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This is my love letter to baby formula

When I was tormenting myself over breastfeeding, my doctor said the magic words that freed me from guilt.
/ Source: TODAY

Before I had a kid, my husband was obsessed with my breasts. He used to call them his beautiful “double DDs.” Excuse the hyperbole; I was a 34D at best, but got progressively more engorged when I was pregnant with our son.

Justin quipped that I came from “hearty peasant stock,” due to my Russian and German origins, and hence, was cut out to be an earth mother. Smugly, I agreed.

I didn’t even know or bother to learn how formula worked, so convinced was I that I’d be my kid’s nourishment. Like so many moms, I had everything planned out. No plastic toys — just educational wooden ones made by fair-trade artisans. Only organic clothes, and of course, an organic mattress that would get at least a week to air out — and that cost three times as much as the one we slept on, to my husband’s eternal bemusement and annoyance.

Formula-feeding my baby
Alex on his adventures around town, always with a formula-filled bottle in tow.Justin Williams / Justin Williams

Bye-bye birth plan

But Aphrodite had other plans. My son arrived two weeks after his due date, prompting a brutal induction that led to his heart-rate dropping and wound up with me in the operating room. When my son emerged, after an emergency C-section, he was tongue-tied, so he couldn’t or wouldn’t latch. The doctors told me to see if it would work itself out. It didn’t.

Then my glorious globes failed me. No milk came out. Not a trickle. Not a drip. Not a sprinkle. We got Alex’s tongue clipped and I’d attach him, but it was akin to walking a cat on a leash. Pretty much futile. The nurses gave him formula (to my disgust but whatever, the kid had to eat) and I wore a La Leche League hair shirt of guilt.

When we got home, it was even worse. We lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the ground zero of mommy wars, where the women I met at playgroups competed for the Golden Globe in Parenting Decisions. One bragged about growing her own organic fruits so she could make her child’s food from scratch. Another schooled me on powering through nursing issues, telling me to drink lactation tea and just keep trying and trying and trying because I could do it!

All the moms I met — all of them — insisted that breast was best, that formula was second to arsenic when it came to baby nutrition, and that they would practice child-led weaning, even it if meant nursing until their kids were doing college tours. I nodded as I shamefacedly mixed Earth’s Best powder with warm water in my bottle and fed it to my kid, who guzzled it down like it was the world’s greatest sake.

Letting go of breastfeeding guilt

I made myself crazy. Actually, I owe an apology to the word crazy. I, in fact, became deranged with guilt. Every time someone asked if I was breastfeeding, I launched into my harangue: “I tried so hard, but he was tongue-tied and never latched and I had no milk and I pumped and pumped but nothing came out or at least maybe just an ounce and he’s such a big baby and so I finally had to resort to formula.”

Each time, my victim would back away slowly, wish me luck, and flee. To overcompensate for being a working mom who excelled at interviews with Meryl Streep and Brad Pitt but who was a flop at feeding her son, I spent hours at farmers markets buying certified organic produce, which I would then meticulously steam and turn into baby food — saved only in glass containers, due to BPA fears. His sheets were fair-trade organic cotton. As were his clothes. I fixated on everything but what mattered — spending intimate time with my husband, who was undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer, and our son.

Formula-feeding my baby
Daddy having rose, while the baby has his bottle of formula.Justin Williams / Justin Williams

This would have gone on indefinitely until I had a checkup with my OBGYN, Dr. Andrea M. Dobrenis, a doctor both witty and wise.

She commented on what a big, healthy baby Alex was, and asked how feedings were going. I immediately kicked into my prepared remarks, not even catching my breath as I ranted apologetically about why I was such a failure as a mother, despite the breasts that should be performing their milk-producing function. She told me to please take a breath and calm down. And here’s what she said: “Donna, do you have access to clean drinking water? Do you have access to quality formula? Is your son thriving? You’ll be fine. Stop beating yourself up and enjoy your time with your baby."

And so I did.

What a relief it was. At night, Justin took over and fed him, so I could sleep — and they could bond. He figured out his own special way to burp Alex, by leaning him against his upraised knees, and took immense pride in having his own little “daddy tricks,” like tapping the baby three times on one leg to keep him focused on eating when he’d drift off. My husband sleep-trained Alex, since he was in charge of the night feeds, and I was seamlessly able transition back to work as an entertainment journalist at a major newspaper. And guess what? I covered my favorite event, the Toronto film festival, when Alex was eight months old because I could leave him with my parents (and containers of formula) and Justin and I could be baby-free adults for a week.

Little did I know that Justin would be dead within a year of a brain tumor, so that trip was especially special to us.

Three cheers for formula

The formula was so easy to mix, meaning we could take the kid to dinner, to a polo match, to a pool party. And he thrived. Oh, how he thrived. Always in the 90th percentile of everything. Today, he’s 7, and no, formula hasn’t impacted his IQ, another scare tactic I heard from overbearing mothers. He’s bright, engaged and incredibly verbal (to a fault — arguing with me, for example, about why I make all the decisions in our house if we live in a democracy). Physically, he's the king of the monkey bars.

Sometimes, I still find myself dealing with that niggling shard of guilt when I’m at the park or playground and see a woman lifting her shirt and attaching her infant to her chest. I could never do that.

Still, the mom-guilt remains

And yet, when I look at my son — so headstrong, so inquisitive, so maddeningly smart — I thank German chemist Justus von Liebig, who developed the first commercial baby formula in 1867. We’ve come so far. Yet somehow, not at all.

We moms are our own worst enemies. Why is it that so many of us lift ourselves up by putting others down? One mom bragged to me that when her supply dwindled, she ordered breast milk from a milk bank, rather than going the laboratory route. Another chirped that nursing for 14 months (and counting) was the greatest and most rewarding sacrifice she could make for her child because that’s what moms do.

I wondered why we measure ourselves by how we feed our children. So I asked my friend Lindsay Powers, a mom of two and the author of the forthcoming book "You Can't F*ck Up Your Kids," to weigh in. Why is the milk-versus-formula such a defining issue for us moms? And what can we do about it?

"Moms today are damned if they do, damned if they don't. I'll never forget a woman calling me 'disgusting' for breastfeeding my then 10-month-old son in a restaurant. I wasn't exposing anything, but it was enough for her to snap a photo of me and storm out of the restaurant! Women get shamed for using formula, shamed for breastfeeding in public, shamed for not breastfeeding long enough, shamed for breastfeeding too long," she said. "But here's the deal: The study that says kids who are breastfed have higher IQs is flawed. Your kid is going to be fine whether you breastfeed or not. Being a happy, and sane, mom is way more important than breastfeeding. So don't put so much pressure on yourself. Do what works for you and your family, and never look back."