I remember one afternoon, while on holiday in Singapore, I was breastfeeding my child at a nursing area. A woman and her child then sat on the seat in front of me. I smiled the mommy-solidarity smile, and then looked curiously at the bottle, only because it was of an odd shape. She caught my glance, misinterpreted it, and then said, “yeah, breast is best, right?”. I was startled for a few seconds, not knowing what to say. Finally, I just said, “no, no, I was just looking at your bottle. That’s an Interesting thing inside.” (It turned out to be a vent system against colic). She then smiled, like she didn’t believe me, and we went our separate feeding ways. Then when she was done, as she was packing up and leaving, she glanced at me and said, “For me, fed is best” and then walked out. I didn’t know how to react at that moment, but felt several things: resentment at being lumped into a ‘camp’ I didn’t want to be in, and whose members I actually dislike (the sanctimonious nursing-nazi camp), compassion for moms that feel judged all the time, sadness that there are even camps to begin with.
Few things divide moms as much as the “breast is best” vs the “fed is best” debate. Let me get one thing out of the way: I think there is enough peer-reviewed scientific evidence to demonstrate the superior benefits of breastmilk compared to formula. For this reason, I have chosen to breastfeed my child exclusively for his first year. I also think that the tag “fed is best” is problematic even semantically, because, err, feeding your child is the minimum. Starvation is, I think we will all agree, unacceptable. How can fed be the best and the minimum at the same time? Lastly, there are credible reports of milk companies that use predatory practices to aggressively push formula, and this should not be countenanced.
AT THE SAME TIME, I think something really needs to be said about the self-righteousness of “breast is best” advocates, and how this self-righteousness is really not helping further the breastfeeding agenda. Women are made to feel they are not trying hard enough, and are shamed for considering mixed-feeding or switching to formula altogether. In a breastfeeding group I used to belong to, moms were always told “unli-latch lang yan!” to virtually each and every breastfeeding difficulty reported on. Do they have any clue how hard it is to have a hungry, wailing child at the breast because no milk is coming out? Because I do. Do they know how stressful it is to be pumping like a fiend in the middle of the day, between work meetings, and then getting only 2 oz after thirty minutes of pumping? Because I do.
Yes, I soldiered on. And yes, I successfully exclusively breastfed my child for his first year, but it’s not because I’m some wondermama. it’s also because I’m in a position of privilege. I have a job where I know I won’t get fired for taking long breaks to pump milk. I was given maternity leave in accordance with law. These are things that are not readily available to a female worker working in a factory or fastfood joint on contractual status. Are they any less a wondermama than I am? I think not.
And so this is my alternative formulation for women (like me) who feel caught in the middle of ‘breast is best’ and ‘fed is best’: Trying your best is best. For mommies, let’s try to breastfeed our children, because the evidence of its benefits are incontrovertible. But if it doesn’t work out, we need to tell ourselves that we are not lesser moms for looking for acceptable, medically-sound alternatives. We need not only to forgive ourselves, but to trust that the best we can give is truly the best for our child.
For communities that surround mommies, for families and friends of mommies, the ‘trying your best is best’ framework means that, while we ensure the availability of information and resources to enable breastfeeding, we are not allowed to second-guess women when they say that they try but that it’s not happening. We are allowed to heckle pharmaceutical companies that push formula to moms, but we are not allowed to make mothers feel inadequate for the choices they make. We put the needs of babies as paramount, but we should not ignore the mental health needs of new mothers who are already overwhelmed by this bewildering new frontier called motherhood. Most of all, we need to trust that all mothers want the best for their child and would give an arm and a leg to nourish them in the best way possible.
Because when mothers give their best, they give enough.