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Esperanza Dodge's picture

I’m sure you know of plenty of women who say “breast is best” and let their opinions known that formula is substandard for babies. They’re ready to defend the idea that breast milk is the only option unless it’s a dire emergency. Even then, after new moms have tried breastfeeding multiple times, seen various lactation professionals if a medical professional deems it absolutely necessary, they can they consider formula.

I was one of those people.

I recall a quote, “Why survive when you can thrive?” suggesting formula keeps a baby alive and fed, but breast milk makes that baby healthier and stronger. This was the attitude I kept with me as I happily breastfed my baby and would see other moms mixing up the powder and water in a bottle. I held onto the belief that my decision was the same decision all new mothers should make because science has proven all the benefits.

I didn’t personally know what it meant to give my everything to simply survive. It wasn’t until I began working at Young Women United with women in survival economies that I was able to open up my eyes to a whole new reality. These were women living through addiction, homeless and couch surfing, pregnant and living in a crappy hotel, dealing with a lifetime of trauma —doing the best they could for their families.

I received a call from a new mom in recovery after addiction. She was living in and out of relatives’ houses, apartments and cheap hotels, just to have a roof over her head for her and her baby. She told me WIC didn’t provide enough formula for her baby. I called WIC who let me know it’s a supplemental service not meant to provide all the food for baby. So I asked for advice on which formula to buy her and went out and picked her up a few cans. Upon delivering it to her, I entered a neighborhood many refuse to enter due to fear of crime. She told me she wants to breastfeed but her boyfriend was jealous and told her to stop.

Another woman I worked with wanted to give her baby breast milk because she wanted to give her baby the best she could, even though she had similar living conditions to the other mom. However, being a survivor of sexual and domestic violence, the idea of putting baby to breast was far too traumatic and not even an option. So she pumped for her baby and fed him this way until her milk dried out and she couldn’t pump any longer.

Although I did refer these women to adequate local resources for housing and other resources, I remember thinking I failed both of these women and others. They had very little money to purchase formula. Why couldn’t I help them breastfeed longer? But I was wrong. Who’s to say what thriving is anyway? Living on the streets and hustling to get your daily needs met is survival. Calling up resources and jumping through their endless hoops to make sure you have housing for you and baby is thriving. Their love for their babies could span this universe and you better be sure they did everything in their power to make sure those kids were fed and sheltered every night.

None of us has the right to judge a mom’s decision on how to feed her baby and we need to stop pushing our own decisions onto others. Instead, we can point women to resources that actually can help them and their families make ends meet. In the end, what’s most important is they are safe, supported and fed.

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