Recent news has shed light on the invisible journey of motherhood. Breastfeeding (nursing and/or pumping) is conservatively about 1,800 hours a year. This is just about the equivalent of a full time job. And that is when it works out for a mother and baby. Many are using this formula shortage as the reason to champion more breastfeeding support. And yes, we are lacking in the access to lactation support, but the problem is much bigger than this one aspect.
Breastfeeding in this Country is a Luxury
Breastfeeding in this country is a luxury. So many mothers in the US lack access to fundamental resources and support that are necessary for a successful breastfeeding experience. We leave the hospital with a large delivery bill and a handful of advice on how to keep a brand new baby alive. We have a short maternity leave, if we’re lucky enough to have one at all. And our partners rarely receive paid leave to help support us.
Not all mothers are able to take on the mental, physical, emotional, and monetary load of supporting their family while also trying to breastfeed. Breast milk is not free. It takes proper nutrition, access to healthcare, limited stress, educational resources and support. And when breastfeeding becomes a challenge, it takes so much more.
When a mother feeds her baby formula, it doesn’t always mean she’s made a choice. Yes, some opt for formula and for those mothers, their reasons are valid and their own. But for many mothers, formula is the only means they have of feeding their babies and giving them the best shot at life.
Formula is not the “f word”. It does not mean failure. Formula is a lifeline for moms who have been let down, left to fend for themselves, a savior for moms who can’t breastfeed or for whom the pain is too great. Formula can be used to help jump start a mother’s breastfeeding journey, to bridge the gap when her milk doesn’t come in right away. There are a number of reasons why formula is a positive.
Time to Take Care of Our Children
Not all mothers in the United States receive a paid maternity leave, or even have the ability to take leave unpaid. Some are forced to quit their jobs in order to care for their babies. According to What to Expect, only 17% of families qualify for paid leave through private employers and 60% of families qualify for unpaid FMLA. If mothers do have access to a paid maternity leave, it is too short. Healthcare providers want mothers to breastfeed for at least the first year, but our society only gives mothers a few (3-6) months at home with their babies. It can take a mother and baby that entire time just to figure out nursing. And then a mother is forced to get a breast pump and return to work.
A lack of parental leave for our partners exacerbates the situation. Yes, some corporate employers are beginning to provide parental leave, but far too many parents are left either taking short term disability, or with no option at all. Whether this is your first baby or you have other children at home, the workload falls squarely on our shoulders. You can see how the US stacks up against other countries in this Washington Post Article.
There is almost no help or safety net for single mothers. All mothers are heroes but single mothers, and partners of military spouses, are super heros. We’re still trying to figure out how there are actually enough hours in the day to support a family, care for your family, cook, clean, and nurture a family.
Cost of Childcare
The prices of childcare have skyrocketed. For many dual income families, it actually is more affordable for one partner to leave the workforce and take care of the children and home. Families are lucky if they can defer some of the cost by having friends or family care for the children a few days out of the week.
Maternal Mental Health
There is a shocking lack of focus on maternal mental health right now. The postpartum period is very difficult to navigate. Many new mothers experience postpartum depression, anxiety, or psychosis of some kind and are left to wonder if this is normal? Will this go away? Or do I need treatment? The very idea of seeking help can be terrifying. What will it mean for my family if I need therapy, medication, or something more? We offer a full blog post on this topic and strongly urge new mothers to read through it.
Lactation Training Programs and the Pumping Education Gap
A compounding factor in this debate on formula vs breastfeeding is the breast pump. They’re more readily available than ever before, and more mothers are using them. But lactation training programs in the US have a grand total of a few pages on expression of breast milk. There is a plethora of misinformation around pumps, what is and is not considered healthy or good for a mother. Moms are fumbling their way through postpartum, trying to learn to love their new bodies, and nourish their babies all while receiving little to worse than no support if they receive the wrong information. We discuss this more here.
Getting proper nutrition is not easy for some communities. If you give birth in a food desert, low income communities that do not have affordable access to healthy foods, you are fighting an uphill battle. Not only are you not getting the nutrition that you need to be healthy, but it is increasingly more difficult to get what you need to be able to feed your baby. Vitamins and supplements are expensive and not always an option for all mothers. Pressuring mothers in these underserved communities to breastfeed because it’s “free” can cause extra harm. Breastfeeding most certainly comes with a cost.
We mentioned above that only about 17% of Americans qualify for paid family leave according to current legislation. Government jobs as of 2020 have mandated paid family leave, but are still lagging in other areas. We spoke to one mom who worked from home for a government job during the pandemic and her children were not allowed to be in the home with her while she worked.
For breastfeeding moms, current legislation requires employers to give moms time and space to pump, but it doesn’t require employers to compensate moms for that time. This makes it even more costly and difficult for moms to continue to breastfeed until that one year mark that we’re so pressured to hit.
Insurance companies are not required to cover the cost of a breast pump. While manual pumps are more affordable, the double electric pumps that working moms need to continue breastfeeding can be quite costly.
And lastly, the legislation might require a time and place for pumping, but it goes further to mandate corporate training to address company culture. However many employers are unaware or do not fulfill this legal requirement. This can lead to resentment of pumping mothers by other employees who see their time pumping as time away from work.
The problem is multifaceted with various components compounding one another. The best way to solve any problem however is to pick a place to start, and chip away at the problem bit by bit. In this case, mothers need more support and they need it right from the very start. If we had more time, maybe we would seek out lactation support, maybe we would be able to give breastfeeding one more week. Or maybe we would be able to care for our bodies and mental health adequately. There are loads of benefits that having a paid maternity leave would provide mothers. We can start by urging our representatives to revisit existing legislation, to add in more protections for mothers and draft legislation for paid federal maternity leave.