The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘My husband calls them breast-feeding bullies’

New mother and Post staff writer Emily Wax-Thibodeaux talks about giving her son infant formula. Her fight against breast cancer left her unable to breastfeed. But as Wax-Thibodeaux explains, her choice wasn’t always the popular one. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Women say they are asked if they breast-feed by cabdrivers they never met before. They are asked, by homeless people on the street, if they will have a "natural birth."

Women also wrote in that they were judged for being too small during pregnancy or too big, for eating sushi or for drinking coffee. Some spoke of the "judge-y moms club," just waiting to bust a non-natural birthing, formula feeding, co-sleeping criminal.

When it comes to being pregnant, giving birth and child rearing — "you are crazy to co-sleep with your newborn/you are crazy if you don't co-sleep" — it seems like the personal is both political and public.

Thousands of readers responded through e-mails and social media to the essay I wrote, "Why I don't breast-feed, if you must know."

Much of the reader response seemed to be frustration over the rigidity and aggression of lactation consultants, who are seen as pushing breastfeeding by any means necessary. Maybe that's because they used to be the ones who were mocked as crunchy earth mothers in the 1970s and told they could not breastfeed in public. Their message that breastfeeding was natural was and is important but perhaps they have overdone it lately.

I wrote the story for our health section because as a young breast cancer survivor, I waited nearly seven years and fought really hard — jumping into the emotionally and financially draining IVF process — to have a child, and it was maddening that, during such a happy and triumphant time, I felt I had to explain (to those whom many readers called "the lactation police") about why I didn't breast-feed.

My husband even made a sign and posted it on my hospital door so we could cuddle with Lincoln and avoid the guilt: "Lactation consultants, please see nurses first before knocking on door."

They came anyway.

Many breast cancer survivors wrote in saying they had experienced this first hand, but plenty of other women said the message resonated with them simply because they found it hard to breast-feed, and said they felt they were constantly being judged by what my husband calls the "breast-feeding bullies."

One reader named Colleen wrote that she was shopping for formula in Wegmans, and "some lady came up to me and said, 'I can't believe you'd even consider putting that poison into your child's body.' "

Even at the hospital, Colleen wrote, "the nurses and doctors were not allowed to say "bottle" or "bottle feeding." They were required by hospital rules to refer to a bottle as a "feeding apparatus" or something along those lines. "In other words, I started feeling antagonized about the issue the minute my daughter was born — even by the nurses and doctors taking care of us."

A friend, Michelle Golderberg, author of "The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World" and a political writer for the Nation, wrote to me on Facebook:  "I never had breast cancer, but a horrible pushy lactation consultant — who'd been celebrated in the NYT — reduced me to tears after Zev was born. I've often thought of writing about what a racket the whole lactation consultant business is."

Kim Heller of Safety Harbor, Fla., wrote that breast-feeding is a choice, and that "I'm so sorry your choice was taken away … but thank you for speaking out and making sure that the next time one 'of them' opened their mouths or look down their noses at a bottle feeding, they might stop and think there is a greater reason. This is a pet peeve of mine, it struck a nerve and honestly I have never written to a writer like this, ever."

Another, Tara Blanchard of Bethesda, Md., said: "Nearly 17 years ago, I endured the tsk tsk of doctors and lactation consultants when my first child was born and I used formula. To treat a benign tumor before getting pregnant, I had been taking a medication that suppressed prolactin — necessary in order to make breast milk. Though I had an easy pregnancy and delivery, I just didn't produce any milk. None. Those lactation torturers pumped, squeezed and rounded 2nd base more times than I care to remember. They made me feel like a failure despite giving birth to a gorgeous healthy 8.5 pound baby. They told me to try harder. To this day, I don't know what that even means."

One lactation expert tweeted this apology:

Some fathers also wrote in saying they were relieved when their wives used formula, happy to be able to help their wives with round-the-clock feeding and bond with their babies too.

"As the father of a couple young adults, including a healthy daughter in her late 20's, I am always alert for ways that may make me a better parent.  I know that one day the words you wrote may help me provide the right kind of support. Your touching story was well-written, and one of the best I can recall reading in The Post in a long time," wrote Steven H. Ratti, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard, from Southport, N.C.

One reader, Meryl steigman, of Betheada had this simple advice:

"Women should be less polite and more assertive.  If a 'lactivist' started to harangue me, I'd respond that I'd made my decision and to leave the room immediately or I'd call security. "

Related: Why I don’t breast-feed, if you must know