The formula shortage is making me feel like a failing mom. I'm tired of hearing I should 'just breastfeed' when I can't.

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The formula shortage is making me feel like a failing mom. I'm tired of hearing I should 'just breastfeed' when I can't.
Patricia Grisafi
  • I struggled to breastfeed my first child and thought the second time around would be easier.
  • At 5 months old, she was fully formula fed.
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I told myself it would be different this time. My breasts are ready, milk is freely flowing, and my newborn is latching.

Then a month in, she starts to fuss at the breast. Soon, we're both crying. I begin to dread feeding time, I try all sorts of positions, and I express milk prior to nursing. Nothing works.

Soon, I switch to pumping and supplementing with formula so she doesn't starve. I'm determined to make it to six months — the amount of time I was able to provide nourishment to my first child through a combination of pumping and formula.

But by month five, it becomes clear that my body has other ideas. My milk dries up, and I get my period.

I can't believe I'm failing at breastfeeding for the second time.

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My daughter is formula-fed

My daughter is now 7 months old. She's chubby and happy and learning to eat solids. She still needs formula — and normally, this wouldn't be a big deal. But as the shelves at the drug store grow emptier and it becomes a project to locate her specific formula — the one she doesn't spit up — I'm starting to feel more and more like a failure.

A formula shortage like the one we're experiencing in the US is a crisis for infant health, but it's also a crisis for maternal mental health. For mothers who have internalized their inability to breastfeed as a failure — like me — the messages we're receiving are brutal.

As with anything having to do with women's bodies, breastfeeding remains a controversial topic. With a history encompassing everything from class to race, ideas about breastfeeding and breastfeeding practices reflect larger cultural trends relating to women. In the 1980s, when I was born, formula feeding was popular. I was a formula-fed baby, and my mother had absolutely no compunctions about that.

Now, even though the mantra is "fed is best," there are still those who judge mothers who are unable to breastfeed or who don't want to.

People are quick to judge

The formula shortage has only succeeded in heightening this judgmental attitude. On social media, the response to desperate mothers searching for formula is often, "Start breastfeeding" or "Breastfeeding is free." Both of these responses are unhelpful, and they're often incredibly damaging to a struggling mother's self-esteem.

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There are many medical reasons that mothers cannot breastfeed. Some babies have an allergy to their mother's milk, and some have difficulty latching. Some moms can't produce enough to satisfy their babies, and some need to take medication that can be dangerous in breast milk. And as many folks have pointed out, breastfeeding is only free if you don't value a mother's time and labor.

Mothering is hard. It's filled with second-guessing and the gut-crushing feeling that you should always be doing more. When something is out of your control — like access to formula — it can make you feel even guiltier for not being an "ideal" mom who can breezily offer her breast to a baby who will gleefully take it. On my hardest days, I berate myself for failing to breastfeed my son and daughter — even though my son is a healthy, active 4-year-old and my daughter is thriving.

Offering my son formula made feeding time fun again. The same thing happened with my daughter.

"Food's here," I coo at her as I shake the bottle in her face. She smiles, happy, knowing her tummy will be full. And I feel OK — not at peace, but OK.

With the formula shortage, though, I'm struggling again — wondering if there's any way that I can start producing milk; wondering if I even want to try again, given how much stress it caused in the first place; wondering why, as moms, we never feel quite good enough.

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