Breast Is Best? This Bad Mom Trusts the Bottle

I am three months away from giving birth for the first time, and already I am a bad, bad mother.

This is partly because I spend almost as much time gazing in shop windows at the thin clothes I’m going to wear one glorious postpartum day, as I do mooning over the gorgeous little alien on the sonogram images. It is partly because sometimes, when I am not marveling at the child inside me, I am pining for the life behind me. It is partly because if I could forfeit the mere epidural and deliver a happy, healthy baby while in some sort of harmless temporary coma, I would do it in a heartbeat. But mostly, my manifest unworthiness as a woman, a person and a mother-to-be can be captured in five simple words: I don’t want to breast-feed.

What? Don’t I read? Don’t I consult with health-care professionals? Am I somehow blind to the miraculous properties of colostrum, the Postnatal Fluid That Could? Don’t I know the facts?

Do I ever. In books, in magazines and all over the Internet, I have beheld the child of the breast, in all its wondrous immunity. Study after study shows that he or she will not only be less prone to allergies, asthma, diarrhea and childhood obesity, but also more highly developed, finely adjusted and closely bonded with yours truly. The creature of formula, on the other hand, is literally a crying shame. Fairly teeming with bacteria, he or she is doomed to wheeze, waddle and wind-expel his or her way through life as an innocent victim of corporate American processed-food peddling—and of his ignorant and/or uncaring mother.

All things considered, I’m leaning toward the latter.

Not that I have any remotely valid reasons for doing so. I have no basis on which to refute the consistent, insistent collective medical wisdom, propagated for years now by august bodies from the American Academy of Pediatrics on down, that “breast is best.” Nor do I have any moral or social objection to breast-feeding on the grounds that it is somehow dirty or unseemly. On the contrary, I fully accept that if I were a good person, I would do it. In fact, my “reasons,” such as they are, are the least valid imaginable for anyone who would fancy herself a mother: They’re all about me.

Maybe the experience of childbirth will transform me, as some mother-friends have told me it might, from a pretty good gal who will hopefully make a pretty good mom into a tigress who would eat her own limbs before her young would go without cello lessons. But so far, I’m still me, and I still aim to undergo motherhood with as little discomfort as possible. After a gestational period encompassing the perpetually exhausted throwing-up phase, followed by the perpetually ravenous odd-little-rashes phase, followed by the enormously-fat-and-getting-enormously-fatter phase, I don’t want to deal with the painful-engorgement/awkward-sucking phase, even if, for most women, it lasts only a short while. After nine months of abstaining from alcohol and cutting down on caffeine, tuna fish, peanuts, soft cheese and rare meat, I want to eat or drink something without a moment’s thought about what it might do to the baby. After cheerfully signing up to have a human being either pulled or cut out of me and then getting over all the sewing-up, I don’t want to get into any situation where I may have to reassure myself that the foreign discharge, if and when it comes out of my nipple, is perfectly natural, or that the painfully clogged duct will soon clear up, provided I keep the feedings frequent.

Even if I could be guaranteed the kindest, gentlest lactational experience in La Leche League history, I still don’t want to wake up every two to three hours every single day and night for the first few months. (Sure, I’ll have to do that a huge amount of the time anyway—but if, on occasion, some merciful relative or friend or husband or caregiver should offer me a few hours during a given night or day, I don’t want to say, “Thank you, no, I and only I am the giver of milk.” I want to kiss their feet in gratitude and pass out.) Given that I’m already looking at non-negotiable transitional baby traumas from teething to toilet training to getting-him-to-sleep-through-the-night-ing, I don’t want to throw in the optional weaning. And while I heartily embrace any woman’s right to open her bra next to me on an airplane or a park bench or at a restaurant so that she can feed her child, I’m sorry: I just don’t want to open mine. Last but not least, I don’t want to leak.

I do want to go out, at least every once in a while, for more than a few hours at a stretch in the first year of my child’s life—and I don’t want to have to pay at the pump every time. And I do want—or think I want—to have another child or two before I turn into a reproductive pumpkin in a very few years at most, and I don’t want to be pregnant or pumping straight through 2010.

Don’t tell me, I know: I ought to be ashamed, both for having these feelings and for expressing them. If I insist on sacrificing my own child’s health and well-being to my petty desires for rest and sanity, then I should at least keep it to myself. And anyway, even I can’t stand how I sound, which is like one of those people who offers Uncle Joe—the octogenarian who smokes three packs a day yet still jogs and chops his own firewood—as proof that the Surgeon General is full of hooey. Every time it strikes me that the bottle-fed people I know—myself, my six siblings, my 15 nieces and nephews, and the children of about half my friends—seem to be in no sense more sickly than the breast-fed people I know (who actually include the only severely asthmatic and allergic specimens of the sample, but never mind), I become a little bit more of a moron in my own estimation.

Then again, it turns out that, statistically speaking, I am a moron, or at least severely enlightenment-challenged. Yet another thing that breast-feeding study after breast-feeding study shows is that there is a definite link between being well educated and affluent and choosing to breast-feed. In other words, the dumber and poorer a woman is, the more likely she is to give her baby a bottle.

Just when I was getting ready to put my Yale degree in the trash over this, it occurred to me that that link might, at least in part, be forged the other way. Maybe, just maybe, some of the benefits flowing to some breast-fed children aren’t coming from the milk, but from the mom. I’ll bet if a study were to follow the lives of a group of children who leave the hospital in the best, safest, most-state-of-the-art car seat versus children who do not, the results would show the former group to be hugely advantaged in a miraculous variety of ways. These children would be found not only to be apt to suffer fewer injuries in actual car accidents, but also to be in fewer accidents at all. Fewer of them would show up in the emergency room with childhood respiratory ailments, and more of them would get into Harvard. All these findings would be perfectly true. Yet many of them would clearly not be chalked up to the car seat, but to the parents who purchased the car seat. On average, these parents might also be assumed to drive more carefully with baby on board; keep the child’s diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables and low in secondary smoke; find the money for tutoring; and so forth.

So it just may be with many a nursing mother—at least if she’s a mother whose decision to nurse reflects not her own instincts and preferences, but her desire to get motherhood right and her dread of getting it wrong. Even before she conceives, this woman would rather eat her laundry than stand rightfully accused of failing to do anything that experts consider to be best for her child. The minute she goes off the pill, she starts popping folic acid. The minute she gets pregnant, she gladly gets with the program of vitamins, ultrasounds and long pillow talks with her mate about what birthing plan to make, stroller to buy, child care to sign on for or forfeit in favor of do-it-yourself parenting. Throughout her pregnancy, she diligently reads copious expert advice exhorting her to breast-feed for at least three, six or 12 months—which she does. She can and will get the child to the doctor before the sniffle turns serious, keep the baby generally warm and dry, and nip socialization problems in the bud.

Again, none of this is to deny that breast milk itself is a net benefit—but mightn’t it at least take some of the gleam off it as a sole-source sliver bullet?

Having myself been bottle-fed from the get-go, I am not too perceptive. Still, I can’t help but notice: Between 1920 and 1970, most American children went from breast to bottle. During those years, rates of infant mortality and childhood illness did not skyrocket; they plummeted. Obviously, this suggests the introduction of other factors—improved vaccines, birthing techniques, sanitation—that, in terms of children’s health, more than made up for whatever was lost in the triumph of formula. In other words, it seems quite clear that once one arrives in the developed world and at a reasonable standard of care, the breast-versus-bottle debate becomes not a matter of life or death, but a question of good versus better. So why must the discussion of the matter be cast, as I am shocked to find it to be, in such bitter tones of black and white?

Dumb question. Obviously, it’s because, wherever and whenever she has a choice, the perfect mother will always go for what is better for her child. And while no woman is openly expected to be the perfect mother, every woman is quite frankly expected to kill herself trying to be. The moment I hit the bottle, I will have turned in my perfect-mother badge before I get to wear it even once. Therefore, I am Satan.

“You’re not Satan, honey,” the father of my fetus reassures me. “You just don’t want to breast-feed, so you’re distorting all the reliable data as a way to rationalize your way out of it.”

You know something? He’s absolutely right. That’s why, after all these mental gymnastics, I have finally landed at a decision that feels just right: All fathers should be strongly encouraged to breast-feed their babies for as long as possible. One year at the very least.