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Confessions of a Contrarian Mother

Soon after this photo was taken, my husband lost his job and we had to move. The pretty room I had decorated before Caitlin was born disappeared in a flash. Many future changes dwarfed whether I fed her formula. Life as a parent is more challenging than that.

A few days ago, I stumbled across a satirical blog, ostensibly written by a young man who had overcome his mother’s poor parenting and, against all odds, had been admitted to medical school.  The mother’s unthinkable mistake? She fed him formula instead of breast milk.

I should explain, perhaps, for readers who are not Americans that (1) breast-feeding is trumpeted mercilessly as the gold standard of good mothering, a rhetorical stream that is clearly aimed to marginalize working mothers, who have a hard time maintaining the practice, and (2) having a child go to medical school is the gold standard of achievement in the my-kid-is-better-than-your-kid sweepstakes that parenting often becomes.

I laughed myself silly over this cheeky little article and I highly recommend it to anyone who has ever been the victim of the guilt-mongering perfectionism with which society plagues new mothers. And, OK I admit it, I allowed myself a self-hug of smugness because, yes, I fed my kids formula and, yes, one of them started medical school just last week.

Right from the beginning, I just was not made to be your picture postcard mother.  Even my parents were shocked when I announced I was having a child.  I was working at a big advertising agency on the West Coast in the US.  The agency awarded me their first ever maternity leave.  (Yes, it was that long ago, but, no, it wasn’t that long ago.) I had three months after the birth to figure out everything from childcare to breast-feeding, then return to a very demanding job.

Caitlin's baby announcement picture. My mother and I made the cards ourselves. I also made nearly every costume for both of my children--Halloween, Christmas pageant, school play--for the next twenty years. I did not grow my own vegetables.

San Francisco was a hotbed for Earth Mother ideology, in which you were supposed to give birth at home with no one but woodland creatures to assist you and, after you weaned the baby off the breast (at about age 15),  you were to feed the child pureed vegetables you grew yourself.

After 24 hours of labor without benefit of anaethesia, I gave birth to a 20 inch, 10 pound infant.  My breast milk did not come in fast enough for such a big baby. A week in, Caitlin was chronically hungry.  The doctors heartlessly told me the milk would eventually come in and until then, she would just have to cry.  If I supplemented with formula, they said, the breast milk would never appear.  All the conventional wisdom at the time (paid for by La Leche League, no doubt) claimed that if you didn’t breast feed, your baby wouldn’t “bond” with you. And from there the child would be on a slippery slope into the state penitentiary.

I was terrified that Caitlin wouldn’t love me, fearful of being seen as a bad mother, but haunted by the sound of my daughter crying from hunger. I kept thinking about mothers all over the world who couldn’t feed their babies and had no choice but to sit there, powerless, hearing their cries. But I did have the means and it seemed perverse just to allow this suffering.

I have never understood parents who won't feed their child commercial baby food, but are happy to put them on the back of a bike with nothing but a little helmet to protect them. This was the only time I allowed Caitlin to ride this way. It made me crazy with fear. In 2006, she was hit by a bus while riding her own bike. Miraculously, she survived.

So, finally, I dragged my still-bloated and bruised post-partum body up to the corner store and bought formula. Back home, Caitlin gobbled it down and we were both relieved.  After that, I supplemented the breast milk (which did come in, thank you very much) with the formula as needed.  When my three months were up, she made a smooth transition to the bottle (by that time, she had her first tooth, anyway, and I wasn’t going there). She grew into a big, healthy, smart baby.  There has never been any doubt that she loves me and I love her–we are solidly “bonded” and always have been.

But my troubles were not over.  There was the diarrhea that I was afraid would kill her.  The doctor said to ride it out.  I listened to my mother and mother-in-law, who said to feed her rice and bananas.  It worked.  When she was eight months old, she ran a high fever and seemed suddenly listless. The doctor said to watch her over the weekend.  I threw a fit and insisted on bringing her in. She had meningitis.

Caitlin during her "My So-Called Life" period. Her hair, faded in this picture, had been dyed Coca-Cola red. During their teens, neither of my children had hair color that occurs in nature. Letting them do it also made me a bad mother.

Now, I am not saying not to listen to your doctor. But I am saying to use some judgment.  Medical knowledge is a precious thing, but it is also subject to ridiculous swings of trend.  Right now, some babycare advice is directly contrary to the expert wisdom at the time Caitlin was born. I am sure it will flip-flop again by the time she is a grandmother. Otherwise, they couldn’t sell any more books.

The road from formula to medical school was very long and very rough.  Parenthood is so much more challenging than all these little obsessions over early childhood events suggest.  Since you can’t see what’s coming, it is hard to have a sense of proportion.  But think of it:  how important was the formula question in light of the meningitis less than a year later?  Similarly, how big of a deal was it, really, that my parents had fed her enchilada sauce at 6 months (which I thought might be the end of the world) when her father and I divorced three years later?

Sappy as this sounds, Caitlin's wedding was one of the happiest days of my life. I was staggered by the cost, but proud that I could pay for almost the whole thing myself--something I could not have done had I not worked all this time. Maybe it made up for the formula.

I am sure I was there when she took her first steps and said her first words.  That’s because the first steps and the first words–and all those other “firsts”–don’t happen as discrete events, but evolve bit by bit.  So everyone who wants to be, is “there” for it. Nobody ever tells you that–instead, they guilt working mothers into thinking they are going to scar their child by missing something important. A dark truth:  Caitlin doesn’t remember whether I was there for her first steps.  A darker one:  I don’t remember them, either. Too much water under the bridge for both of us.

I showed up at every school event and teacher appointment, regardless of what was going on at work. But I did many, many things that were not “by the book.”  And some folks would say I paid for it by having kids who were a lot of trouble as teens.  (Others might say, though, that I was paying for the bad karma of my own youth.)

Here she is today. Her husband and I shared the cost of the stethoscope around her neck and we had it engraved with her name. The blonde hair is recent. I admit that it still makes me a little nervous every time she changes it.

In fact, all those early childhood events pale in comparison to what I was called upon to deal with when they were teens and young adults. And many of those later moments demanded my having confidence in my own judgment and–sorry to tell you this–having my own money. I have not only paid for orthodontists, but for lawyers and psychiatrists.  I have bailed them out of jail and replaced all-black wardrobes.  I have footed the bill for graduate school and a wedding. I have replaced glasses and saved teeth. Even now, I occasionally smooth over household disasters by writing a well-timed check. And I am on 24 hour standby for pep talks as they face the hardest challenge of their lives: becoming economically autonomous.  It’s not easy being a young adult in the early 21st century. They still need me. And I am proud to still be here.

In the long run, being a mother is not reducible to breast milk and Christmas pageant costumes.  Being loving is the most important thing. But being strong and resourceful is important, too.  If I could speak to every young mother out there now, I would tell them not to sweat the small stuff, but to focus on building a life that can bear up under the pressure of being responsible for another person. If anything makes being a parent worth it, it’s that you come out on the other end stronger for having tried it.


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