I burst into tears at the end of the new documentary Breastmilk. Not because I loved the movie—though it is a very clear-eyed, quality film about the breast-feeding journeys of a group of racially and socioeconomically diverse new parents. And not because I felt moved by those new parent experiences—though there are some extremely poignant moments. I started crying because I felt a sharp, unexpected sense of shame for not trying harder to breast-feed my kid for a longer period of time.
This was a complete shock, because the film is not didactic about breast-feeding’s benefits. In fact, filmmaker Dana Ben-Ari depicts mothers struggling to breast-feed and the toll it takes on their families, in great detail. It was also a shock because when I stopped breast-feeding when my daughter was a few weeks old, I thought I was totally secure in that choice. I had read all the studies showing overall that breast-feeding is better, that formula won’t make your child an obese, asthmatic dimwit (more on those later). I was struggling, and on a teary phone call with the lactation consultant, she said something along the lines of, “There is no reason to torture yourself or your baby.” I agreed and have felt fine with the decision ever since.
But hearing parents describe breast milk as “liquid gold” and formula as “crack” (even in jest) for 90 minutes can hit at emotional triggers beyond reason. There were two sets of parents in particular that got me going. First were American urban professionals Colleen and Lawrence. When she was interviewed at nine months pregnant, Colleen was determined to breast-feed and a little condescending to moms who struggle. “If someone is having trouble breast-feeding, I would not want to make them feel worse about it, because they made the decision to feed from a formula, but it’s not a choice I would make for myself,” Colleen tells the camera.
Then Colleen has difficulty breast-feeding. It’s really hard to watch her deal with a combination of low milk supply and a baby with a bad latch. She goes so far as to bring her baby into an ear, nose, and throat doc to get his frenulum snipped so that he might breast-feed more effectively. It doesn’t really work, and Colleen eventually gives up when her kid is 6 or 7 months old. Her husband, Lawrence, says, “The difficulties we had with breast-feeding had the greatest toll on Colleen. She feels she let her baby down. Her efforts made it more difficult for the two of us because all of our late-night feedings I would be involved in.” Her husband would finish the feedings with formula while Colleen pumped late into the night. Even when her baby is a happy-looking 1-year-old walking around in front of the camera, Colleen is still concerned she’s not bonded enough to him.
I believe with every fiber of my being that children can bond very deeply to caregivers who aren’t breast-feeding them, and, again, I am glad I did not put additional stress on my family to do something that wasn’t right for us. But to hear Colleen say that formula feeding “makes me question what kind of parent I’m being, what kind of bond am I creating with my child,” pinged the emotional stress points that I thought did not exist for me.
Still, Colleen didn’t make my face burn with humiliation and rage—which is how I reacted to the frankly nasty attitude of the one lesbian couple featured. Even though Luki is the biological mother, her partner, Emily, also managed to lactate and feed their daughter. Both women say they don’t really believe all the mothers who say they have low milk supply, nor do they believe mothers who say they’ve given it their all and couldn’t breast-feed. Luki won’t diss these women to their faces, but Emily will. “I’m more antagonistic,” Emily says. “I make it clear that they should have breast-fed.”
Their total lack of empathy for other women—in particular because they talk about the judgment they face as same-sex parents—made me want to reach through the screen and shake them. But it also confirmed the fact that a lot of women are judging other women for using formula. And listening to other women, even women who don’t know you or your life, judge you as a bad mother, is difficult to stomach.
Because this judgment remains, and because her film seemed positioned to combat it, I was disappointed to read an interview with the filmmaker in New York magazine where she accuses “mainstream feminists” for being too interested in “the debate between formula and breast.” She elaborates to say:
Mainstream feminists want to say I’m all about work, I have to go to work, and enough about being forced to breast-feed. They question the agenda and is it really best and what about the science. I’m not interested in that question so much, because I think they’re missing the bigger picture, and that is: All women should have [breastfeeding] available to them if they want to. We should have more flexibility in the workplace, and we don’t because we’re still stuck in that ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s model of being like men in the workplace.
What Ben-Ari seems to be saying here is that “mainstream feminists” are missing the forest for the trees when it comes to breast-feeding. That we—and I assume she would include me, because I am interested in studies that show the benefits of breast-feeding may have been overrated—should stop trying to make formula acceptable and instead, regardless of science, focus on making the culture more open for working women who want to breast-feed. Where Ben-Ari errs is in assuming the two things are mutually exclusive.
I would love nothing more than to live in a country where mothers are actually supported and where breast-feeding could become easier for them. But I don’t, and unfortunately things only seem to be getting worse for working mothers in the U.S. We can both want to change the culture overall and support mothers who are struggling with the culture as it is. Part of that support involves letting women know that studies show formula-fed babies turn out perfectly fine.