding. Scientists, economists, statisticians, sociologists, and psychiatrists were speaking out, saying that just maybe some of the breastfeeding claims were overblown. I was thrilled that people were discussing this. Until the backlash began…rather than the article being viewed as I saw it – a missive against mommy guilt, a call to arms so that we could all make infant feeding choices based on fact rather than fear – it was seen as anti-breastfeeding. This saddened me. Because I thought (and I still do) that breastfeeding was a beautiful, empowering thing …for many wom en, just not me. Just not everyone. I was still pro-breastfeeding, but I wanted a place where formula feeders could come and feel supported; a place where we could look at some of the headlines and studies a bit more closely – because I was starting to see just how ridiculous some of the pressure and proclamations concerning breastfeeding could be. I couldn’t find that place, so I created it myself.
Life and Times of Stella: Some lactivists call your site an attack on breastfeeding. How do you respond to that?
Fearless Formula Feeder: I get this a lot, and it really, really irks me. I don’t know how many times I need to spell it out. I wanted to breastfeed. I think breastfeeding is one of the coolest things a woman can do – if she wants to do it, and if she is able to do it. My blog is there because nursing just isn’t the right choice for every woman in the world. We make so many choices as mothers, and this is just one of them – it isn’t the be-all, end-all of parenting, and it shouldn’t be seen as such.
One of the biggest issues I have with lactivism is its ties to feminism. I cannot fathom how a feminist can be against choice – yes, formula companies can be corrupt, and I understand how some people see formula feeding as being tied to a man-made construct. And yes, breastfeeding is an empowering, wonderful thing. But I think you can look at it like the abortion debate, or the original Mommy War (stay-at-home vs working moms): we need to defend our rights to choose, whether that be to have kids or not, or work or not, or feed a child from our body or rely on what evolution and science has afforded us. You don’t have to like someone else’s choice; it doesn’t need to be YOUR choice, but that choice needs to exist.
I am anti-breastfeeding pressure. Pro-breastfeeding. I don’t see how pointing out the flaws in scientific studies, or picking apart certain lactivist arguments, is an attack on breastfeeding. (Incidentally, love how the posts I’ve done in a pro-breastfeeding light are conspicuously ignored by our frequent lactivist visitors.) If we could all work together to protect every mother’s right to feed her baby in the best way she sees fit, then we’d all be better off.
Life and Times of Stella: You call yourself a “factivist.” What does that mean?
Fearless Formula Feeder: Right after I learned the term “lactivist”, I started realizing how much we are all victims to interpretation. As laypeople, all we see is the headlines, or the proclamations by organizations like WHO or the AAP, and we take them as gospel. But there are a lot of human factors in the sound bites we’re fed. I’ve learned a good deal since then through my research and interviews with people way smarter than I am, but even when I first started the blog I was feeling like the truth was pretty relative. I wanted to present a fact-based argument against some of the breastfeeding hype – even if that meant that sometimes, I would be proven wrong. For example, I recently wrote about Haiti and the debate over sending formula to the earthquake victims. My gut reaction was tempered by all that I read about this complicated subject. I still don’t know where I stand, but I tried to present both sides of the argument rather than blindly come out swinging against one side simply because of my own bias. I think that’s my definition of “factivism” – trying to stay away from dogma while seeking out the whole truth.
Life and Times of Stella: How have your friends and family responded to your blog and its premise?
Fearless Formula Feeder: At the beginning, I kept it a secret. It was a scary day when I came out of the closet (I posted a link on another public blog of mine, and also put the link on my Facebook page). As I said before, all of my friends are breastfeeders. I had only discussed my true feelings about my nursing experience with a select few, and even with them, I’d kept my stronger opinions to myself. I was so worried that they would see the blog as a condemnation of their choices (like the lactivists did). But to my surprise, everybody was incredibly positive about it. Even those who were the strongest, proudest breastfeeding advocates told me they thought it was a good thing; that they were all about supporting women no matter what, as long as they were educated and had the ability to make an informed choice. I also had a number of acquaintances come out of their own breastfeeding closet and admit to me how stressful the whole experience had been, and how much the pressure had affected their first few months as mothers.
Life and Times of Stella: Let’s say a friend of yours, who is pregnant, comes to you for advice. She’s not sure whether she wants to breastfeed or formula-feed her baby. How would you respond?
Fearless Formula Feeder: I would tell her that if she is undecided and thinks that she might want to breastfeed, she should totally go for it – that it could end up being a truly amazing experience. As I said before, I am pro-breastfeeding if it works for both the mother and the baby. But I would also tell her that if for any reason it doesn’t work out – any reason at all – that formula is a great choice too. That her baby will thrive if she thrives, and that is all there is to it.
Funnily enough, a few of my nursing friends ask me breastfeeding-related questions now, because they know how much research I do on it. It’s ironic that a formula feeder spends the better part of her day reading about breastfeeding, but hey, it’s a hobby. I could never knit, so…
Life and Times of Stella: How has motherhood changed you?
Fearless Formula Feeder: Wow… in so many ways. It has opened my eyes in so many ways. I am way less rigid than I used to be, that’s for sure. Having the experience I did with his eating issues in the beginning showed me that flexibility is key. If I’d been a slave to my convictions, then who knows how long he would have suffered?
I don’t think anyone can prepare you for what motherhood does to you. The first time my kid was pushed down on the playground, I went postal. Didn’t matter that the pusher was a three-year-old girl. “It’s not nice to hit babies,” I snapped at her. I sounded like my elementary school lunch lady. It was awful. But honestly, I was too busy suppressing the urge to push her back to care what I sounded like. I don’t even want to think about the first time someone breaks his heart. I should probably just get a straightjacket now and store it in the closet for when that happens.
Then there is my career… I thought I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom until my son was in school, but a few months into motherhood, I realized that I needed work in my life, too. I am really lucky that I don’t need to compromise one for the other… as a writer, I have put my energies into specific things projects I care about; I’ve scaled back my freelance work and have been working mostly on one large personal project. This way, I’m predominantly home with my child, but I still get to feed my passion and use another part of my brain. I know it sounds strange – but having a baby made me more driven and more creative in many ways. I always thought it would be the opposite. Don’t get me wrong: my son is 100% my first priority, but I know now that I’m a better mom if I feel inspired and productive.
Life and Times of Stella: What is your favorite aspect of being a mom?
Fearless Formula Feeder: Watching my son grow. Some of my friends really mourn the passing of each stage; they were devastated when their kids turned one. I’m the opposite – I can’t wait to see the person he will become. I can’t wait until he can have a conversation with me. I love that he is already such an individual; that he can now wander off and play independently, interact with other kids and adults, and then run back to me to cuddle when he wants to… it means more to me now that he is choosing to come to me rather than being attached at the hip because he has to be. His independence is like a drug to me… I get high watching him do so well in the world.
I also love his laugh. God, I love his laugh.
Life and Times of Stella: If you had to outsource one task of motherhood, what would it be?
Fearless Formula Feeder: Waking up. Without a freaking doubt, waking up. I am so tired. I have the most enormous sleep debt from the past 14 months and I can’t see how I will ever recover. My son didn’t sleep more than 3 hours at a time until about 4 months, and he still doesn’t totally sleep through the night. It is torture.
Life and Times of Stella: What is your biggest wish for your child?
Fearless Formula Feeder: I just want him to be happy and healthy. Seriously, that’s it. I don’t care if he is gay or straight, an artist or a mechanic or a doctor, a bad student or valedictorian. As long as he keeps laughing and lives a long life, I will be thrilled.
Life and Times of Stella: Okay, in closing, I have to ask: Are you really “fearless”?
Fearless Formula Feeder: Oh man, I am not at all fearless. I have a ton of fear about things. I chose the name “Fearless Formula Feeder” because I liked the alliteration, mostly… but also because at the time, I was striving to be just that. I didn’t want to live in fear that people were judging me because I had a bottle in my hand. I didn’t want to feel scared that my baby would somehow be “damaged” by formula. I wanted to do what I knew in my heart was best for my child, and do it without fear.
Writing has always been my armour. Whether I was dealing with a broken heart, a childhood eating disorder, teen angst, whatever… if I wrote about it, I could get through it. Motherhood has been no different. I feel so lucky to live in a time where, through the Internet, writing can connect strangers all over the world so that we all feel a little less alone. The diary has gone global and it’s awesome.
Still…I have always cared way too much what people think about me. I always wanted to be universally liked, but unfortunately, I have a really big mouth, and I’m opinionated to a fault, and that gets in the way of my popularity.
I still cringe every time I see a nasty comment on my blog. But I’m getting better at that. I do fear all the negative energy that is being directed towards me, but I like to think that I am standing up for women, and that helps. I think as women we are taught to be peacemakers, and that is in me, for sure… but I also think it’s important to stand up for what you think is right. When I’m writing my blog, I always ask myself: am I saying this because I really believe it; because the facts support it? Or am I saying it because I want people to like me? I can honestly say that I need to ask the latter question a lot less frequently than I used to. I hope someday I won’t have to ask it at all.
But I will always have fear about some things. Fear is healthy. I am deathly afraid of being stuck in an elevator, for example. So I take the stairs. Which keeps me in shape. See? Fear is healthy.