Empty Moms; Empty Shelves

I’ve not been very interested in offering “hot takes” these days. But the media buzz–especially on Twitter–surrounding a nationwide baby formula shortage is so full of hot takes–the good, the bad, and the ugly–that I felt like offering one of my own.

(A good one, hopefully.)

Talking about breastfeeding and baby formula is rough terrain. Some women enshrine breastfeeding as a sacred art. And it’s common for women to feel great shame over their own failure to succeed at breastfeeding.

While I’ve always been a huge proponent of “breast is best” and gave 11 of my body’s best years to breastfeeding my children, I hope those close to me have never sensed any judgement or shame if they chose otherwise or couldn’t make it happen for them and their baby. And I hope anyone reading now hears me loud and clear when I say that formula feeding a baby does not make you a bad mom.

I’ve always been comfortable affirming what I believe is best, and encouraging others toward it, even when I couldn’t achieve it perfectly myself. And I’m always honest about my own shortfalls along the way. But I understand it’s hard to hear that someone thinks you’re not doing what’s “best” for your children. And it’s even worse if you feel you have no better options. So don’t hear what I’m not saying, please.

I’m an idealist. I want things to be the way they were created to be.

And I believe that women and their babies are created for a symbiotic relationship.

There is categorical evidence of the biological and emotional benefits of the bond between mom and baby, for both mom and baby. This bond is strengthened by breastfeeding, but breastfeeding is not necessary for it to happen.

Bonding is a complex tonic of physical closeness and emotional security. It happens through smells and sounds and touches. A child will naturally form a bond with any primary or consistent caregiver. (This is why adoption and fostering relationships can become so strong–as strong as blood.) But we have to be honest about the natural design of motherhood and how the biological relationship between mother and child naturally flows from pregnancy and childbirth into a period of postpartum healing and bonding as a pair. Severing the relationship between mother and child, at any point in this journey, affects both mom and baby. And it can be traumatic.

This doesn’t mean that women and children cannot thrive independently of each other. Certainly, children can effectively bond with another adult in the absence of their birth mother. But it does mean that independence is not the natural state of motherhood or childhood. And it will have consequences.

What does this have to do with baby formula?
Well, a nationwide baby formula shortage is only a crisis because so many American babies are dependent on formula. And the fact that so many American babies are dependent on formula is emblematic of a culture where mother and child live independently of each other. The bond has been severed.

Empty moms; empty shelves.

Now, hold on a minute. Hear me when I say this–
Breastfeeding, in and of itself, is not the solution. And formula, in and of itself, is not a problem

I can attest to the fact that breastfeeding is complicated.

We know that–on paper–the vast majority of women (say, 95%) are capable of nursing their children with success. And we know that doctors recommend at least 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding. But breastfeeding is often difficult at first. It’s sometimes painful. It requires a significant time commitment. It can require dietary and lifestyle changes. And, for a small minority of moms, it is simply impossible.

Many women achieve initial success but then stop breastfeeding around 6 weeks due to exhaustion or concerns about milk production. Sometimes they quit because they are returning to work and want to transition their baby into being bottle fed. Sometimes they’ve started sleep training their baby and stopped night feedings, which affects production. And we know that, once a mother begins supplementing formula because her production slows, it spells disaster for production all together and the likelihood of extended breastfeeding shrinks.

So, while most women will attempt breastfeeding after childbirth, only 1 in 4 continue past 6 months. And half won’t even make it that far.

Enter the $6B baby formula industry.

Remember when I said “Breastfeeding, in and of itself, is not the solution. And formula, in and of itself, is not a problem.” Well, I meant it. Thank God for the modern science that created safe and healthy formula in the first place, right?

Formula is not the problem.
The problem is this: modern society works so hard against our created nature that we have to create more complicated and unnatural systems and industries and tools to survive. And that makes us very vulnerable as a society.

Complicating things has always been a problem with “modern” parenting through time, epitomized in wealthy women who hired wet nurses and tutors for their children while they enjoyed life as, functionally, non-mothers. Now it’s 2022 and we no longer employ (or enslave) wet nurses for our babies. But we do hire nannies. And send our toddlers to “preschool.” And choose to formula feed.

Don’t misunderstand me–
Any benevolent society maintains its safety nets. And things like affordable preschool and WIC and paid maternity leave need to exist. Yes! But they should continue to exist, primarily, to protect the vulnerable and mothers who have no options other than to work or use formula or pay others to care for their children.

Let me clarify–
I would never suggest we should force a woman to submit to the work of motherhood rather than pursue her career or her social life. Every woman navigates these things for herself. Sometimes, a woman’s decision to send her kid to preschool is a matter of mental health and her own survival. (Trust me, I understand it.) And sometimes a woman truly feels that she has no options other than to maintain her career. (Sometimes she is correct.)

Remember: this post is about formula and breastfeeding, but it’s not really about formula and breastfeeding.

It’s about a modern society where the symbiotic relationship between mother and child is too commonly severed too quickly. Our dependence upon baby formula, as evidenced by the current crisis, is both a symptom of this cultural problem and symbolic of it.

Empty moms; empty shelves.

This is why, when idiot internet ideologues suggest, to the moms searching desperately for baby formula, “Why don’t you just breastfeed?” they are both very wrong (because that’s not how breasts work, dummy) and very right.

There is a very simple solution to this problem.
But it’s much more complicated than we want it to be.

I’ll end with this:
The first, best option for mom and baby is always “baby with mom” for at least a year. Maybe longer.

In every developmental sense, with the exception of abusive situations or severe neglect, this is the best option. Not the only good option. But the best option. And I don’t think any intellectually honest person could argue against this. The benefits to both mother and child are significant and one of these benefits–only one–is that it makes breastfeeding much easier.

But to make this possible, to make it easy for moms to choose the work of motherhood, even just for a season, we need support systems–inside the family, the workplace, and the government–to make it happen.

I have a few ideas for how this could work. And I have opinions about a few of the ideas I’ve heard for how it could work. This is a conversation that needs to happen. But the first step is admitting we might be doing it wrong in the first place. We might be wrong about motherhood and what’s best for our children.

I’d love to help build a world where a different kind of modern motherhood is possible.

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