I am 100 percent pro-choice. This stance is based on the belief that all people should have the right to decide what is done to their own bodies and extends far beyond the abortion debate. Just as I believe that no woman should be forced to use her body to carry an unwanted pregnancy, I also believe that no woman should be forced, coerced or pressured to use her breasts to feed her baby.
But apparently some moms on Facebook feel otherwise.
They've taken a stance on breastfeeding that resembles anti-choice rhetoric. "Every mom should at least try to breastfeed," read one comment on a popular breastfeeding page. Dozens of comments followed in agreement with the idea. Some took it further commenting that formula should be prescription only.
As I read it, I struggled against the urge to waste time arguing against popular opinion.
Breastfeeding is very intimate. I know from experience—2 and a half years of experience, to be exact. I am writing this while my toddler latches on for a snack. It's a round-the-clock commitment to sharing your body with a tiny needy human on demand. If you follow the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation, choosing to breastfeed means your body will be used as your baby's only means of sustenance for at least six months. That is a huge commitment—one I wasn't willing to make when I had my first child at 16 or my second at 20. It wasn't until I had my third child that I felt breastfeeding was a real option for me.
I'd love to explain the specifics, tell you in detail all my reasons for choosing formula as a young mom, but those details aren't as important as the fact that the reasons were mine. My body, my choice. I would've strongly resented breastfeeding had I been forced—or even coerced—knowing there was another option at that point in my life.
Whenever I read comments in support of restricting formula, or in support of mandatory breastfeeding, I want to stick up for the person I was in the past. I don't want anyone thinking that I am a bad mom or that I am selfish because, at 16, I chose what was both easiest and best for me at the time. I hate the assumption that I put very little thought into what was best for the baby.
It wasn't until I had my third child that I felt breastfeeding was a real option for me.
As silly as it may sound, this fear of being labeled a selfish mom is at the heart of my desire to explain and justify my formula use when I read those comments on social media. But if there is one thing that we should be allowed to make selfish decisions about—even as mothers—it's the use of our bodies. The argument for bodily autonomy shouldn't disappear as soon as our babies are on the outside.
Our breasts, just like our wombs, belong to us. They belong to us always, not just under acceptable circumstances. It doesn't matter if a woman's reasons for formula-feeding are medical, psychological or simply that it makes her life easier. In each case, it should always be her choice.
And, yes, we need to work on normalizing breastfeeding and creating an environment of support for the women who choose to try. But we do not need to do that at the expense of other women. It shouldn't cost us our autonomy.
Restricting access to formula does just that. It's just like the anti-choice movement's attempts to restrict access to abortions. Sure, they make exceptions to their rules, like in the case of rape or the health of the mother. But those exceptions can never be inclusive enough to cover the complex realities of women's lives. Exceptions to anti-formula policies, which require a woman to get a formula prescription, don't account for these complexities either. The result, in both cases, is that choices regarding our bodies are already decided for us.
Our right to choose is erased.
I understand that much of this is a reaction to the social environment we live in. Breastfeeding has only really started to gain visibility. For many of us, formula was seen as the norm growing up. The push for formula that has only recently started to decline, erased breastfeeding from our view and resulted in many women choosing formula for no reason other than it was all they saw. This makes it easy to see formula as the enemy.
But just as abortion provides an alternative to pregnancy, formula is an alternative to breastfeeding.
A part of the problem is that the conversation has primarily been framed as formula vs. breastmilk. In doing so, the woman who will be offering up her breasts has been ignored. The slogan "breast is best" completely erases the woman who will be doing the breastfeeding. If a woman is completely uncomfortable with breastfeeding, is it really best for her to do so? The agenda to do what's best becomes all about what is best for the baby, even if it is at the expense of the mother.
This is frighteningly similar to anti-choice rhetoric used in the abortion debate. The focus is entirely on what is best for the embryo or fetus—with little if any regard for the woman. The only difference is that the woman is being reduced to breasts, rather than being reduced to a womb. Her personhood is seen as secondary to what her body can do reproductively, even though there are other completely ethical options available.
But just as abortion provides an alternative to pregnancy, formula is an alternative to breastfeeding. It keeps babies fed. It isn't poison. Some might argue it isn't as good as breastmilk. Maybe it isn't, who knows? But it's an alternative, and it works. It gives us a choice. All of us. Even those if us who do breastfeed, it wasn't only our choice, because there was another option.
As I breastfed my toddler to sleep last night, I cherished every moment of it, knowing it might end soon. I love that she can find comfort in me this way. I love that bedtime feels more like a time to connect than a war most nights.
This was the right choice for me this time around. Although I wish that every woman could have this type of breastfeeding relationship with her child, I know it's not really possible unless she freely chooses it. With no pressure.