What makes a good mom?

Plagued with regret about formula feeding, Kristin realizes love and patience are more important than breastmilk in the quest to be a better parent.

Photo: Kristin Auger

The dawn light slides sideways through the skyscrapers surrounding Central Park and the air smells like garbage, urine, and promise: New York City in August. There are tattooed runners in front of me and cyclists zooming heads-down on the other side of the path and all I can focus on is my left breast. It hurts. Well, they both do, but the left one is tense with tight skin and larger even than the right: My veins are popping out of it and it’s rock hard under my sports bra.

I’m running next to a woman I just met 10 minutes earlier, one of the five thousand bloggers at the conference I’m attending.

“I’m brutally engorged,” I overshare to her, because I suddenly need someone to know my body is missing my baby. He’s at home, thousands of kilometres away from me, likely asleep but maybe not, but my body doesn’t know that. “I thought I’d be OK but I’m not.”

“It happens to me all the time when I have to go away for work,” she says reassuring. “Express some out in the shower, the hot water helps. You just need to get a little bit out and you’ll feel so much better.”

At the hotel I try to take her advice. A few drops of wasted breastmilk swirl down the drain, and then a few more, and my left breast subsides into a mildly deflated basketball. I’d been slowly weaning my six-month-old for three weeks previous, trying to get us both ready for my five-day work trip. I thought he was ready. And I thought I was, too. But now I’m not so sure.

***
At the Duane Read pharmacy I fill my cart with miniature hairspray, cherry LaraBars, and a $60 hand breast pump that I already own at home. I’d made the decision to wean my 6-month-old son from the breast before I left for New York for a few reasons: It would be logistically awful to cart an electronic breast pump across the country and my baby seemed to prefer bottles. He had gained weight and was happier since I’d started supplementing breastmilk with formula a month before. I’d completed the six months of breastfeeding I initially aimed to do.

In fact I had considered six months of breastfeeding a bit of an accomplishment considering I was back at work two months postpartum. So as I stand in the florescent line up at the grocery store, I’m not certain why I’m suddenly consumed with guilt and fear that I’ve made the wrong choice. Perhaps I should try to keep up my supply while away; maybe my baby really does still need me. Formula companies are the devil, according to the Internet. Maybe I’m doing it wrong.

I sneak back to my room three or four times a day for the rest of the conference. I sit on the bed and watch the Olympics and marvel at both the athleticism on display and the insane tendency of Americans to be disappointed with a second place finish. I fill up a bottle and dump it in the sink. I  text my husband too often to ask him about my seven-year-old and the baby. I feel so very tangibly far away.

There are so many facets of guilt associated with new motherhood. Even when we are focused entirely on our children, even when we are certain we are doing our absolute best, we still experience deep pangs of guilt. We must be SuperMom and SuperCareerist and SuperWife at all times, so much of the media tells us so.

There are so many voices chiming in on how we should lead our lives as Mom: by the breast, as a stay-at-home mom, totally selflessly. My breasts throb, reminding me of a need so much more intense than any need I might possess myself.

***
One of the highlight components of the conference I’m at is the Voices of the Year reception, which highlights the most provocative and hilarious and wrenching and compelling blog posts of the previous year. It is my favourite part of the event, so I try to catch as much of it as possible, and this year I sit down by myself at a table in the back of the room just as the Fearless Formula Feeder stood up to talk about why breastfeeding advocates who use fear as a tool are doing it totally wrong. It’s an incredibly affirming, positive and brave post, and I can feel tears prick behind my eyelids during her speech. 

I’ve publicly stood by my decisions to take time for myself every day to exercise. I’ve been firmly committed to my full-time career. I planned all along to switch over to formula and solid vegetables and fruits at six months. But I think I’ve been holding back guilt about all these things. Maybe that feeling stems from a well-meaning friend who said it’s “sad” that I have to work when my baby is so young. Or maybe it’s that article I read depicting exercising moms as selfish. Perhaps it’s all the various Internet fights that never go away, moms telling other moms that they’re doing it all wrong.

But Fearless Formula Feeder’s words allow me to release that cloud of guilt (at least for the moment). As my baby’s mother, I know what’s best for both of us. So I will love him and believe in all my choices, because in the end, that’s the best thing I can do for him.

***
A few weeks after I get home from my work conference, someone sends me a link to an article on Psychology Today. The basis of the article is that good parenting is not about how much breastmilk he gets, or how much time his mother spends away from the gym and in his physical presence. It’s about love, affection, stress management and good relationships. All of this is common sense, of course, but it helps to see it laid out by scientific research in black and white. As I read, I feel the rest of the guilt weight-lifting. It’s OK that I am feeding my baby formula, it is OK that I work and exercise. The fact that this is even up for debate only serves to illustrate how lucky my kids are: If the worst things about me as a mother are that I am an Over-Exercising Formula Feeder — well, that’s OK with me. And it should be OK with you, too. This mothering thing is all up to you: your instincts and your best are almost always going to be more than good enough.