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Opinion The formula shortage is a crisis for men, too

A worker restocks shelves with baby formula at a store in Provo, Utah, on May 17. (George Frey/Bloomberg)
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The infant formula crisis has opened a frank conversation about how Americans feed their babies. And in a heartening sign, an important group has joined those discussions: Men are speaking candidly about the stresses of finding formula.

As with many aspects of parenting, the formula shortage has often been framed in terms of motherhood, the latest blow to moms battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Women have come forward to shake off their feelings of shame about choosing to use formula or to grapple with the circumstances that meant they could not breastfeed their babies.

But the frank remarks of a number of powerful men offer a reminder that, if they choose to be, fathers can be partners in the effort to keep their infants fed. It’s a welcome counterpoint to the cultural portrayals of dads as clueless and detached — and to even more damaging norms that encourage men to skip on some of the most fulfilling and intimate aspects of raising a child on the grounds that those tasks are women’s work.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was one of the first public officials to offer personal testimony about what the shortage has meant to him. Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten, adopted twins last year. Because breastfeeding isn’t an option for the men, Buttigieg told ABC News last weekend that the two have been “rooting around stores, checking online, getting in touch with relatives in other places where they don’t have the same shortages to see what they can send over.”

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And it’s not only gay dads or Democratic champions of paternity leave who have spoken up about the burden of making sure their babies have enough to eat. Republican men have provided eloquent testimony to the anxiety of searching for formula and the costs of the shortage.

At a May 19 subcommittee hearing on the Food and Drug Administration’s 2023 budget request, Rep. David G. Valadao (R-Calif.) drew on his own experience to push back against the idea that parents are too picky or aren’t flexible enough about what their children eat.

“One of my own children was reliant on a very specific type of formula,” he recalled. “So as a father who has … been in a situation where I had to drive all over town to chase specific formulas — and this was far before any shortage — I can only imagine the stress these parents are experiencing.”

Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.) read a letter from a father whose daughter has a milk allergy. It explained that, in the case of this particular child, a policy change meant to mitigate the overall shortage actually threatens her access to formula that is safe for her to drink. Normally, sole-source contracts with manufacturers limit recipients of government assistance to a few formula choices unless a doctor signs off on the need for an alternative. But to ease the shortage, states have lifted these restrictions on what parents can purchase with their vouchers. As a result, families started buying up other formulas — including hypoallergenic ones — without knowing how badly some families needed them.

“I’ve had to resort to getting formula from out of state and from Canada at times,” the father wrote to Moolenaar. “The shipping costs are a huge burden on my family. And it requires hours of research that I could be spending with my family.”

The men who emerge from these stories are partners, not distant providers who delegate the life-or-death duty of feeding babies to women. And why should they want to offload those responsibilities? There are few things more satisfying than feeding a baby and feeling that little person relax into an attitude of total fulfillment and trust.

Conversely, the fear of letting a child go hungry is one these men know intimately, not only in the abstract. And the work of finding formula that ought to be plentiful isn’t just an annoyance for them or a distraction from their jobs or hobbies; it’s robbing them of time they would rather be bonding with their children.

No single discussion, let alone of a congressional subcommittee, will change gender roles in parenting overnight. Still, it was a relief that the tasks of providing personal anecdotes and generating empathy didn’t fall solely to Rep. Julia Letlow (R-La.), who recalled a time when “I was completely dependent on infant formula to fulfill my children’s nutritional needs.” Unlike Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who in 2018 became the first senator to give birth while in office, Letlow can know for sure that her male colleagues understand what she means when she talks about this part of parenting.

Feeding a baby is a family responsibility; the men who are speaking out about formula have demonstrated that. Maybe once the shortage passes, they can keep speaking up. Other men deserve to know that sharing this part of parenting isn’t just a source of stress, but an opportunity for joy.