Drop that bottle, ma’am!

"And you call yourself a mother?"

In most places on earth women worry about strangers yelling at them for breastfeeding in public. Here in northern California public nursing is so common that women are sometimes scolded for bottle-feeding their babies.

I take care of a woman I’ll call Wendy who has an endocrine condition that restricts how much breast milk she can produce. It wasn’t enough to fully feed her babies (her three kids are older now), so she had to “top off” each feeding with an ounce or so of formula. It would have been easier just to switch to formula, but Wendy was dedicated to giving her babies as much of her milk as she could.

It wasn’t easy. Whipping out a bottle of formula in certain parts of Sonoma County is tantamount to shooting whales for sport. And people (mainly other women) felt perfectly free to loudly point out Wendy’s failings as a mother.

The first time it happened Wendy was sitting on a park bench, feeding her first baby. When she switched from breast to bottle, an older woman crossed the park to lambaste Wendy for “brain-damaging” her child with formula. When Wendy tried to justify her crime by explaining her condition, the woman just got angrier–she eventually accused Wendy of “crappy, lazy parenting” and child abuse. This sort of thing happened with discouraging regularity.

With her second baby Wendy decided to avoid public feeding altogether, but after a couple of house-bound months with a newborn and a toddler, she decided to chance it. Same response–every so often she’d get an unwelcome earful from a passing stranger.

When her third baby came along Wendy decided to fight fire with, well, passive-aggressiveness: “When someone started in on me, I’d just stare back at them with the blankest open-mouthed stare I could manage,” she says today. “Eventually they’d give up and move on.”

Such is life up here in the redwoods…  I’m not a fan of formula, but I am also not a fan of browbeating new mothers.

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