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Bottle Shame

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

I recently found your blog, and find your advice to be just wonderful. I am hoping you can provide some of your thoughts for my situation.

I just had my first baby (a sweet boy) a few months ago.  During my pregnancy I was fully committed to exclusively breastfeeding my son. I took classes at the hospital, met with a lactation consultant and went to two private seminars.  I even bought a pump (even though I KNOW I was told a million times to just rent until you know whether you need one), stocked up on nursing tanks, bras, etc.

Okay, so you can imagine what happened next.  I exclusively nursed as planned but things soon fell apart.  I was undersupplied, and I was told by my pediatrician to supplement with formula. I was a total mess about it, and I sobbed as my husband gave him his first bottle. I literally could not be in the room while he did it.  I did everything I could to get my supply up – visits from my LC, pumping after each nursing session, fenugeek capsules, mother’s milk tea…..

Emotionally, I was a total wreck.  I would cry when I pumped because I would get so little milk; cry while nursing because my son was not getting enough; cry each time we had to give a bottle; cry when my son cried because he was hungry.  I felt like such a failure as a woman (i.e. my boobs don’t work), and as a mother (i.e. I cannot provide food for my baby).  Yet, I continued to try to nurse and pump.  After about 6 weeks of this, and after consulting with my OB and pediatrician, we decided to just make the switch to formula exclusively.

And you know what?  It was not the parade of horrors I made it in my mind to be.  In fact, our lives changed dramatically for the better. I was a million times happier.  Feeding time became really enjoyable.

My son was no longer fussing with hunger and became quite content after feedings.  My husband was happy to have his old, happy-go-lucky, wife back.  The grandparents were thrilled to be able to give a bottle and bond with their grandson in that way.  My sister was so happy to babysit so my husband and I could have a date night.  All in all, everything is GREAT!

Enter problem:  people are constantly asking me “Are you breastfeeding?”  Seriously – even total strangers.  People even ask my husband whether we are breastfeeding.  I don’t know how to respond to these people.  If I say no, I can just feel the judgment.  I get responses like – “oh, it’s so much better for the baby,”  “I loved breastfeeding – I did it for a year…”.  So, I switched to responding with, “I am not anymore,” thinking that would indicate that I at least tried.  But that invited follow up questions like “why did you stop?”, “did you stop because you are getting ready to go back to work?”

Ugh.  So then I found myself going into the long (and extremely personal) story and find myself babbling on and on to people I barely know about how much I wanted to but it didn’t work out etc.  Finally we went out to dinner with a couple who also recently had a baby.  My husband and I decided on the way over there that if asked, we would just lie and say yes.  But, I really don’t want to lie.   At the same time, I want to convey the fact that I 100% agree that breastfeeding is best, and I truly wish it worked out for us.  Facing these questions just brings up the flood of emotions (“I am a failure as a mom and woman”) that I am finally getting past.

So, the question is – what should I say to these people?  I don’t even understand why they ask in the first place!?

Thank you so much for listening.
Exclusive formula feeder

Okay, funny story here. Well, not “funny,” but more as Exhibit A in the case of You Just Cannot Win With Some People No Matter What You Do: We went out for dinner with some friends and friends of these friends a couple weeks ago, children included. At one point Ike wanted to nurse, and I quietly pulled a nursing cover out of my bag and got to it. An older husband and wife immediately turned to me and start asking me questions: Did I breastfeed all my children, for how long, etc. Gah. Yikes. Hi. Nice to meet you too.

It turned out, though, that they really were very passionate about breastfeeding, and simply wanted to let me know that I was among friends and supporters who wouldn’t be offended if I opted to skip the cover. It was clumsy, I admit, but she was of the generation that simply didn’t support breastfeeding at ALL, so nursing her children had been a struggle and something she really, really fought for acceptance over.

I was nodding in admiration until she launched into a story about how she once wrote a letter to a daytime talk show host for slamming breastfeeding as “gross,” and in rebuttal she brought up the some of the show’s OTHER guests who were the “real freaks” and basically the entire conversation disintegrated into a horrible tirade of homo- and transphobia and I was left sitting there with my mouth hanging wide open because STOP STOP STOP.

Basically: Even if you’re doing what people think is the “right” answer, that doesn’t necessarily give you a free pass from The Crazy.

It’s possible that the people asking you “constantly” about whether you’re nursing are not have good intentions — they’re trying to awkwardly telegraph their support to you, to let you know it’s okay to whip a boob out in their presence, or are simply grasping at the first baby-related topic they have personal experience with in an attempt to have something in common with you. Or they’re just socially clueless, overstepping morons. Or some combination of all of the above.

(Not to mention that even if you WERE breastfeeding, you’d probably feel like you were “constantly” judged for that, too…getting the stink-eye for nursing in public, getting questioned about “how long” you plan to nurse for and when you say “I don’t know, I don’t really have a plan” get an earful about that person’s cousin’s roommate who nursed for TWO YEARS and isn’t that DISGUSTING, like CHILD ABUSE and all you want to do is get away from this person but OH RIGHT THERE’S A KID ON YOUR BOOB AND YOU CAN’T GO ANYWHERE.)

Anyway. Back to your question. I, too, had a terrible time breastfeeding my first baby. I have told people that there is not enough money in the WORLD to make me ever go back to trying to breastfeed a first baby. It’s so highly charged and emotional, because yes, I felt EVERYTHING you described: Failure, shame, regret, etc. We never nursed exclusively and I usually say we “limped along” for about five months with a combination of nursing (followed immediately by a bottle), me at work barely pumping enough milk to dilute his rice cereal, and formula. Lots and lots of formula. Like you, when I finally put it all behind me and accepted that my child would be exclusively bottle-fed, we were all a lot, lot happier.

I never developed a one-size-fits-all response to the question, once we weaned: If it was another mother simply looking for some kind of common ground, I would say we gave breastfeeding our best shot for as long as we could. If I liked her, I might volunteer something about my supply issues due to scar tissue from a botched cyst aspiration. That’s like, the mega-ultra-condensed one-sentence version of the story, but it was usually enough to satisfy someone who genuinely meant well and make them realize it was time to change the subject. If the person pressed, I would very cheerfully say that actually, I really don’t feel like talking about this, if you don’t mind. Still kind of a sore spot, let’s talk about something else. 

If I didn’t feel going into details, I changed the subject to something still baby-related but less sensitive: No, we’re not breastfeeding anymore, it didn’t really work out the way I hoped but hey! How old were your kids when they started sleeping through the night? When did you start solids? I love your son’s shoes/coat/hat, where did you get them? Aim for honest, matter-of-fact, but then shut that topic DOWN before the nosy question-asker gets a chance to respond.

It’s different when you’re talking about random strangers that you have no real interest in talking to in the first place — changing the subject doesn’t work when you don’t particularly care to hear what they have to say on any topic in general. I don’t have the perfect, witty comeback that shuts down any and all follow-up question that leaves the person subtly shamed yet not offended and lets you walk away feeling just great and not irritated. I usually ended up saying whatever I thought would best end the conversation at the time. I usually was wrong.

It SUCKS that people feel they have the right to judge moms who use formula. It’s SO FRUSTRATING, and then breastfeeding advocates wonder how they’ve ended up with an image problem. I swear I have never, ever asked a new mom — even close friends! — if they breastfeed or bottlefeed. I figure if we hang out enough, I’ll see whether she pulls out a boob or a bottle eventually. If it’s a boob, then maybe I’ll talk about my experiences. If it’s a bottle, well, I have a lot of experiences with those, too. Ooh, is that a Dr. Brown’s? I love those! Etc.

Remember, these people’s judgment that you feel? That you’re driving yourself crazy over trying to avoid or appease? DOESN’T MATTER. You will never please everybody. Somebody out there is always — ALWAYS — going to look at your parenting choices and think “UR DOIN IT WRONG.” Breastfeeding today, the “wrong” kind of baby food tomorrow, lunch at McDonald’s the day after that.

Some things are easier to develop a thick skin over than others — and it’s completely understandable that your breastfeeding experience is still a bit chapped and raw for you. That will get better, I promise. One day you’ll re-read your letter to me and those paragraphs about how hard you tried and how much it sucked and you’ll realize that a new layer of confidence has grown over the wound: You tried SO HARD and that is AWESOME and then you made the RIGHT CHOICE to focus on being a mother to your baby, rather than spend all your time crying and feeling like nothing more than a malfunctioning dairy case. That’s a WIN in my book.

I totally understand the urge to want to get credit for time served, for at least TRYING to nurse. I did the same thing. (Mostly because NOBODY wants to be the mom who didn’t even TRY, right? Right? She’s the WORST MOM EVER LET’S JUDGE HER TOGETHER.) (That was sarcasm, and lots of it.) But looking back…eh. I don’t even remember any of the people I had those conversations with now. It clearly wasn’t worth all the worry I put into it, wishing I could keep myself from rambling to waitresses and the Internet that no, we’re not nursing anymore but I tried and it sucked and I did everything I swear oh God please don’t try to suggest something that I could have done differently because it’s too late and that doesn’t help GAH. And then coming up with the perfect comeback a few hours later.

It got easier once I learned to own my decision — even though it didn’t really feel like “my” decision for a long time, since it all felt so out of my hands and control — and just answer as matter-of-factly as possible. Nope, bottle-feeding for now, I would have liked to nurse for longer but it didn’t work for us, that’s wonderful to hear you had such a good experience now excuse me I need to be going now, nice meeting you etc. If they judge you, whatever. They’re clueless and they don’t know you or your baby. Who is being FED, by the way, which is kind of the POINT.

The good news is that as your baby gets older, you SHOULD stop hearing the breastfeeding question so often. And then practically not at all. It’s funny how all those passionate, nosy strangers suddenly morph in the “you’re STILL nursing that kid, omg, he has TEETH, he can practically ASK FOR IT!” types.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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