I got off the phone with my brand-new baby’s pediatrician with tears in my eyes, completely defeated. I had told her two weeks ago that I was determined to breastfeed, and she told me what I would have to do at this point to make it happen: nurse, pump, and repeat every day and every night as often as possible, for as long as it takes.
Besides for a few precious moments when I could nourish my baby in peace, I was devastated by the experience. There was the excruciating pain I didn’t expect, the non-stop screaming because my baby remained hungry, and the unexpected sadness that would set in almost every time I did nurse.
So what did I do with my second baby? I asked the hospital nurse to bring her to me in the middle of the night to breastfeed, even though it’s not actually what I wanted.
Those first few nights, I sat through the intense pain, the exhaustion, and the screaming all over again. What could I have said to the nurse instead? “No, thank you. Keep the baby all night with you. I’m going to formula feed.” I would have been way too ashamed to say that.
I am a Jewish mother. We take pride in providing the very best care for our babies and families. Motherhood is not a new role we simply fall into and figure out as we go. Rather, it is a responsibility we wholeheartedly undertake, knowing that it comes with a tradition of excellence. Regardless of what denomination you subscribe to, many of us could provide a list on the spot of why it’s important to naturally nourish our babies. It’s something many of us are passionate about. Before my daughter was born, I used to read the short list of “benefits” for formula-use in baby books and think to myself, “Why would anyone do that?” If I heard about someone who had given up nursing, I would conclude, “I bet they could’ve figured it out.”
Whenever I would talk to people or read about breastfeeding, I kept hearing these extremely powerful words. Words like, “pure,” “empowering,” “unshakable bond,” and “spiritual.” And when formula was mentioned, I would hear words like “harmful,” “cop out,” and, “You should have asked for my lactation consultant.”
Constantly being around this black-and-white outlook as a mother made it excruciatingly difficult for me to come to terms with formula-feeding my babies. I would make excuses, avoid the topic altogether, and stay far away from anyone who would happily give me advice on how to keep nursing. Those of us who formula-feed feel we need protect ourselves because the culture behind breastfeeding has grown into a commanding movement, connecting everyone from glamorous supermodels to socially-conscious feminists to deeply religious women. Successful nursing has somehow come to signify the epitome of womanhood and the ultimate nirvana for a mother, setting a seriously high bar for all women. And for us Jewish mothers who believe we have a legacy of selflessness to uphold, the expectation to breastfeed feels not so much like a high bar as a holy baton we don’t dare drop.
There are amazing reasons why so many of us want to breastfeed. The love and attachment it encourages, the security it brings to know that you are providing your baby with your own nutritious, untouched milk, and the way it can fill up a mother’s heart and soul to connect with their baby in this way. I’m also proud of the great strides we have made in asserting that nursing shouldn’t be viewed as shameful—something women must keep extremely private, lest they be subjected to humiliation and harassment.
But the sheer intensity with which we promote breastfeeding leaves mothers feeling like failures for “quitting” something so synonymous with motherhood. When we briefly add a disclaimer that, yes, breastfeeding is best, “however all choices should be respected” or “do what’s right for you and baby,” it only reinforces the idea that some mothers simply can’t handle the responsibility of breastfeeding, but we should “support” them nonetheless.
The shame that haunts so many of us when we “fail” or decide not to nurse leaves me wondering, what’s really going on here? Why will so many of us only consider formula when we’re approaching—or have already reached—utter physical and emotional depletion? Is this really about excellence in motherhood, or the pressure and desire to be perfect?
We have an amazing history of determined heroines and resilient mothers. But I believe we’re missing an enormous component of what it means to be a strong Jewish woman. Strength is not only about self-sacrifice. It’s also about learning to treat our bodies, our needs, and our experiences with integrity and kindness, because you simply can’t be compassionate with other women when we see vulnerability as weakness. Our race to be perfect is the reason why so many of us face crippling isolation during a time when we need each other the most.