By Samantha Schlemm
The formula recall came days after I quit breastfeeding. Perfect timing for an extra dose of anxiety and guilt. Not that moms can just quit breastfeeding, it’s much slower and more confusing than that. By the time the recall hit, I had dropped pumping sessions and ounces, but not so many that I couldn’t reverse course and preserve what little supply I had left.
“Do I quit quitting?” I asked my husband after he told me about the recall.
“No. You were miserable. Keep going. You made the right choice,” he said.
I wasn’t convinced.
Before my daughter was born, when I thought about feeding her, I imagined teaching her to cook on Sundays, light spilling through the window as we chopped, peeled, or stirred. I imagined buying fresh fruit and vegetables, strawberries catching our attention at the farmer’s market. I imagined baking cookies, chocolate wafting through the house. Food would connect us. I didn’t think about breastfeeding, and I definitely didn’t think about formula. My friends had all breastfed their babies for a year or more, so I knew it wasn’t easy, but I also believed if they did it, I could too. So, I prepared. I took multiple breastfeeding classes, read articles, and followed the Instagram-famous postpartum RN and Certified Lactation Counselor Karrie Locher. I bought nursing pillows, nipple cream, a Haakaa, a breast pump, breast milk storage bags, and more. Hard didn’t scare me. Feeding my daughter wouldn’t be a problem. Or so I thought.
We struggled from the start. Right from the hospital, we needed formula. “You’re breastfeeding—right?” became the “non-question, question” nurses, doctors, and other moms asked. My answer was never simple. Latching was hard for my daughter, according to one of the hospital’s many lactation consultants, my nipples were “too shallow.” She gave me a nipple shield. Another told me to bring her closer, no farther, no try the football hold, cradle, cross-cradle, side-lying, laid back. No, no, she’s just a sleepy baby. Unlatch and re-latch to wake her. Stroke her cheeks. Wipe her face with a cold wash cloth. Eat oatmeal. Massage your breasts. Nothing worked—not enough to fill my daughter. I kept supplementing with pumped milk and formula, always thinking, I’m not enough.
Determined to make enough milk, I lived in three-hour intervals. My daughter woke up, we nursed, bottle fed, she napped, I pumped, she woke up, and we started again. I didn’t wear real clothes for two weeks. A gray cotton robe, beige nursing-pumping bra, and gray disposable underwear became my uniform. When I did start wearing clothes, I wore them 24-hours. Day bled into night and changing into pajamas seemed ridiculous.
Sleep happened in one-hour clips. Eating happened while I pumped. Leaving the house didn’t happen. But that didn’t bother me. Not having time to cuddle or hold my daughter unless she was attached to my breast bothered me. Pumping after nursing meant I passed her to my husband, or two plastic barriers and a tangle of tubes came between us. I gave up cuddles, sacrificed the sweet moments between feedings, and still, she needed formula. Food pushed us apart.
My maternity leave slipped away. I couldn’t work and keep up with our routine, so I exclusively pumped. It cut one step from our feeding frenzy, but to get enough milk, I pumped nonstop. I bought a wireless, wearable pump and cleaned bottles and parts until my hands turned red and chapped. Working from home helped. I pumped in meetings with my camera off. I traveled and pumped in the car, at the airport, and on a plane. I went to dinners with family and friends and pumped at the table, my chest quietly trotting along like a galloping horse. I counted ounces, set a timer for pumping sessions, and became obsessed with feeding my daughter. It stole all my time. I pumped, and pumped, and still, 22 ounces was the most I produced. My daughter ate 24 to 32 ounces a day. I never made enough. Formula kept her full.
Around six months, after a work trip where I only had time to pump twice versus my normal 10 times a day, my supply tanked. The ounces dropped from 21 to 19.25…18.75…16.5…15…13.5…I hovered around 12 or 13 for a month before asking myself, Is this worth it? Each night, as I tallied my haul, I felt like a failure.
For months, I drove myself crazy until our pediatrician told me, “Fed is best.” It became my mantra and helped me realize formula made the most sense for our family. So, I quit. I dropped one pumping session a day for a week, and as the milk dried up I panicked. At first, because I’d trained myself to want more milk, then because I felt guilty, and finally because of the recall.
It took a few weeks before our formula disappeared from stores. Nothing on Monday, but three canisters on Wednesday. We checked all the time. Not a lot became nothing, nothing, nothing. Two months passed and we turned online. After three months, it all but vanished. We switched from the type the hospital gave us to a similar generic, then a second, and a third. Now, we buy what we can get and cross our fingers she won’t have a reaction. We’re on our seventh formula, and luckily, she’s been okay with all the switches. Each time I’m in a store, I check the empty shelves that are, of course, still empty. And each time, I’m faced with the same doubt, I shouldn’t have stopped.
The formula companies blame the stores. The stores blame the formula companies, understaffing, and nervous parents hoarding. I blame myself. Even if my supply only half fed my daughter, at least it would last twice as long. I beat myself up. Is this my fault? Am I not a good mother because I couldn’t breastfeed exclusively? Fed is best. Fed is best.
Seeing the empty shelves has been scary, but also kind of comforting. I’m not the only one. According to the CDC, only 63% of moms end up exclusively breastfeeding after a week, and by six months that number drops to 25%. Breastfeeding and the pressure that’s served alongside it is partly self-inflicted and partly from the pamphlets, online courses, articles, other moms, and nurses insisting, “Breast is best.” And it is great, but we should also see what formula gives us too.
Formula fed my daughter what I couldn’t. Now, it’s her primary food source, which means I can be present. Yesterday, when we woke up, I made her a bottle and we snuggled while she ate. When she finished, we danced to Nat King Cole, crawled on the floor, and knocked over block towers. Formula has given me freedom and time. When I realized that I went from pumping nonstop and obsessing over ounces of breast milk to connecting with my daughter, I stopped feeling guilty. This formula shortage has been painful for so many parents, but maybe it’ll help us finally see formula has value too.
Samantha Schlemm is an essayist, copywriter, and mom of a curious little girl. She lives in Baltimore, where she earned an MA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Johns Hopkins University. You can find her at SamanthaSchlemm.com.
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