Food for thought

One mom’s plea to stop the smug judgments and let parents make their choices in peace

By Kara Baskin
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2010

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By now, most of us have heard about supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s breezily offensive comment in Harper’s Bazaar U.K. that breast-feeding for six months should be a “worldwide law.’’ Her blunt statements electrified the blogosphere — not because she’s right or wrong (and, really, who cares — she’s Gisele Bundchen, not Dr. Sears) — but because some mothers make it their business to criticize other mothers’ decisions.

Her decree — one she softened on her own blog after her comments made worldwide news — casts a harsh light on competitive mothering and its capacity to sting even the most confident woman. Bundchen is the celebrity version of the smug mommy who glares as she sees you bottle-feeding; the one who clucks disapproval at your decision to use day care; the one who sees your kid eating sand on the playground and “helpfully’’ suggests you consult a child psychiatrist.

After Bundchen’s pronouncement, parenting sites buzzed with women lambasting bottle-feeding moms for all manner of sins, from immaturity (apparently bottle-feeding moms want to drink wine and sleep in) to poor nutritional awareness. According to Internet antagonists, bottle-feeding is at worst an act of selfishness; at best, it’s due to lack of education. Rarely is it an informed choice. The furor was especially intense, no doubt, because this is National Breastfeeding Month.

So at the risk of being judged, I confess: I bottle-feed my 2-week-old son. And, most days, I’m confident about my choice. I had breast-reduction surgery and was told my milk might come in painfully, or not at all. While pregnant, I talked to friends who’d had breast reduction surgery and attempted to breast-feed — with no luck, just discomfort.

I also have panic disorder, which inevitably flares up when I’m overtired and stressed. I’ve known many women who felt tethered to their children thanks to a demanding breast-feeding schedule and who resented their husbands sleeping while they sat awake. I saw bottle-feeding as one way to make the parenting ride a bit smoother and to protect my own mental health, because I think my son will benefit most of all from a happy mother.

But a voice in the back of my mind still needled: “Motherhood is supposed to be hard! Bad mommy!’’ What business did I have making life easier for myself?

This voice first surfaced a couple of months ago, when I took a childbirth class at my local hospital. There, we were asked to raise our hands if we planned to breast-feed. I was the only mom who didn’t. Several classmates looked at me with arched eyebrows. I stammered some half-hearted excuse. “It’s OK,’’ the nurse said sweetly. “You shouldn’t need to explain yourself.’’ But how could I not, when each student was preemptively issued a pamphlet titled “Congratulations on Your Decision to Breast-Feed’’? I left feeling guilt-ridden.

I felt judged again after having my son, when an advertisement for breast pumps played on a loop in our hospital recovery room. “You know you’re a great mom, because you made the very best decision for your child,’’ a narrator cooed as a blissed-out woman nursed her baby. The implication was, of course, that other choices are reserved for moms who make sub-par decisions. I wanted to be part of the good mom club, too.

And I cringed reading message boards in the wake of Bundchen’s comments, in which she alluded to formula as “chemical food’’ and then later backpedaled, insisting, “I am not here to judge.’’ (Too late, thanks — I’ve already envisioned my innocent son guzzling gasoline from his cute four-ounce bottle.)

“Breast milk is a birthright,’’ one breast-feeding advocate railed on “We are too lazy and too caught up in trying to make our 3-week-old into a self-sufficient human so we can go out and have a drink and pretend we never had her for a couple hours.’’

If I needed any further evidence that we bottle-feeders are lazy boozers who need reprimanding, I only had to look within my own social circle. When talking to other women about this article, one bottle-feeder admitted she was made to feel like she fed her kids “battery acid.’’ Another said she’d disclose the reasons behind her nonmedical decision to bottle-feed her baby, but only if I promised anonymity. “I’m tired of the judgment,’’ she e-mailed.

Sadly, while there are health benefits to breast-feeding (disease-fighting antibodies for baby; decreased risk of breast cancer and type 2 diabetes for mom), the perks are often lost in a haze of self-righteousness. The slogan-ization of feeding “join the boob-alution!’’ or “breast is best!’’ trades complexity for cuteness. After all, “I love cracked nipples’’ or “I haven’t slept well in two weeks’’ don’t sound so enticing.

Bottle-feeding, while also nutritionally sound, isn’t a walk in the park, either. It’s expensive. It’s messy. It’s imperfect. So is parenthood. Instead of polarizing ourselves in search of validation, why not acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly on both sides? We’d all feel better about ourselves.

Before I left the hospital, a nurse asked if I was bottle- or breast-feeding. I launched into an apologetic monologue about my choice. She was an older, no-nonsense lady who’d seen it all. “Honey,’’ she interrupted, “don’t let anyone criticize you. In my day, bottle-feeding was the rage. Do what’s best for you.’’ I wanted to kiss her.

Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, bottle-feeding was en vogue. As the nutritional benefits of breast-feeding have come to light, more women have opted to do so, though not exclusively. Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 74 percent of babies in the United States are breast-fed at birth. But only 43 percent of babies are still breast-fed at six months. I find it hard to believe that more than half of all women want to do wrong by their children. I think they’re trying to do the best they can for their kids and themselves, whatever their situation.

After all, parenting choices, including how we feed our children, aren’t always clear-cut — a truism hammered home in Massachusetts this week by the Supreme Judicial Court, which ruled that women are entitled only to eight weeks unpaid leave under the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act. In light of such restrictions, many women opt for convenience. The last thing any of us need — whether we bottle-feed for health reasons, practicality, or simple preference — is judgment.

It’s time to eliminate the superiority complex from motherhood and acknowledge that there are no right or easy answers. There are nutritional benefits to breast-feeding. There are mental-health benefits to bottle-feeding. I’ve known sickly kids who were breast-fed and healthy kids who were bottle-fed, and vice-versa. Like so many aspects of parenting, it’s a roll of the dice. But one simple way to assure our children’s long-term success is by providing them with loving, nonjudgmental role models. After all, some things never go out of style.

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Now, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 74 percent of babies in the United States are breast-fed at birth. But only 43 percent of babies are still breast-fed at six months. I find it hard to believe that more than half of all women want to do wrong by their children.