What the U.S. Formula Shortage Taught Me About Empathy
This week I’m shifting gears and sharing a story. Occasionally, I write personal essays rather than giving creativity advice or notes on contemplative practice. So if you’re a new Spirit reader, don’t worry, there’ll still be future posts about creative and spiritual practices. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy reading.
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When my son, Stanley, was four days old, he wouldn’t stop crying. He stopped wailing, briefly, when nursing. He latched well and sucked vigorously until he dropped off to sleep, and a few minutes later, he’d begin howling again. His walnut-sized fists balled up so fiercely, it looked like he’d throw a punch, if only he had the limb coordination. It took my addled, sleep-deprived brain longer to figure out what was wrong that it should have: Stanley was hangry.
When the story of the U.S. formula shortage first broke, I had flashbacks to that day when Stanley was starving. It wasn’t hard to imagine mothers trying to comfort hungry infants and worrying about formula. The knee-jerk response, “Just breastfeed,” enraged me. These hurtful comments reveal a lack of basic understanding about biology, not to mention that there are dozens of legitimate reasons why a women cannot or chooses not to breastfeed. Breastfeeding is a privilege afforded by women who don’t work hourly-wage jobs that prohibit pumping ever few hours, by women who aren’t on medications that can pass through breastmilk, and who happen have babies that wonderfully agree to nursing as well. (To name just a few reasons why breastfeeding just isn’t feasible for some women and babies, and it’s not anyone else’s business anyway as to why a woman does not breast feed.) Now with the formula shortage, the pressure to breastfeed is even greater, while in the U.S. breastfeeding remains something of an elitist cult reeking of privilege.
I didn’t want to admit that nursing was not going well. I’d attended La Leche League meetings while I was still pregnant. We sat in a circle on folding chairs. Women whipped out their boobs to nurse newborns that reminded me of baby chicks, to suckle six-month olds with Michelin-man fat rolls, and to nurse toddlers who talked and climbed on their mamas like monkeys. The women shared their triumphant stories.
“I’m producing so much milk, it’s like a sprinkler system!” Everyone laughed.
I’d planned to breast fed exclusively because I’d been indoctrinated by the Breast is Best campaign. At one meeting, there was a newcomer who looked like Brittany Spears (before the head shaving). Brittany was younger than most of us. Her baby was 6 weeks old, but she couldn’t get him to latch well, so she’d started giving him a bottle, and now he was even less interested in the breast.
“Are you pumping every time you give a bottle?” the leader asked.
“No. I mean. I try. But…” Tears welled up in Brittany’s eyes.
The air sucked out of the room. We were stunned at such an obvious blunder. Boobs worked on-demand. She’d ruined her supply. The co-leader whisked Brittany and her baby away to the corner of the room to see if she could improve their feeding techniques, but it seemed like pointed ostracization. I never saw her again after that meeting.
When it dawned on me that Stanley was crying because he was hungry, I called the La Letche hotline.
“Has he had a poop yet?” she asked.
I told her no. So far, he’d only passed tarry meconium.
“He should have had a poop by now. You said he’s latching and sucking well?”
I confirmed yes. She didn’t suggest I supplement with formula, but reiterated the same advice she’d given Brittany: pump or you’ll ruin your supply. I tried to interject that I didn’t think I even had a supply to ruin. In the past 6 hours, I’d nursed him every minute that he’d been awake. My baby was starving and exhausting himself on breasts that were dry.
I hung up frustrated. Then I asked my husband to mix up some formula from the sample the hospital had given us along with a bunch of coupons. I felt like a failure feeding my son something “unnatural,” instead of breastmilk. And yet, I couldn’t handle his shrieking. How he cried until he was red faced. How those fists tensed.
He guzzled down the formula, burped, and passed out asleep. His hands unclenched for the first time in days. Sweet relief. I’d finally sated his hunger. (And a few hours after that, he had a good poop too.)
Later tests would reveal that my body wasn’t producing enough prolactin, the key hormone that regulates milk production, but there was no known cause or cure for prolactin deficiency. It was humbling. It made me feel vulnerable in a way I hadn’t before.
That’s what the formula shortage is about: vulnerability. Corporate and government systems are failing women and infants with no safety nets, and then blaming women for their inability to breastfeed. “In the U.S., just four companies control about 90% of the market,” explains Scott Horsley for NPR. Concentrating production like this is immensely profitable but dangerous. When Abbott Nutrition’s Michigan factory went down after a bacteria outbreak, with it went a big chunk of the formula production. Add to that an already fragile supply chain from wonky pandemic supply and demand, and a previous ban on imported formula, it’s a disaster.
Women I’ve talked to shake their heads: “How did we let this happen?” they ask, shocked that in the second richest country in the world, we’re struggling to keep our babies fed. It’s hard not to feel powerless when huge companies and our government value profit margins over the lives of the vulnerable. Instead of falling into despair, though, I want to remember my own vulnerabilities so that I can help others who are vulnerable, too. This is the gift of empathy, to imagine another’s vulnerability and act on it. I think of the Facebook chain one mother of a newborn I know used to harness a network of people helping her find the formula she needs. I think about how I can cultivate compassion and not disdain. If I hadn’t known the difficulty of feeding an infant, I, too, would easily judge. If I had a do-over, I’d have walked over to Brittany and said, “You’re doing great. I can tell you’re a good mom. A fed baby is the best.”