Here’s my solution to the formula shortage: Men should breastfeed. Sure, it will take dedication and hard work, also industrial-strength estrogen and other meds, a doctor, a lactation consultant, and I don’t know what else; but if a handful of trans women can do it, I’m sure regular old cis men can figure it out. Headline: “Breast Hero Dad: ‘I Begged Her Not to Use Formula, but She Wouldn’t Listen!’”
Apparently, some women can restart lactation after breastfeeding has ceased, so mothers who breastfed their babies and want to shame formula users to justify their own exhaustion, sore nipples, mastitis, lost work, restricted diets, and forgone medications can also step in. Breastfeeding isn’t just about milk, after all. It’s also about making other women feel like guilty failures. All babies matter!
I had my daughter 35 years ago, back in the days of the Mommy Wars. I can’t believe we are still blaming mothers who don’t breastfeed—or don’t breastfeed exclusively, or for long enough, or with a sufficiently beatific smile plastered permanently on their face. I enjoyed breastfeeding, by the way—many women do—but it was easy for me physically after the first few weeks, and I was working at home. (I drank Guinness, too, which was thought in those benighted times to help with the milk supply, but today is just another item in the ever-increasing list of things breastfeeding mothers must forsake.) If it had been difficult—if I had been going to an office every day and had to pump, if every feed had been a struggle or I had suffered any of the physical, emotional, or daily-life problems that outraged women are revealing just now in our nation’s op-ed pages—I doubt I would have kept up with it. I had plenty of friends who bottle-fed exclusively and doubted the extravagant claims made for breast milk in countries like ours with clean water and sanitation. I was formula-fed myself, like most baby boomers, and we are (mostly) healthy and smart and have accomplished great things in our time, including parenting and grandparenting most Americans now alive.
Why is it that when it comes to women, everything seems to become an iron law? Why can’t we say “Give it a try, you might like it—but if you don’t, move on”? Pressure to breastfeed is related to the idea that women are tied to nature in a way men are not. That concept has done some good but also a lot of harm. Consider the obsession with unmedicated childbirth and vaginal delivery, which leaves many women feeling guilty for years after having a C-section, even when it was necessary and resulted in a safe birth. And the consequences may be even more severe: In the UK, a study into an NHS Trust revealed over 200 hundred cases of baby and maternal deaths and injuries in just one hospital that were due in part to midwives’ overinsistence on vaginal birth. Face it: Nature is not always women’s friend, and when combined with the ideal of womanly self-sacrifice, especially for the sake of children, the insistence that women do what’s “natural” can set them up for years of self-blame.
In fact, breastfeeding is not so natural: Plenty of women don’t produce enough milk, and plenty of babies can’t latch on. We’re not living in semi-mythical medieval villages where neighbor women were available for advice and help, work and child care combined easily, and it was accepted as God’s will that a lot of babies would die—including the ones for whom specialized formulas now exist. Bette Midler caught a lot of flak when she tweeted, “TRY BREASTFEEDING! It’s free and available on demand.” But, as the organizational psychologist Allison Gabriel noted in a quote that’s gone viral, “breastfeeding is only free if we do not value women’s time”—about 35 hours a week. We would never expect a father to spend a full work week feeding a baby. And men would never put up with such a demand—only women do that, conditioned from birth to see themselves as worthless bitches if they don’t disregard their own needs.
The formula crisis is indeed about capitalism. The market is controlled by just four companies, with Abbott, which produces most of the formulas for babies with allergies and other medical conditions, taking about a 40 percent share. Production is concentrated in just a few factories, so when a single Abbott plant was closed after the infection of four children, and the deaths of two, were linked to contaminated formula, occasioning a long FDA investigation, shortages were inevitable. (Abbott claims there is insufficient evidence to link these events to its formulas.) This is the modern market economy in action: overconcentration, sluggish oversight, fragile supply chains, and not enough planning for likely disasters. The Biden administration has responded admirably—invoking the Defense Production Act, importing 35 tons of formula from Europe, relaxing rules limiting the brands that can be purchased through the WIC food program. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress have voted against $28 million in funding for the FDA to deal with the crisis, while Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Fox News falsely accuse the Biden administration of causing the shortage by diverting formula to infants detained at the border. Tell me again how much pro-lifers care about children.
The formula crisis is about capitalism in another way, too. Unlike most other countries, the United States has no universal paid maternity leave. Only about one in four employed women gets it, which is one reason that one in four goes back to work a mere 10 days after childbirth—fine if that’s what she wants, but how many do? We make breastfeeding as difficult as possible, humiliating women who do so in public, expecting them to pump in closets at work, and then we accuse them of selfishness and laziness if they opt for formula—a solution that at least allows fathers and others to share feeding duties.
We talk a good game about how precious babies and children are, but we leave it up to individual mothers to provide for their needs. At the same time, we constantly raise the bar for what that involves—while depriving mothers of what they need to meet those standards. If Roe is overturned, 26 states are poised to ban abortion immediately. How many women will be expected to perform perfect maternity without even having wanted the baby in the first place?