Formula marketing practices are wrong - no need to take sides

Recently, someone I know said something to me about hating formula.

Really? Why?

Formula is an inanimate object. A food. It keeps many babies alive. Including this one:

Yes, my son was formula-fed and it was pretty much our only option for feeding him. I never planned to use formula. We had to buy bottles and formula on the way home from the hospital, in fact. My mother used to share stories of how special she felt her time breastfeeding was and I wanted that too. However, less than a week before Brandon’s birth I was told by a nurse/lactation consultant in my pre-op appointment that having PCOS could mean I’d have problems with low supply.

This is why the “I hate formula” attitude rubs me the wrong way - it feels so superior. I’m tired of the formula feeders versus breast feeders debate. As someone who had no option other than to give my child formula, it’s deeply disturbing to me to see the comments that some women make about moms who feed their children formula and the risks expose their children to for “convenience”. (Sorry, paying $30 a can wasn’t at all convenient!)

For well over a year of Brandon’s life, I didn’t know that there was a boycott of Nestle products that had been (and still is) going on for decades. I only found out when I saw this post go up in September 2009 and watched the flurry of tweets, comments and commentaries. Back then, I didn’t really understand the issue and it prompted a lot of questions - many that had to do with some of the things that were being said by some of the more militant supporters of the boycott - particularly when people like me raised questions. Fortunately, in addition to Annie, there are many cooler heads who will answer questions and concerns with patience.

Even after reading post after post about this issue on Annie’s blog for nearly two years, I still couldn’t bring myself to fully embrace the boycott. Though I used Nestle formula only once - when the grocery store didn’t have our regular brand - I still had the overwhelming feeling that this was a formula feeders versus breast feeders issue and I didn’t want any part of that. It was just too emotional for me, given that breastfeeding wasn’t even an option for me. I didn’t want to feel like an inferior mother.

When Annie wrote this post last fall - Is shame a barrier to social change? - it changed my view completely (and immediately). I knew I needed to read carefully after the first paragraph:

I’ve had a lot of interesting conversations over the past few days about shame, guilt, and social change. Without going into excruciating detail, I heard a lot of people say that calls for formula marketing to be restricted makes formula feeding moms feel shamed because if formula marketing needs to be restricted, then that means that formula is bad, which means that formula feeding moms are doing something wrong.

I can hardly begin to tell you how well I identify with this line of thinking. It’s how I felt for nearly 2 years.

Annie goes on to say:

We live in an imperfect world. We all make choices, on a daily basis, with imperfect information and in imperfect conditions. Every single day, I make choices that I wish I didn’t have to make. Every single day, I try to make better choices. It is a balancing act between progress and reality. No one is perfect. No one should be expected to be perfect. No one needs to feel guilt or shame for being imperfect.

So, here’s the revelation that I had when I read Annie’s post about shame being a barrier:

PhD in Parenting | Why I Protest Nestlé’s Unethical Business PracticesFORMULA isn’t bad. It isn’t the evil culprit it gets made out to be in so many posts that are advocating for better breastfeeding support or boycotts against Nestle for its marketing practices (usually in the comments - that’s where it can get really ugly).

Is formula the best thing to give your child? No - we can all agree on that and set aside the whole “breast is best” argument.

BUT I did what I had to do to keep my son alive, healthy and growing. Just like every other mother out there, I want what’s best for him. I want what’s healthy for him. In our circumstances, that turned out to be food from a can, whether I liked it or not. I felt a lot of guilt and shame for a long time after Brandon’s birth. He’ll be four years old this year and I still have trouble accepting what occurred.

My hope is that more breastfeeding advocates and formula marketing critics will use greater care in how they get the message out about their cause - much like Annie and Amber (and I’m sure many others as well). Hearing that breast milk is best for a child isn’t objectionable. Having the worst-case scenarios (low IQ, obesity, death, etc.) of feeding a child formula is highly objectionable. It also muddies the issues around formula marketing and leads to the question: Is formula bad or are the formula marketing practices unethical?

It has taken me over two years to get past the inner conflict of being a formula feeder to see that boycotting Nestle doesn’t mean I’m condemning my own actions.

Juggling motherhood and another job

There is no doubt that having a child changes your life immeasurably.

There is no doubt that working full- or part-time and being a mom is a juggling act.

There is no doubt that many women are given fewer opportunities in their careers after children.

But is it fair to say that these inequities are always a direct result of societal attitudes around traditional gender roles? Are mothers in the workforce a constant target for discrimination?

This essay by Marina Jimenez in the Globe and Mail on Monday seems to imply these things. While I don’t completely disagree with what the author says, I do have a slightly different perspective on what she’s written - and a few questions, too.

It was always my intention to work after having Brandon, but my priorities changed irrevocably after having a child. Working 40 hours a week was a necessity, but 50? 60? That wasn’t going to happen anymore. Has my career suffered because I had a child? Not in any way that I can definitively prove. I’ve had my suspicions, though. 

Gender Roles

Ms. Jimenez discusses her view of women running the household (the home CEO) and all that entails.

At night, core demands of this enterprise swirl around in my head like yellow post-it notes flapping in the wind: Register three-year-old for introductory soccer by Wednesday. Sign parental consent form for eight-year-old so he can participate in Kiwanis Music Festival. Remember to dress him in dark trousers and white dress shirt. Pack shorts in his knapsack for gym. Buy bagels so children will have something edible for lunchbox. Buy 20 Smencils for class party. Make that 21. One for teacher. Purchase new pair of swimming goggles.

I think most of us can agree that she’s right in her assessment, though I’m sure there are different levels of involvement from certain men. As a child, it was my mother who did these things. In my own home, I do the lion’s share of these types of tasks. The paragraph directly after the quote above starts with this statement:

Men’s brains simply do not work this way. These are not the preoccupations of even the most dedicated father. And while these tasks may appear trivial, without somebody attending to them, a child’s life falls apart.

That’s a bold blanket statement that seems tinged with a bit of resentment, not to mention melodrama. Do I resent that my husband doesn’t help with these tasks more? Absolutely not. My husband is an equal partner in our marriage. The author states that men don’t think the same as women, but I get the feeling that Ms. Jimenez doesn’t like this inherent difference between the sexes. Do men have to change the way they think in addition to contributing more so that we can achieve equality?

Inequality Statistics

Ms. Jimenez then cites statistics of inequalities in the workplace. Statistics that, to me, give incomplete context for the points that she’s making.

A 2010 Toronto-Dominion Bank study concluded that the earnings gap between men and women is tied primarily to motherhood. Women with no children tend to earn the same as men. However, women who take time out to have children have a persistent 3-per-cent penalty for every year of absence

I can get on board with her 100% when you say that a woman in the equivalent position of a man should be paid the same. I don’t understand - in this day and age - how that still happens. Except…this is tied to women who have taken time off to be on maternity leave. I’m going to assume that the equally paid men and women have equivalent education and/or work experience.

Did this study factor in that women on leave are usually not accruing work experience? Did they factor in that performance reviews don’t happen during this span of time? Salary increases are often tied to those performance reviews. It stands to reason that missing annual increases due to being on leave is a possibility and can account for the discrepancy in salaries. Without answers to these questions, I am left skeptical about this point.

Ms. Jimenez’s next set of statistics is around women in professions such as law, medicine and business - all very demanding jobs. Some feel compelled to return to work early from maternity leave for fear of losing status. No woman should feel compelled to go back to work early. It’s unfortunate that this happens. But I feel it’s important to point out that this is a personal choice. If these women want to make change in their profession and make year-long maternity leaves more accepted, ending their maternity leave early isn’t the way to do it. On the other hand, if they feel this is the right thing to do, but wish they could be off longer, that’s another story.

Other women can’t keep up the same work schedule once children come along and get off the “type-A career track”. I’m conflicted about this. I think employers should do more to support employees with families, because it will affect employee loyalty. But sometimes priorities just change. Climbing the ladder becomes less important when your life changes as significantly as it does when a child comes along. Maybe not for everyone, but I see this as largely a personal choice that often boils down to the sacrifice that is easier to make - a rising career at a certain level or raising a child in a certain way. 

Then the author gives an overview of the low percentage of women serving as elected officials and as directors and CEOs in Canada’s largest companies. While these are clearly male-dominated fields, they are also - like lawyers, doctors and business professionals - very demanding positions that may not be a woman’s first choice for their chosen career, particularly as more and more women start their own small businesses out of or close to their home. I wonder why no statistics were presented about that. I’m positive that would be an interesting number to see compared to 10, 20 and 30 years ago. Perhaps more women prefer to start off as the boss rather than work their way up to it after 20 years.

It’s my belief that women with children are always going to feel conflicted about working outside the home. It’s just that hard to leave your child in the first place. This is a natural instinct that mothers have. Even the author acknowledged that her first trip abroad was difficult and prompted her to make changes. Yes, there are challenges for women in the workplace. Yes, we do have some obstacles to overcome still.

Are the greatest obstacles the things described in this essay?

I’m not totally convinced. What do you think?

Decisions that lead to no choices

What can I say to my son on those days when he doesn’t want to leave home? How do I tell him that I have made decisions in my life - decisions long before he was even a thought in my mind - that mean I have no choice other than to leave him every day?

I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. Going to work everyday didn’t bother me when I went back to work after 9 months on maternity leave. Sure, I missed him, but I enjoyed my work and the challenges it gave me and I still do.

But…lately I feel a constant pull in two opposing directions. Since the holidays, when Matt and I were both off for over a week, Brandon has changed. Getting out of the house is a monumental battle at least half the mornings in a good week and all of them in a bad week.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I leave him with a friend. She cares about him and treats him well. I don’t have to leave him with a stranger. When we walk out the door, he is fine. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to go to daycare - he just doesn’t want to leave home. He doesn’t want to leave mommy and daddy.

I hear all the time that women have choices in the world now. We’ve been liberated from our previous generation’s oppressive views. We can stay home with our children and do the work of raising them. Or we can work and “have it all”.

I hate that phrase for the lie that it is. 

I do not have it all. I don’t get to spend those hours with my son. I miss out on an enormous chunk of his life at an age that I will never get back. And I’m starting to feel overwhelming guilt for the choices I made before he was ever born that have led me to this juncture. Hindsight gives me clarity that at several points I could have done things differently. And though it’s possible that an alternate path would have led to the same result, I’m in a place where I can’t help but question my decisions.

Ultimately, I feel like I’ve been failing my son these last few months. While I leave everyday to work in a job that I enjoy, I’m increasingly aware that I leave behind a little boy who seems to grieve when Mommy and Daddy say goodbye. It’s excrutiating.

I want to stay home with him - to give him the time he craves with me. But I can’t. I have to leave.

I have no choice.