Feed All the Babies
By Monika Gokstorp (Photography by Shanna Drinkwalter)
Parenting has become a battleground of shame instead of a supportive network of parents. Read your social media or news feeds; I’m sure you’ve seen it.
When it comes to feeding, there is so much pressure to breastfeed — to the point that formula moms get told they should be breastfeeding. But then, ironically, those who do breastfeed are often told they are being offensive. Some are even encouraged to feed covered up (or hide in washrooms)!
From a positive pregnancy test onward, parents are bombarded with the mantra “breast is best.” And while breastfeeding has many great benefits, telling women that being the best means feeding a certain way can instill a sense of guilt, shame and failure for those who do not breastfeed, for whatever reason.
No wonder rates of postpartum depression are so high, with Grand River Hospital estimating that “1 out of 10 women who give birth will experience a postpartum mood disorder.” Instead of pushing “breast is best,” let’s start talking and educating about all the healthy ways to nourish a baby.
Moms who breastfeed have so many things to think about. Will family and friends support their decision? Can they breastfeed in public? Should they feed covered? Should they just bare it all? They even need to consider the potentially leering eyes of men who are near. What of health complications, such as cracked nipples and blocked ducts? And let’s not forget about dads: how will they bond with baby?
On the flip side, formula parents must also consider if family and friends will support the decision. How will they overcome the pressures to breastfeed, especially when everyone seems to be an expert on the benefits of breast milk? What about the enormous cost involved in formula feeding?
Lastly, some women have dealt with sexual trauma, medical issues or body image issues. How do they defend their feeding choices without sharing such personal information, and, more importantly, why should they have to?
Real Women's Stories
A 28-year-old mother of two who wishes to remain anonymous told us she was amazed at the strength and ease of mothers who breastfed. She opened up that she had been abused and felt that her body had been overly sexualized. “To have my children that close to me would leave me feeling uncomfortable and unsure.”
Suzanne, a 26-year-old mother of three, has always known that breastfeeding was not the right choice for her. Like several women, she was turned off breastfeeding and it made her uncomfortable. In her latest pregnancy, Suzanne’s doctor asked her (once) if she planned to breastfeed and she told him no. Since then, he pushed her to breastfeed at every appointment, but never took the time to understand her decision. “I'm extremely sensitive about my body and it's stressful enough being pushed to do something you don't want, let alone something this personal!”
Lack of support has followed her, including outright hostility from family members. During family gatherings, while bottle feeding, she heard comments such as “Here let me give you this fake tit,” “Here have some of this plastic milk,” “This isn't best for you but it might make you fat.” Suzanne says these experiences “made me feel very embarrassed and ashamed. Made me feel like I was the worst mother in the world and all I have been doing is trying my very best.” Though she felt like breaking into tears right there, she held back and tried to brush it off.
“When breastfeeding becomes so stressful that you can't enjoy your special moments, it puts things into perspective.”
Shelley, a 40-year-old first time mom, had a goal to breastfeed because “it gets so much attention that breast is best [and] I wanted what was best for my child.” For a whole month Shelley tried to breastfeed, though she never produced milk. With the help of multiple healthcare providers, she would start on the breast, then use a nipple shield pre-filled with formula (repeatedly), followed by pumping for 15 minutes per side. It was uncomfortable, felt unnatural and became stressful and frustrating. She didn’t feel connected with, or enjoyment from, her new baby.
Shelley finally made the difficult decision to exclusively formula feed. She felt guilty, but “when breastfeeding becomes so stressful that you can't enjoy your special moments, it puts things into perspective.” She quickly saw that a fed baby is what is important.
The entire process was very stressful for Shelley’s husband as well. “Once we started exclusively formula feeding, he was extremely happy. He loved being able to bond with the baby over bottles and was so happy that he could finally help and give me some much needed rest.” Both agree that formula feeding alleviated a lot of stress and gave them quality time to enjoy their new child. “We all now love that either of us can do feedings and it allows some great bonding time with daddy as well as mommy. We could not be happier with our formula-fed happy baby boy!”
"Ensuring a baby is fed is sometimes more important than feeding them how you want to."
Marianne, a 32-year-old mother of three, burst into tears when her midwife suggested that she start to supplement her newborn with formula. Although she was able to continue breastfeeding exclusively after supplementing for three weeks, she felt like a failure. At one point a friend told her “you should never feed your baby formula … you will cause open gut syndrome and a lifetime of gastro issues.” As a mother who was already not coping well, lack of support and unfounded comments made life extremely difficult. “You have to make hard choices,” says Marianne, “but ensuring a baby is fed is sometimes more important than feeding them how you want to feed them. I can see that now, but having a newborn and dealing with the hormones is not a good mix.”
Micheline, a 30-year-old first-time mother, was breastfeeding at a family gathering when her mother-in-law told her (in front of everybody) that “it wasn’t appropriate to be showing her breasts to the men in the family, as it wasn’t something they would want to see.” Micheline was so embarrassed and shocked that she had been shamed, especially by another woman and mother, that she crept away to breastfeed alone. She says it was painful “because we didn’t know if I could breastfeed (due to breast surgery years ago) and we were having a hell of a time with latching/thrush/pain, so every feed was already such a struggle.”
Women still do not have the right to choose how they feed their child without judgement.
Women’s rights have come very far in the past 100 years, yet women still do not have the right to choose how they feed their child without judgement. Furthermore, the attitude that “breast is best” only instills even more guilt and self-doubt for those who do not breastfeed. Although breastfeeding has amazing benefits, it just isn’t right for some women, and simply doesn’t work for others.
It’s important that the benefits of breastfeeding are communicated without coercion by healthcare professionals. There needs to be a conversation about how women would like to feed their child, and space for supportive follow-up discussion.
Let’s encourage women to try to be the best mothers they can be and not judge them on how they choose to feed their child. Encourage them to teach their children conviction by making choices with confidence. Society needs to embrace the notion that when a baby is cared for, loved and nourished, it doesn’t matter if the child is breast or formula fed. So next time, instead of giving a woman unsolicited opinions or advice about parenting, just tell her that she is doing a great job!
To help women feel confident and supported in their chosen feeding method, Shanna Drinkwalter of Lace & Lavender Photography did a photoshoot with women who exclusively formula feed, women who exclusively breastfeed and women who use both methods. Prior to the experience, they were asked to describe their feeding experiences in one word. Most of the women selected words like “bonded,” “peaceful,” “thankful,” and “compromise.” They were also asked about their experience after the photoshoot. Here are some of their responses.
"I feel bonded with my child because the method I use is best for my son because it provides the essential nutrients for his little body to grow and develop." —Jessica
"My word is compromise because no matter what I tried, breastfeeding did not work for us. After having a lactation consultant come to my home three times, my daughter and I couldn't get the hang of latching. My daughter wanted a bottle and I wanted to breastfeed, so I chose to pump and give her my breast milk through a bottle. I finally started to enjoy being a mother." —Tammi
"The word I chose for my son and I is thankful. I am thankful that I can provide for him and make sure he's healthy. I was set on breastfeeding from the start but we were exhausted and frustrated. My fiancé and I talked and decided it was doing more harm than good mentally for me. I was upset to stop, but in the end it was the best decision for us." —Megan
"On the day of the shoot the first thing I noticed was how tiny and young all the little ones were and my immediate thought was that I would be judged for still breastfeeding a toddler. My son is about the size and weight of the average 2-or-3-year-old, so at 15 months he is able to run up to me and demand the breast. This doesn't sit well with some people and I can feel what they're thinking without them saying so. I do still breastfeed in public throughout the day, I hold my head high and remind myself that there is no shame in feeding or hydrating my toddler when he needs or wants it." —Melissa
"I had both positive and negative responses to the photos. One being "I could never do that!" As in take your breast out and feed your baby while having pictures taken. Another person called it mommy porn... I have such a love-hate relationship with my breasts. My mom being diagnosed with terminal breast cancer during a period in my life where I look at my breasts while feeding my baby and think although this sustains my babies life right now, these breasts are highly likely to develop cancer and possibly take my life! So when I heard these negative comments I could only think ‘if they only knew.’ I felt beautiful that day with all you lovely ladies. It felt unified and familiar even though you were all complete strangers to me. On a positive [note], I will always have these beautiful photos to cherish!" —Annie
"I still feel judged but I think it comes from me judging myself. I tried so hard—harder than some people try; herbs, hundreds of dollars on a lactation consultant (who was a godsend) and prescription medication to increase my supply, to no avail! A total of 36 pills a day to try to exclusively breastfeed but I still had to supplement with both kids. I feel like my judgement comes from me judging myself—thinking I'm a failure because I can't produce enough—and yet I know I would never judge another mother like I judge myself and my situation." —Danielle
Monika Gokstorp is the owner and head makeup artist at Beautiful Creatures Makeup and a 37-year-old mother of two. Shanna Drinkwalter is the owner at Lace&Lavender Photography in London, ON, a mother of a 13.5-month-old and expecting later this year. She has breastfed her daughter throughout her pregnancy and hopes to bring awareness to all types of feeding as a positive experience with her photography.