Here is one of the truths about my motherhood that I often hold close to my chest: All three of my kids were formula-fed.
I occasionally catch myself thinking—just for a moment—that maybe I’m not as good a mom as everyone else; perhaps I’m not as dedicated or determined. But when I think back on my motherhood story, the reality is that choosing not to nurse my babies brought a great deal of peace to those early newborn days.
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I thought breastfeeding would be simple. Not easy, mind you—I read enough books and articles to know that much. But simple. Life had taught me that with the right information in my head and a little bit of hard work, I could figure things out.
But breastfeeding didn’t turn out that way.
When my first son was born, I tried. The hospital’s lactation consultant spent a good deal of time in my recovery room, forcefully smooshing my baby’s head into my breasts and providing nipple shields of various sizes. I thought that just the right hold, right position, or right tools would get us going in the right direction. But no.
At the pediatrician’s office a few weeks later, the nurse practitioner took my hand in hers and said, “If you want to keep trying, we will keep trying, but you don’t have to. You and this baby will be just fine.”
As she loaded up my diaper bag with formula samples, I felt lighter.
When my second son was born, I tried again. I liked the lactation consultant much better this time around, as she was gentle and slow-moving and smiled more. But still, we struggled. And when a nurse came to our home a few days later and asked how things were going, I cried. And in what was perhaps a premonition of the postpartum depression coming down the road, I told my husband, “Figuring out how to nurse this baby might just be the thing that pushes me over the edge.”
He ran to Target for jumbo-sized containers of formula, and I felt at least 35.5 ounces lighter.
When my daughter was born only fourteen months after her brother, I decided not to try again. I knew how tenuous my mental health had been during my second postpartum period, and I was desperate not to repeat that. I looked at my two healthy, smart, thriving boys and knew everything would be ok.
I donated my breast pump to another expecting mother, and I packed formula and bottles in my hospital bag. When I first met my labor and delivery nurses, I let them know—with more self-assurance than I have felt at perhaps any other time in my life—that this baby would be formula-fed. I felt no burden or guilt.
I am a textbook perfectionist and overachiever, and especially when the opinions of other people are involved, I am tempted to power through until I get the result I want. It’s for that reason I always hesitate to share this part of my motherhood journey, because the doubt that plagues me is always, “Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Maybe I didn’t stick it out as long as I should have. Maybe I quit too soon.”
And while there is very little in motherhood and parenting that I’ve felt perfectly self-assured about, the decision to formula-feed my children always left me totally at peace. Writer and podcaster Emily P. Freeman often talks about being led by love instead of pushed by fear, and while I didn’t know it at the time, my decision to stick with formula was just that: I didn’t need to be afraid of what might happen if I did not breastfeed my babies.
I am so grateful to my friend, who was honest with me about her struggles with nursing after her premie’s NICU stay. I am grateful to my friends who nurse in public, with covers and without. I am grateful to the college acquaintance who shared honestly on Facebook about her daughter’s “failure to thrive” diagnosis and learning that “fed is best.” I am grateful to the nurses and lactation consultants who patiently helped me and affirmed that I could make the best decision for my family.
How we feed our children is—like so many other things in motherhood—an area in which there is very little black and white or right and wrong. There are a million shades of gray, and there is a Target aisle well-stocked with formula if we ever need it.