Breast Versus Bottle, Part II

The Observer received many letters responding to Tish Durkin’s article, “Breast Is Best? This Bad Mom Trusts the Bottle,” Dec. 5. Below is a small sampling and Ms. Durkin’s response.

Dear Ms. Durkin,

I applaud you for your honesty! I seldom see selfish mothers actually naming the true reason for their actions. It is refreshing to see a mother proclaim that she unabashedly puts her needs above her newborn’s. Bravo! I hope you consider pasting the article in your child’s baby book, so they can read someday where on their mother’s list of priorities they fall—just under tuna fish and glasses of wine.

Take it from this mother, who bottle-fed one child and nursed the other: Bottle-feeding is the most time-consuming, disgusting, up-all-night job there is. Just think! The hours you could spend focusing on yourself and writing bitter, misinformed articles will be spent going to the store, mixing formula, washing bottles, sterilizing bottles, feeding the baby, getting spit up on (watch out, formula stains!), soothing a screaming baby who is trying to digest his formula, and likely taking your child to the doctor for illnesses that may have been prevented.

Perhaps a gerbil would have been a more appropriate accessory to your lifestyle.

Katie Kamps-Beck

Akron, Ohio

Dear Ms. Durkin,

Why is it you’re having children? You claim to be very selfish about doing the things you want to do and that you don’t wish to be bothered with all of the things that parenthood involves—why do you want children?

Someday you’ll look back and wonder why it was more important for you to have a glass of wine or some peanuts and a coffee than it was to offer your baby something that only you could provide. But by then it will be too late. And the one who will have really missed out is your baby, who had no choice, because believe me: If that baby had to choose, I know which one he/she would pick!

Christina Limani

Niskayuna, N.Y.

Dear Ms. Durkin,

Kudos to you for saying it. As a Smith College grad, I fully support the right of a woman to excel and achieve. But this current climate of “out-momming” one another is just maddening.

I chose to bottle-feed. Yes, I’ll say it: I—a child of middle-class parents who sent me to a prestigious college to become enlightened, who moved to a nice Boston suburb to stay at home part time with my new child—chose to bottle-feed. I chose to do so after a 41-hour labor (20 of which were done with no epi), including three hours of pushing, a vacuum extraction, fever and delirium immediately postpartum, and three days of the most unimaginable breast pain—after which, I went to the bottle.

But no amount of justification is ever enough. Not my labor and delivery woes, not my need for an anti-anxiety medicine so I can pull myself together enough to parent adequately, not anything, is ever enough to “justify” the bottle. Not even the fact that I work for a state agency—a nice white-collar job—where there is absolutely no place to pump. Even giving it a try for a couple of days, I knew breastfeeding was not going to be the best for me or my family as a whole. It isn’t always the best.

And I’m not sure why women are so concerned with what other women are doing with their boobs. There is no public-health crisis in this country due to the numbers of formula-fed infants. Childhood obesity is the crisis—but what of the women who dutifully breastfed but then went on to feed their children absolute crap and let them sit on the couch endlessly? They are exonerated because they breastfed—and the formula-fed kids are assumed to be the ones who are going to suck up precious health-care resources.

You will make a fantastic parent because you know your mind and you know what will help to keep you “you” when your child arrives. I think that’s tremendously important—and in this climate of undying self-sacrifice, no one tells you that.

Ann Lattinville Hale

Scituate, Mass.

Dear Ms. Durkin,

I’m sorry your article got page 5—or in the news at all. So you don’t make evidence-based decisions. Why do you have to write an article glorifying it and making fun of it?

I work with women on childbirth ed, and my husband is a high-school teacher. I see the start of families with mothers who have your self-focused attitudes; my husband sees the children 14 to 18 years down the road. It generates children who do not have a sense of self, other than the one trying to get more attention from the parents than the parents give themselves.

You are right that breastfeeding itself doesn’t cause all of the benefits we read about directly—it is the time and intimacy and learning moments that the baby and mother engage in during breastfeeding that create some of the wonderful outcomes that babies and mothers who breastfeed share. Unless you are extremely dedicated and conscious of your efforts at bottle-feeding (which it sounds like you don’t plan to be), you will miss these crucial moments. Breastfeeding is nature’s way of ensuring that the baby gets what she needs from her mother in so many other areas than just nutrition.

I hope that you work on empathy development. Every child deserves a mother that will be that lion for him or her—I hope you find the strength inside to become who your child needs you to be and that you don’t take the easy way out. There are so many people out there who are desperate to have children and who would adore more children if they already have them—and who would love with a kindness, empathy and vigor that every child deserves.

Jodilyn Owen

Seattle

Dear Ms. Durkin,

As someone who breastfed her daughter for over two and a half years (not as gross as it sounds), I can totally understand your misgivings and appreciate your sense of humor. Breastfeeding definitely ties you down to your baby and may prevent you from eating, drinking and partying the way you would like (although I drank quite a bit of wine). Being a mom can be a total drag and definitely disrupts your social life. But wait until your baby is born: You will see how you are transformed, and you may surprise yourself by wanting to breastfeed. There is no sensation that compares to seeing your milk-drunk baby swoon at the breast.

Here are some advantages to breastfeeding you may not have considered:

1) It helps you lose weight and fit into those clothes you’re yearning for so much faster.

2) It really does improve your baby’s immune system (my daughter still rarely gets sick and has had only one ear infection in five years).

3) Your baby’s poop will smell so much better.

4) Fewer allergies.

5) Lowered risk of obesity.

6) Squirting milk out of your breasts is a fun party trick, especially during sex.

7) It’s free and you don’t have to sterilize any bottles.

8) You won’t get your period for ages (although you can definitely get pregnant—watch out).

9) It’s incredibly relaxing.

10) It maximizes cleavage.

I’m no La Leche League Nazi, and I don’t believe you’re a bad person for not wanting to breastfeed. However, I just have to say that you are definitely missing out if you don’t even give it a try.

Wishing you a quick, painless labor, a healthy baby and the joy of breastfeeding.

Dara Furlow

Brooklyn

Dear Ms. Durkin,

In your article you state, “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.” Seriously, what is the point? Why are you having a baby? Parakeets require a lot less sacrifice and care.

Annie VerSteeg

La Jolla, Calif.

Dear Ms. Durkin,

Interesting essay. As a mother of four, I only wanted to counter one point. While it is true that good-health indicators in children rose during the age of the bottle, and that many factors contributed to that (vaccinations, sanitation, living standards), there is one troubling indicator: During this same time, the rate of childhood obesity skyrocketed. Many times I can pick out the formula-fed child in a crowd. That’s the baby whose moon face and gargantuan limbs defy any description of infancy to include “delicate.”

I could be wrong. Maybe our children are fat because of less playtime, but I do wonder about the impact of formula.

Many good wishes for a healthy pregnancy and delivery.

Kelly Powers

Baltimore

Tish Durkin replies:

Hoo-kay, deep breath, repeat after me: As I stated over and over again in my piece, I have absolutely no desire to attack breastfeeding nor the women who choose it. Judging from the mail, however, quite a few such women have an overwhelming desire to attack me. Not, let me emphasize, anything like all of them. It is true that the mushiest love mail I received did come from bottle-feeding New York mothers who are scared to death to reveal their true identities, lest some marvelously nurturing lactivist haul them out and have them stoned.

But I also heard from enthusiastically breastfeeding mothers who wrote to me with great humor, generosity, sense and sanity. These women, I congratulate, praise and thank.

The nutcases, however, have got to be stopped.

They have got to be stopped from disguising nastiness as motherliness. A new mother’s admission that she is leaning toward a feeding method on which she herself was reared in excellent health is not a reason to tell her to put her baby up for adoption, as one flawlessly moral and maternal soul directed me to do.

They have got to be stopped from applying bombast and breeziness to the exact same issue as if this makes perfect sense. Consider, for instance, the main feature of my hate mail: purple rage at the apocalyptic horrors one inflicts upon one’s child by not breastfeeding, followed by the contention that every mother ought at least to give nursing a try; she can always drop it if it’s not for her. In other words: By not breast-feeding, I am gravely endangering my child … but it’s no big deal if I quit?

They need to be stopped from their shameless shunning of anyone who dares to question their holy doctrine. More American children are breastfed today than at any time since the introduction of the bottle. Yet more American children also suffer from allergies, asthma and obesity than ever. Now, I’m sure that’s no reason to discredit breastfeeding. But it’s a perfectly good reason to ask: Why should breastfeeding be accorded all-consuming credit for preventing ailments that are not, in increasing proportion, being prevented?

They need to be stopped from issuing objective decrees on subjective questions, as in “Breastfeeding is enjoyable,” “ … is easy,” “ … is convenient.” Of course it is—if you find it so. You might not, though, and this doesn’t make you a monster. And if you haven’t tried it, sure, you might want to—but you might not. You are still not a monster.

They need to be stopped from their reflexive, collective, selective misogyny, which is particularly fetid in a group who seem to fancy themselves feminists. Many women, in making an argument for breastfeeding, cite their own pleasure, a quick return to the pre-pregnancy figure, the convenience of life without lugging and heating bottles, and the financial advantage of not having to buy formula. Great. But why do these women still get to be seen as wonderful, giving mothers, while women who cite similarly self-interested, practical factors as arguments for the bottle are deemed selfish bitches from hell?

Most of all, they need to be stopped from taking the word “selfish,” wrapping it up with little poison pellets, and hurling it at any mother who doesn’t agree with them. When I wrote that it was not valid for me to consider the possible effects of breastfeeding on myself as well as on my child, I thought it was obvious that I was kidding. I thought it was obvious that in every decision taken by every family, every person in that family deserves to be considered—even the mother. I thought that absent clear-cut issues of the baby’s well-being, my well-being counted.

O.K., I am not convinced that by forgoing breastfeeding, I am truly compromising my baby’s well-being. On that point, well-meaning people can agree to disagree. But this question far transcends that of breast versus bottle. The idea that it’s somehow good for a child to have a mother who has left her sense of self in the delivery room is an idea that I find amazing in the 21st century.

No question, to be a mother is to give deeply of the self. It is not to give up the self. Even—no, especially—with an infant, I believe in knowing the difference. And breast or bottle, that is best for the baby.