Breast vs. Bottle: Moving Beyond Judgement.







This weekend was just what I needed. Long sleeps and long jaunts out into the quiet. Winter keeps calling us out to the woods. Oh, my. I love this place. (We'll know more soon about the offer we put in. I'll be sure to keep you posted.)

Unrelated, but quite central to my week and weekend is the circle of mothers I talked about in my last post. I've been reflecting a great deal on the tearful comments you all have left there. Such powerful words.

I've received a lot of thanks for organizing the "boob brigade" (as one of my more crass friends put it) of nursing mothers to pump and nurse this sweet baby. And I feel that gratitude is a bit misplaced. In truth I don't feel like I did that much that is of significance. I didn't have any milk to give and really that's the gift. But it has turned out to be something huge beyond description for the mother, the father, the grandmothers, and surely that sweet yummy baby. Because nothing compares to breastmilk, even if it can't be your own. I too am filled with gratitude – for all the mamas who have rallied to help, for grandmothers who don't bat an eye and someone else nursing their grandchild, and for community.

But all of this has turned into a bigger reflection in my own heart. It has me thinking honestly about the judgements that I carry despite my good intentions. Because this baby might not be able to nurse again. She might be bottle fed (because of the medications her mother requires) for the rest of her babyhood. And that has me thinking about the feelings that I must acknowledge that bubble up when I see a baby with a bottle. Not this baby, mind you, because I know her story. But what if I didn't?

I called my friend's home the other day and the big sibling answered the phone. When I asked to talk to their grandma I was told "She's nursing the baby." "I wish!" the grandma told me later. But to the sibling that bottle of breastmilk was nursing. It was nourishment, food, goodness, and love. There was no judgement in that child's heart for the symbolism carried by that bottle.

The raw honesty is that I'd like to believe that I am beyond judging. That I accept and allow others to live a different experience than I. And for the most part I do. But when I see someone mixing up formula for a fussing baby I cringe a little inside, despite myself. I assume things I should not assume. I am admitting this not because I think it is right, but becasue it is there and I need to pull it out into the light to acknowledge, understand and transform it. Because a baby with a bottle is not a natural, comfortable image for me. I struggle with it like others might struggle with the image of a baby latching on to her mother's breast, but for very different reasons. And that's my issue to sort through.

Does it come down to me subconsciously judging a mother for choosing not to nurse? Somewhat I suppose. I think know that I'm guilty of making assumptions at times. (And I'm working on that with all of my heart.) But I think what truly troubles me – what is at the core of my discomfort – is the lack of support that we provide new and expectant mothers and the breastfeeding sabotage that many experience on behalf of formula industry. Yes, for some bottle feeding is a safe and healthy way to keep a baby fed that otherwise could not be. But more often I fear it boils down to lack of support for mothers.

I did not grow up watching mothers breastfeed. My mom didn't know any other nursing mums in her own community. Yet she exclusively breastfed my sister and I, me until I was a walking-and-talking toddler. That was downright radical in the suburbs in 1973. (She also cloth diapered and fed us tofu. She was free-thinking. She was unafraid.)

Despite growning up without the normalcy of nursing, for me nursing my babies was a given. I nursed Sage for 3 1/2 years, he weaned when I was pregnant with Lupine, and I nursed her for 3 1/2 years. In those seven years I never once noticed a sideways stare for nourishing my child.

And today I can honestly say that every mother I know is or was a breastfeeding mother. But in many communities nursing is not normal. And that is a tragedy for both mother and child.

I do not know the details of anyone else's life. And it is surely not my place to judge the path that another family is on. I don't know why a mother weaned her baby or never nursed to begin with. Lack of community support, lack of partner support, medical challenges, postpartum depression, adoption, economic struggles, lack of employer support, or countless other issues may be at play. Frankly their reason is not my business at all. However the creation of communities that truly support mothers and babies is everyone's business.

The best that I can offer is the belief that we are learning and growing as individuals and as a community. I hold hope that we will empower the next generation of mothers and they will embrace the power they possess to nourish their baby – I think of that t-shirt that reads, "I make milk. What's your superpower?" – and also embrace the different ways that we each nurture and love our children.

And that as I move beyond my own quiet judgements, our societies are moving too – to a world where nursing is normal in every community, and where a bottle just means that there was a bump in the road through babyhood and a different way to lovingly deliver the nourishment that a baby needs has been employed. That's the vision that I'm holding in my heart.

53 thoughts on “Breast vs. Bottle: Moving Beyond Judgement.

  1. nikki says:

    Great post! I’m still BF our 20 month old son and wouldn’t have it any other way! But I have a friend that’s 25 weeks pregnant with a baby boy! And she refuses to BF her husband wants her to, he was BF and he believes its best but she said she couldn’t imagine not being able to do what she wants after she has the baby! So already while baby is still in utero she is making a decision that benifites her and not her child I think its selfish but she won’t listen to anyone! So i guess she’ll do what’s best for her! It truly brakes my heart!

  2. Kasey Love says:

    Great post! Very insightful. I have struggled with similar feelings about a variety of subjects. I suppose that all we can really do is set an example for the rest of the world, and be pleased with the change we inspire.

    Like Gandhi said, “Be the change you’d like to see in the world.”

  3. Susie says:

    Well said Rachel. I struggle with the same feelings – having run a bf support group for the past few years, I have come across the whole gamut of decisions and choices.
    I firmly believe that our society that sexualises girls and women’s bodies, coupled with the formula companies and lack of support (as well as, yes, too strident pressure from bf mums) puts new mummies off.
    I feel that if women could just be given the space and grace to make this important decision, a lot decisions would be different.
    Thanks again Rachel.

  4. Kelly says:

    Thanks for posting this! I would like to just emphasize to other breastfeeding mums – do not be quick to judge a woman who is mixing formula for a bottle. You just don’t know the circumstances- have not walked in her shoes. I am currently breastfeeding and love it. It was an easy decision for me and I plan to do it for years. I’m informed, with loads of support, etc… but I had such a rough start. Multiple Staph infections from the hospital in both breasts left me shirtless and crying and feeding only by way of labor breathing for the first 10 weeks. Five different antibiotics and 12 weeks later, the infections finally went away. I called lactation consultants almost daily crying, I paid them to come to my house, I called my doula and had her sit with me through early feedings. My baby wouldn’t latch for weeks and I used every tool in the book! It was beyond difficult. I still don’t know how I got through that. I was very depressed and sleep deprived with chronic pain. There were times I’d almost throw the baby off my chest as a mere reflex to the pain that felt like serrated knives! There are lots of reasons mothers can’t continue breastfeeding despite their best judgement. I know you know this… just a reminder for everyone – it is not easy for everyone. I have several friends who could not produce enough milk to breastfeed and have spent months in Madison hiding their formula and feeling guilty in public and also sad they can’t nurse their babies. Thank you for bringing compassion back to this very compassionate decision!!!

  5. Jenn says:

    I type this with a 5 week old on my breast. There’s a bottle of formula on the table next to me. Despite weeks of pumping, feeding every 2 hours, drinking gallons of water, taking fenugreek & seeing an LC, my breasts simply don’t produce much more than a couple of ounces daily. It is not enough milk to sustain my child.

    He was losing weight. He was starving. I had no choice.

    I want to BF my child, and give him as much as my body will produce. I’m not afraid of BFing. But when he has drained my breasts and had time with me, we satisfy his hunger with a bottle. A friend gives me breast milk & so he’s getting a variety of nourishment.

    Thank you for withholding judgment of me, of other mothers, for feeding our children with a bottle or with formula. We’d share our stories if given a chance. We need compassion, not forgiveness.

  6. Robyn says:

    It’s such a sensitive subject. I BF my DD till she weaned at 10 mos. I hated it when she weaned and felt like a failure. Everything was working so well until i went back to work when she was 12 weeks old, and then slowly over the months she got more and more attached to the bottle, even though Daddy was very careful to offer smalls amounts frequently and slowly, just like from me. she still grew to prefer the bottle, and eventually refused me altogether. it hurts still to think about it. but i kept pumping and we made it a year with no formula. still, i felt judged by both sides. i felt like all my BF friends thought i was a failure for not making it to a year plus with BF(i’m sure they didn’t, but that’s how i felt) and i felt like my formula feeding extended family thought i was being ridiculous for insisting on BF around others and not just giving her a bottle when we weren’t at home. it’s hard. there is judgement on all sides. and i’m guilty of it too…i too cringe when i see someone mixing up a bottle of formula. i just feel so sad for the mother and baby…because they are missing out on something so magical. i loved the feeling that i not only created this whole person with my body, but then was keeping her alive with only my milk. it gave me so much strength as a mother. i felt like, well, if i can keep her alive, then i can handle what else motherhood throws my way.

  7. angie says:

    Excellent post! I find that NOT passing judgement sometimes is very hard. I work part time outside the home as a labor nurse and a lactation counselor. While there are times when a mother can’t nurse her baby that I can accept there are often times that I struggle with just accepting a mother for who she is and choosing not to nurse. We live in an imperfect world and no matter how much I educate not everyone will chose to nurse. Seems brutal at times, yet I have to remember that my job is still to care for them and respect their decisions. Thanks for the reminder.

  8. Priscilla says:

    Jenn I was in the same situation as you. Not enough milk. I cried and cried, god I felt like a bad mother. And all I got from everyone was ‘well just bottlefeed her’ but for me it was not so simple. My heart didn’t want it, I wanted to breastfeed. I had no emotional support, all I got was ‘reason’…
    I breastfed my eldest (combined with formula) until I was pregnant with my youngest (9 months) and I had so much hope to be able to BF my youngest fully. But no, again, with much help from a LC, that didn’t matter. I breastfed her combined with formula for six months. Those breasfeedings were one of the best moments of my life, those memories are so precious. But I’m still very sad when I think about it. I would have loved more emotional support and not the commercial support.

  9. chelsea says:

    I’ve learned a lot about judgement from airports.

    As a military wife, I found it fascinating how people would change how they approached me between determining I was a single wife to learning my husband was overseas.

    As a young mother, I never fail to find amusement in how I’m treated as a nuisance with a nose ring when I travel alone, but if I have a baby on my hip, strangers offer to help me and compliment my personal strength.

    As an adoptive mother, I cringe with every bottle judgement, wanting to explain “but I nursed our son until he was three!”, sad that after five months of nursing our daughter (and several week-long work trips) I could no longer produce enough for her. Could I *please* join your nursing circle without having to tell a story about how progressive and earthy I really am?

    At least I’ve learned how useless judging other mothers really is – from diaper choice to toy selections, as long as we’re thinking about and caring about the choices we make for our children and their future, I think we’re doing pretty darn well. =)

  10. may says:

    I really appreciated this post. The community I live in is a happy anomaly in that breastfeeding is universally thought of as best–and there are many resources that exist to support nursing moms. However, the flip side of this is that there IS judgement that runs rampant. As a mom who struggled to breastfeed, my challenge felt even greater because the well-meaning people around me were just as dogmatic and unforgiving as people who don’t acknowledge the importance of breastfeeding.

  11. Meghan says:

    Rachel, I love the way you write… the way you express your thoughts. So heartfelt, honest and real. I’m nursing my almost two-year-old daughter on demand day and night (co-bedding) and wouldn’t have it any other way. I had no idea I would love mothering this much or love our nursing relationship as much as I do. One of the greatest pleasures of my life so far.

    Practicing non-judgment felt easier before I became a mom for some reason. I became sensitive pretty quickly to how differences between mothers’ choices can lead to judgment on both sides. I find myself often expecting judgment when it may not be there because I’m doing things that aren’t mainstream.. And I have to work on not feeling defensive when people show curiosity about our choices. But I want to also work on not judging others for making different choices as well.. Thanks for inspiring me on this today.

    It’s also inspiring to hear that you nursed your cubs until they were each 3 and a half. Thank you for normalizing this. It gives me hope that I can push past whatever judgment I may face (and fear) to allow my daughter to wean herself until she’s ready. Thank you.

  12. Tara says:

    It was great to read this post. I am a Mom who ended up bottle feeding my son (many medical issues for both him and me led us to that point). My plan all the way along was to breastfeeding, I feel guilty that I didn’t (although he’s almost 3 and doesn’t appear to have suffered any concequences!) and the Mom judgement I felt was heart breaking. I was judged at Mom’s groups- we see those looks that mom’s who breastfeed give those with a bottle in hand. There was no support for bottle feeding that there was for my friends who were breastfeeding. I just wish Mom’s would stop judging and just support other Momma’s. You never know why they are bottle feeding- it’s not always the “I can’t be bothered” excuse. I know that this is such a tough topic but I think we always need to stop, pause and then think how we would feel if someone was thinking that about me?

  13. amy says:

    Thanks for this post, Rachel. I have had the same reaction, since having my first baby, or inwardly cringing, and then silently judging, when I see a mom feeding her babe a bottle. I have really been working on it too, b/c there are so many different circumstances, and I’ve had some close friends who really, really wanted to breastfeed, and though they tried, it didn’t work out for them (largely, I feel, b/c of lack of support and all the other things you mentioned, our culture is so messed up around this, and it is tragic). Everyone deserves our compassion. (Ok, except maybe those freaking formula companies who push formula samples on exhausted new mothers just before they are sent home to figure out, largely on their own, how to nourish and care for their new little ones.) I won’t continue the tirade, we all know all about it. But thanks for your post, your honesty, and for helping out that mama and baby in your community. It’s heartwarming.

  14. Elby says:

    Thank you for your honesty about silent judgements. We all make them – even though what we judge may vary. Acknowledgement is such a powerful thing – and it can lead to a better understanding of ourselves and others.

    I remember some enlightened being once said that understanding is the only way to peace. And I totally dig that. 🙂

  15. Kristin says:

    This is such a good reflection piece!
    My daughter and I have very serious complications at her birth – she was in the NICU for awhile, unable to feed on anything due to blood in her intestines (abruption) – and I developed infection that required a life-saving emergency surgery and a two week hospital stay. I returned home 10 pounds lighter than my pre-pregnancy weight, and had no milk. We tried to breastfeed but I was barely able to sit up. Before she was born there was always judgement in my heart towards women bottlefeeding babies. But since at that time formula feeding was the only thing we could do, we were grateful to be able to nourish her any way we could. I felt the looks from other mamas and I totally understood – but social constructs sorta bar the way from jumping into crazy traumatic birth stories all the time!!
    I am now pregnant with my second, and when I tell my husband I can’t wait to breastfeed, he says, “I know. And I know everything you mean along with it.” We’re praying for a safe delivery and a normal recovery – and no formula, if I’m able.

  16. Meg says:

    This is a very considerate thoughtful post–thank you. I just wanted to chime in from the infertile community about the importance of not making assumptions. There are plenty of us out there, maybe more today than in the past, for a variety of reasons. The infant you see us bottle feeding might be adopted, or the physical/hormonal problems that complicated conception may have also rendered breastfeeding very difficult. When I was struggling with it, I felt that some fertile people could be horribly insensitive and unkind–and the breastfeeding wars hardly helped with that impression. Don’t take what you can do for granted and assume everyone has the same privilege. Please, we just want to be mothers too.

  17. Casey says:

    I am lucky enough to be a child of a mother who longed, yearned, struggled, and tried to breastfeed and ended up not being able to. I starved, lost weight, and was ‘failing to thrive’. For my mother (in the mid-80s) her problems were caused by a botched breast augmentation she had gotten long before she dreamed of being a mother. But I grew up knowing that she had wanted to nurture me that way so badly, and harbored so much guilt and regret. When I learned that I was going to be a mother, I kept my mind open. I of course wanted to breastfeed, but I was going to be easy on myself and not allow myself to be eaten up by the same guilt I saw in my mom if I couldn’t do it for whatever reason. I struggled with my own issues, but ended up nursing my first till I was pregnant with my second (13mo) and my youngest till he was about 20mo. I’m proud that I was able to, but I now work with mothers every day who – due to struggle, choice, or other reasons – can’t or don’t breastfeed. And I don’t allow myself to judge. Moms here that couldn’t for whatever reason, your children will know that you were there nurturing them — be easy on yourselves.

  18. Cassandra says:

    Anyone who dares to judge other women for bottlefeeding need only visit and read the heartbreaking stories of just how damn hard it can be to breastfeed and see the extreme lengths many women will go through continuing to try to make it happen despite every indication that it just isn’t going to work. Nobody, absolutely no one, could make me feel as bad about not being able to breastfeed as myself, regardless of the reasons I had for not being able to. My daughter is 15 months old and I still get choked up thinking about it. We’ve been bottlenursing since she was a couple weeks old since she wouldn’t latch and finger feeding was wearing on me. It’s a strange thing to “nurse” a toddler with a bottle. You think it’s rare to see extended BFing, I’ve *never* seen someone even talk about extended bottlenursing let alone do it in public. Sure, they use bottles for toddlers, but they’re not nursing. There’s a big difference.

  19. Rachel Wolf says:

    Thank you so much Cassandra. I think a common assumption is that breastfeeding is a choice and bottle feeding or bottlenursing is a choice. But the point of this whole dialogue is that it is not always so.

    In all honesty, nearly all of the bottles that Ive seen delivered are to a crying baby in a carseat or stroller in a store. It is something I rarely encounter in my day-to-day world and the few times I have it is in this context. I wonder how that has shaped my assumptions. But even still I acknowledge that I know nothing of the experiences of any other mother and child. Nothing. I hope you read the sincerity and honesty and  from where I wrote this post. That there is no place for judgement of any kind.

    With love.

  20. Rachel Wolf says:

    For me the judgement that I feel is definitely where I have the perception of choice – an old friend who’s wife said bfing was “disgusting” and chose not to or similar stories. Mothers who face hurdles towards bfing is one side of this story but releasing judgement towards mothers who choose not to bf for any reason is the heart of this challenge for me.

  21. Rachel Wolf says:

    Maybe that’s it. That it was easier to allow and accept before motherhood. But someone the over-thinking and over-feeling that I’ve put into every decision makes it so firm beneath my feet that I forget that others stand on different ground. Thank you.

  22. Vicki says:

    Nice piece. I notice in these discussions, even the reflective and thoughtful ones like this one, women who bottlefed/feed always tell us why they did/do, and it usually is to make it clear that they did not have a choice. I’m not sure what you’re saying or might say about women who actually do “choose” to bottlefeed…as I did.

  23. labelsareforjars says:

    Thanks for this powerful post. As the non-bio mama of two kids, I’ve thought a lot about the bottle feeding that I’ve done of our kiddos. First, with our son, I wanted to scream that it was breastmilk in that bottle, lovingly pumped by his mama. We definitely live in a place where judgment is passed on those who choose not to breastfeed. And yet, I know that I did a bit of that judging too, smugly feeding him breastmilk in a bottle when he was with me. However, our daughter and my wife struggled mightily with breastfeeding. She struggled to nurse only until 5 months, after which my wife pumped. And pumped and pumped. And in spite of drugs and everything else, did not make enough milk for our daughter. That, paired with tons of food allergies, meant (and still means) that our daughter gets formula. I found myself THANKFUL for formula — for finding one that didn’t make my daughter scream bloody murder in pain. While leaving behind the breastmilk that we were able to mix with her formula for almost a year was painful, I marvel nearly daily at how thankful I’ve been for formula. Boy how this has changed my perspective! Thanks for taking a moment to think about the story behind what we see. There is so often so much more than we see. And seeing that with a sense of grace instead of judgment can make all the difference.

  24. Rachel Wolf says:

    And thats a whole different layer of this conversation, isnt it? That just as I feel a stranger has no place to judge me for nursing my 3 year old, I have no place to judge another for bottle feeding – because of have to or because of  choose to. Because ultimately, it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with you and your child. It is none. Of. My. Business. Thanks you for adding this to the dialogue. Its important.

  25. colleen says:

    My son wasn’t interested in BF after 10 months and he never did have a bottle so you just never know. It is what it is. Looking back I wish I could have just let go of all the guilt and energy I spent on being a “bad mother” and just relaxed into doing the best I could and assuming that was perfect for what he needed.

  26. colleen says:

    I really had those concerns myself. I was 35 when my son was born. I’d been very independent. It turns out that it was SO much easier and liberating to BF. No hassles making formula or not having it when the baby was hungry. I’m sorry she will never have that experience. It is pretty amazing.

  27. Marlo says:

    Oh, I have thinking about and tearing up about this topic all day. Rachel, I think you broached it in such a good way as to open up a discussion. Like many others who have commented on this post, I was unable to breastfeed my first baby. I tried everything – herbs, pumping, different holds, but nothing worked. I would try to nurse and my baby would scream, and I would cry and we would both hate it. I wanted so badly to do this for her, but I was living in a foreign country and the lactation consulant would only help me over the phone. And I must say, breastfeeding is not something that can easily be taught over the phone. But I remember how it felt when I finally gave my baby formula, and she drank it, and she stopped crying so much, and I stopped crying, and she started gaining weight, and we were able to truly enjoy each other. I am so grateful that I was able to breastfeed my next two children, but I am also so grateful that I had formula for my baby. Because in the end, it really doesn’t matter how the baby gets food, as long as the baby is shown love when she gets it, right?

    I know so many mothers who breastfeed, but are counting down the days until it is over, so they can have their life back. I know others who don’t even try. This is where I have a hard time judging. I know that I don’t know their story, but I can’t help myself. When people won’t do for their baby, what I so desperately wanted to do for mine, but couldn’t. That is where it breaks my heart a little each time I see them mixing up the formula. However, the more I have breastfed since my first, the more my heart has softened to those mothers. The last thing a mother with a baby needs is a stranger – or a friend -judging her. And frankly, it’s none of my business anyway.

    My wish is that we all could be more compassionate with each other. Because in the end, we want happy healthy babies. If that comes from formula, so be it. If that comes from breastfeeding, so be it. I look forward to the world you describe, where nursing is normal and a bottle a bump along the way. Maybe we all need to move to Viroqua……

  28. Marlo says:

    Oh Cassandra, you hit the nail on the head, when you said nobody could make you feel as bad about not breastfeeding as yourself. That is the truth. After not nursing my first and then nursing subsequent babies, I am finally starting to let it go that I couldn’t nurse my first. But it has been a long, hard, solitary road. I am thinking of you tonight. You’re doing great mama.

  29. Kim says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post Rachel. I too would silently judge women (or men) I saw bottle feeding after breast feeding my first two daughters. I loved bf and couldn’t imagine not doing it. And then my third child was born and spent a lot of time in the ICU. She has a lot of difficulty feeding and had a lot of pumped milk. It was agonizing for me to not be feeding my child in the way I wanted. I felt really judged by some people;some said I should just switch to bottles and some said I shouldn’t allow my child to be fed any way other than breast. Looking back I wish more people had just supported my choices and understood that I was trying to do what was best.

    I love that you and your community railed around this family and gave them such a wonderful gift. I’m imagining that little one growing up and learning that a group of women got together to do this – amazing!

  30. Jenn says:

    I’ll admit it, when it comes to formula, I judge. I judge myself the hardest of all, which it just nuts. I do adoptive breastfeeding with my 12 month old son, and I worked very hard and combined several techniques to build up the milk supply that I have. I’m so proud to be able to provide 90% of my son’s needs with homegrown breastmilk, but it never feels awesome to give him that one bottle a day filled with formula that he gets. When I catch myself judging, I remember that this formula filled bottle is what allows his daddy to feed and snuggle him. It is what it is!

  31. Robyn says:

    Thanks Colleen. I wish I had let go a little too. Those last few months of nursing had a lot more tears than I would have liked…mostly from me. I should have trusted her more…I’ve learned to follow her lead more now, so I guess we’ve made progress 🙂

  32. Abbi says:

    This post brought tears to my eyes…I wanted to Nurse I nursed my first son til he was done, but I knew something was off the first few days in the hospital. I asked for the lactation consultants to help but Ian never latched right…he always would go on/off. I kept telling my husband this doesn’t seem right. He would nurse like this for 45 minutes and then scream as he was still hungry. I ended up trying to pump, take every fenugreek, etc. in the book to produce milk but I just couldn’t and the fact that I had PPD and nobody seemed to notice made me feel even more of a failure. THis is true tho not every baby that has a bottle is formula fed either. I pumped as long as my breast produced milk I pumped in between feeding to increase supply but nothing seemed to work. I gave in and bought formula. If only I had known of a community willing to bring another baby breast milk. I thank you for your honesty in writing this article cuz after my second experience I too had to change my ideas of women with bottle fed babies!

  33. Kristen- Marinade Handmade says:

    I often find myself forming opinions about topics before I’ve ever really experienced them for myself. This was actually one of those topics. It never even occurred to me until somewhat recently that some babies wouldn’t breastfeed or that many mothers chose not to because it was “inconvenient.” My mother breastfed both my brother and I and just never occurred to me that there was a choice in the matter. In my mind, it was just what women did. But then I realized that sometimes there wasn’t a choice, but not in the way that I originally thought.

    My husband and I recently had dinner with some acquaintances. They have a sweet three month old baby boy and I noticed that they were bottle feeding him formula. When I saw that, I felt myself immediately judging this mother who I didn’t know well at all, but I was curious to know why. I decided I was going find a polite way to ask about her story. When I did, she told me rather sadly, that she had tried breast feeding, but that she was “bad at it” and she couldn’t get her babies to latch. Neither her son or her daughter (who is older) would latch. At that moment, I felt my heart go out to this mama who somehow felt that this was something that was her fault when obviously it’s something biological that she can’t control. Although I am not a mama yet myself, I hope that when I do become one, my body allows me to be the kind of mother I so hope to be. But in the meantime, I have learned that I must keep my judgements at bay and realize that there is often so much more than what is on the surface, for I could just as easily be that mother and not be given the choice.

    As many of my close friends are starting to embark on motherhood, I am going to remember that my love and support is what they really need, not my judgement for their choices. Thank you for your post. It has only reinforced what I have been personally struggling to work on.

  34. Julie says:

    Thank you for this discussion. It’s so interesting to hear other perspectives and stories, particularly in the 2nd-person (“you”) rather than 3rd-person (“she”) context. As a caregiver, I have given many babies bottles, and while it’s different from nourishing my own children with breastmilk, I always appreciate the connection with the child — what a blessing. Perhaps that’s what my children’s father or grandparents feel when they take a bottle with them. But there’s nothing that brings on mama guilt more (personally) than the thought of my child struggling for nourishment, whether that be from rejecting a bottle or struggling with breastfeeding.

    One reactionary thought that I’ll admit to, is that it sort of grosses me out to think of my child drinking another woman’s breastmilk. And I even donated breastmilk when I had extra in the freezer with one of my children, so how hippocritical (spelling?) am I? That gives me food for thought, that I’d assume formula is the best 2nd option for my babe rather than breastmilk-from-another-breast.

    I’m going to try and be aware of my judgements, some of which serve me well but some which might be less productive even hurtful. Thanks for the eye-opener.

  35. Rachel Wolf says:

    Kristen, Your comment went to the heart of what I struggle with in many ways. Because if I were in your shoes my heart would go out for mother and children in your story (and does), but simultaneously I believe that a majority of mothers who struggle to nurse simply lack the support that they need. Yes there are acceptions, but with proper support many, many mothers and children would have breastfeeding success instead of failure.

    I think the comments here attest to the fact that breastfeeding isn’t easy or automatic. I remember sobbing while my first latched on. It hurt, my nipples were cracked, and my baby cried constantly. So did I. But with the support of my midwife (the LC at the hospital attempted to help me with latch issues without actually seeing my baby nurse. What?!) we figured it out. I had people to turn to. I had resources.

    It’s insane that as a culture we don’t create an environment in which mothers have the resources that they need to succeed at breastfeeding. Not unlike birth, we live in a culture where a second choice outcome is more understood – and in some places more acceptable – than the first.

    So yes, my heart goes out to her, but how was she supported so that she could succeed?

  36. Jess says:

    Thank you for writing this post, Rachel. The breast v. bottle dialogue is so fraught with anger, shame, and yes, judgement, so thank you for writing a piece that is honest and real without being shaming or angry.

    I too have always been a woman who would cringe whenever I saw formula being given, and I certainly harbored judgment. Then I had my babies. My identical twin boys (a beautiful surprise at our 20-week ultrasound!) were born toward the end of their 34th week. I’ve always dreamed of breastfeeding and couldn’t wait to share that experience with my sweet boys. Anything other than breastfeeding was not an option. Well, due to a perfect storm of issues on their part and mine (preemies, insufficient glandular tissue, the list goes on and on…) we weren’t able to make it work. I tried for 5 months – nearly losing my mind trying to make it happen. When my lactation consultant finally told me that I’d tried everything she knew and I could feel ok with myself about stopping, my husband, my boys and I planted a beautiful tree in our yard and had a small ceremony to honor the work and the grief. I squeezed some of my meager drops of milk into the tree’s roots and we spoke words out loud to name all that had gone into the struggle.

    And I had more support than I knew what to do with. I am a birth doula, many of my friends are lactation counselors, La Leche League Leaders, and I worked with an amazing IBCLC throughout. I had a postpartum doula and a supportive husband, friends, and family. I still experience grief that can bring me to my knees when I think about what I couldn’t give my boys and what I missed out on. They are a year old now, and have been nourished with milk donated from other sweet mamas. And I give them their bottles with all the love in my heart. As someone recently told me, it’s all about intention. And boy, did I have the best of intentions.

    The funny thing is that now, I still find myself judging. But it has a slightly different spin – when I see mamas who could have breastfed, but chose not to, I die a little inside. Don’t they know how lucky they are to have had the chance? How could they choose not to do something that I wanted more desperately than I have ever wanted anything? It’s something I imagine that I will struggle with on some level for the rest of my life.

    I tell my story because I want people to know that just because a mama is feeding her baby from a bottle, it doesn’t mean that she had a choice in the matter. I know I am just one person, and I realize that my case does not represent the majority of women who bottlefeed their babes. But every mother has her story… Thanks for the opportunity to share mine.

  37. Jenny says:

    I too am one of those moms who was absolutely committed to breastfeeding as long as my son wanted. I was breastfed until I was 3 so this seemed normal and obvious and easy. However, my son was born premature, never learned to latch, and after we both caught a wicked case of the flu at 7 weeks postpartum and were hospitalized with dehydration, my milk supply never recovered and totally disappeared at 20 weeks. I tried literally everything I could (lactation consultants, medications from Canada, so much fenugreek I smelled like maple syrup from 50 yards, even driving out of state to a lactation consultant I had heard could work miracles).

    I worked in breastfeeding promotion before my pregnancy. I hated the formula companies. The cosmic irony was not lost on me. A well meaning acquaintance, who had no idea what we were going through, said one day when my son was crying as I tried to quickly fix a bottle, “Gee, that’s why I love breastfeeding, it’s always ready.” I was crushed. She still has no idea.

    The judgement I piled on myself about being a failed mother, sobbing every time I mixed up formula…in retrospect I realize it was nuts. He needed to eat and breastfeeding just wasn’t in the cards for us. I too used to look at women bottle feeding with judgement and then I became one of them. I actually changed careers because I found it so painful to be around breastfeeding promotion knowing that I hadn’t been able to provide it for my son. It has been the best lesson of my life in not making assumptions about what others are going through. As mothers, we owe one another compassion and kindness. Thank you for this post and for allowing us to share our stories.

  38. Elisabeth says:

    For me, it’s not that I struggle with judgment, I just grieve a little. Whether I know the circumstances or not, I still grieve. I grieved for one set of sisters I know whose babies failed the PKU test and were told that they shouldn’t nurse. I grieved for myself when my baby was failing to thrive and I chose to supplement with formula for what I thought would be less than six weeks, but which turned into several months until I finally started taking domperidone (because breastfeeding doesn’t have to be all or nothing–sometimes you give them all of the immunities that they need in your breastmilk and make up the volume differences elsewhere). I grieve for the babies who never nurse.

    On the other hand, I rejoice in every little drop of breastmilk, because every drop a baby receives (whether it’s one feeding or whether they nurse until the baby leads the weaning process) has life-long benefits.

  39. Laurie Scherer says:

    I love your thoughtful consideration of the judgment we can all have about how others mother. I breastfed my babies and felt it was natural and wondered why anyone else would ever NOT breastfeed. I felt smug and superior at times, I admit. But the I became a breastfeeding counselor and went on to be a lactation consultant. I started listening to mothers and heard their heartbreaking stories. I also started to see how our culture make it difficult for women. We seem to be pitted against each other instead of recognizing the huge impact we have on the next generation.

    My time spent listening to mothers beside their hospital bed and in their homes helped me to learn that women face things we’ve never even considered. Some women have been traumatized and their bodies have been treated in ways that make birth and breastfeeding terrifying. I was inspired to go on with my education and I am now a trauma recover counselor. I work with women who have been abused, assaulted, or traumatized by medical experiences and even birth.

    I’m proud I grew past my selfish view of mothering. I’m proud to support all mothers to do the best they can do for now. And I’m most proud to watch my daughter nurse her daughter and be thankful she is very sweet about it and not as judgmental as I was.

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