19 year old Jane Foley was pregnant with her first child despite being on birth control at the time of conception. She was unaware that the antibiotics she was prescribed made her birth control ineffective.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially for younger women. I bought my birth control through the health department, and they never mentioned anything about what can make it ineffective,” Foley said. “I went to urgent care for strep throat. They also didn’t mention that when you’re on antibiotics, birth control is ineffective.”
Alexssandra De La Peña is a senior at Clarke Central High School. In February of 2022, she gave birth to her son Giovanni. De La Peña has decided to finish high school and graduate early to support her son.
“His dad is working full time with school to make sure we can provide everything for him. I had to switch my whole plan with school and graduate early so that I can go straight into working and also be able to provide for him,” De La Peña said.
Though pregnancy is a natural part of life, there are many misconceptions about motherhood in society that can create harmful stigmas.
Difficulties and pressures during pregnancy
While some believe pregnancy to be joyous and filled with heartfelt moments and excitement, many moms spend these 40 weeks nervous, uncomfortable, and overwhelmed by outside opinions.
Throughout the final weeks of her pregnancy, Foley found her patience diminished as strangers continued to strike up a conversation, inflicting their own opinions due solely to the fact that she was expecting. Since being interviewed Foley has given birth to her daughter Nova.
“People tend to not ask for consent when you are pregnant. They will come up to me and start touching my stomach in the grocery store. I walk around now with a different cadence about me, I just want everyone to leave me alone,” Foley said. “I dread going out in public these days. Every single trip there’s something that happens with a complete stranger and that’s really tiresome.”
De La Peña has found that throughout her situation, the most important thing has been surrounding herself with people who support her.
“At first I felt like, ‘There’s no way I am going to be able to do this,’ but it really depends on the support you have, regardless of your situation,” De La Peña said. “I was just nervous. I had to go online my second semester of junior year because I was about to give birth. I was managing having a baby and school and it was stressful, but my teachers were very lenient and helpful.”
Parental and maternity leave benefits
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, longer paid maternity leave results in healthier mothers and babies, decreasing infant mortality rates and even increasing later test scores. United States labor laws require up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, however, these conditions only apply to women working for a company consisting of over 50 employees. As of 2021, Only 26 percent of state and local government workers receive paid leave benefits according to The US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of the 50 states, only 12 offer publicly funded paid maternity leave and of these 12, only three require it.
Deah Wise, mother of two, is 25 weeks pregnant with her third child. She works as a seamstress at State the Label, a women’s clothing store in Athens, but she made the decision to quit her job and stay home with her children once her baby arrives because of the excessive financial expenses for childcare.
“I work for a small business and they were really trying to put together a maternity package but before they were able to do that I already made the decision that this was going to be best for our family. It’s more expensive to have a newborn in daycare, so we prefer that one of us is at home when they’re young,” Wise said.
Fears and new adjustments that come with motherhood
Clinical lactation consultant, certified labor doula and co-owner of local business Athens Born Birth Services Kate DeWolf often sees pregnant women having fears that their opinions will not be heard during childbirth.
“As a doula I see pregnant people feeling worried that their bodily autonomy is not going to be respected. With the health care issues right now regarding restricting women’s access to abortion healthcare, I have a lot of clients who are worried about that,” DeWolf said. “They’re worried about what happens if they become pregnant and end up with complications if they’ll have access to all the procedures that they need.”
With the hormonal, physical, and psychological changes women experience throughout pregnancy and childbirth, it is no surprise that they are greeted with varied emotions. Postpartum Depression (PPD), commonly referred to as “Baby Blues,” is depression experienced by a mother after giving birth. According to the CDC, 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression, though numbers may vary by age, race, and state.
After contracting an infection following her son’s birth, Wise recalls feeling mild symptoms of PPD.
“I definitely had symptoms especially around being hospitalized and having to be away from my son when he was a newborn. That was super hard. I think everyone has some mild form. It isn’t possible to not have some kind of mental setbacks, just because of the lack of sleep, physical challenges, and recovery,” Wise said.
Stigmas that arrive with breastfeeding vs formula feeding
One decision expecting mothers must make is whether they will breastfeed or formula-feed their baby. Many nutritional benefits come with breastfeeding. Breast milk is filled with antibodies that can help babies develop strong immune systems that protect them from illnesses, according to the CDC. Breastfeeding also tends to be cheaper on average compared to the cost of bottles, water, and formula that formula feeding requires. Due to these benefits, 75 percent of mothers start out breastfeeding their babies.
Foley plans to breastfeed her daughter, but she understands that many complications can take place that could prevent breastfeeding.
“I want to breastfeed, however, I am very aware that things don’t always go as planned and sometimes there are complications. Every mother wants to decide for themselves, but knowing that isn’t always an option is stressful,” Foley said. “I am learning that as long as your baby is fed, that’s what matters. Also, for me, it’s honestly about financial stress. As long as it goes well, breastfeeding is a lot more affordable than formula feeding.”
While Wise intended to breastfeed her previous children, she experienced different complications both times that hindered her ability to do so. She remains hopeful that she will be able to breastfeed with her current pregnancy but understands the complications that can arise firsthand.
“I always start out trying to breastfeed. I had different problems with my first two. My daughter may have had a tongue tie; she didn’t eat well. So, we had to supplement with formula. I wasn’t able to produce enough milk because she wasn’t demanding enough. We eventually just switched over to formula full time,” Wise said.
Though breastfeeding is often described as “natural,” it is a lengthy process for both the mother and baby to learn. Babies sometimes have difficulties latching and mothers are not always educated on methods to increase milk production. Some hospitals have lactation consultants who specialize in helping women breastfeed but others do not. If there is no access to a lactation specialist at the hospital, women can end up paying $150-350 an hour to meet with a consultant. Some insurance plans will cover the visit of a lactation consultant, however, it is best to call and ask your specific provider.
“At first, it’s a bumpy road. Breastfeeding is not easy at all and it takes so much for women to produce just an ounce of milk. When I first left the hospital, I was not producing enough milk,” De La Pana said. “I had to change my diet completely just to produce enough. We had to go get formula while I was trying to get my milk production back up.”
DeWolf feels the cultural impact on breastfeeding makes it much more difficult for new mothers to learn.
“The word that we see associated with breastfeeding a lot is natural, and I think the tricky part is in our culture, we use that term to be synonymous with easy, and that really sets parents up with unrealistic expectations,” DeWolf said. “It’s actually a learned skill that is taught culturally, and we are not a breastfeeding culture. People don’t grow up seeing that everywhere so they don’t learn.”
Only 40 percent of women breastfeed for as long as they intend to. Factors leading to this consist of issues with latching, concern about nutrition, changes in medication, unsupportive work policies, lack of support from friends and family, and embarrassment to do so in public spaces.
Cultural expectations for mothers to breastfeed their babies can often make formula-feeding mothers feel a sense of guilt. Wise felt ashamed when she was unable to breastfeed her son because of her medical condition.
“In an effort to educate people about the benefits of breastfeeding, there is this shame monster created. You feel like you have to explain why you’re getting a bottle out in public versus breastfeeding. I think the pendulum just swings both ways, there are stigmas with both,” Wise said. “For me, part of it was letting go of expectations. I felt like a failure like, ‘Why can’t I do something that seems so easy and natural for so many women?’”
DeWolf feels that whether women choose to breastfeed or formula feed, they are going to be judged regardless.
“I often feel like we’ve set women up for failure and then make them feel bad about not being able to achieve it (breastfeeding). A lot of times, it gets painted as though women are shaming each other, but I think it’s just more that on a systemic level they are not set up for success. I wish that we were focusing our energy more on systemic overhaul, rather than people’s individual day-to-day choices,” DeWolf said.
While mothers can feel judged for formula feeding, it also may feel like there is never a right spot to breastfeed their babies in public.
“There are people out there who fetishize you feeding your child, or are offended about it and say that it’s indecent or that you’re drawing attention to yourself when in reality, women don’t want to have themselves exposed. It’s just that their kid is hungry and they need to eat,” Foley said.
De La Peña feels that as long as a mother is making the effort to feed her child, the opinions of others do not matter.
“Nobody’s asking us to cover up while we’re eating, nobody’s judging us while we’re eating, the baby’s doing the same thing. It’s very unnecessary to judge a mom for breastfeeding in public because we’re not going to hide ourselves while eating,” De La Peña said.
Struggles that have erupted from the baby formula shortage
Multiple causes led to what is now a national baby formula shortage. At the beginning of 2022, Abbott infant formula was recalled after two babies allegedly died from consuming it. During quarantine, many families stockpiled baby formula out of fear that they would run out, leading to a drastic decrease in the amount of formula produced by many companies, alongside the formula underproduction. An increase in pregnancies during the pandemic led to increased demand that companies were not prepared to meet. Almost all of the baby formula in the United States is domestically produced, and under President Donald Trump, the United States-Canada-Mexico Agreement was enacted, making it increasingly more difficult to import baby formula from Mexico and Canada.
Despite the shortage beginning to ease, parents continue to struggle in finding formula in local grocery stores.
Wise is worried that with her past complications with breastfeeding, she will be unable to breastfeed her baby as well as find formula to feed him.
“With my son, I got a horrible infection that put me in the hospital for a week when he was five weeks old, and that led me to quit breastfeeding early on. I was pretty certain that if I ever had kids again, I would just do straight formula, but with the shortage, we circled back to the idea of breastfeeding,” Wise said. “I’m really hoping breastfeeding is a great success this time around because the formula shortage is really scary. There are so many different formulas out there and once you find the one that works for your baby, I can’t imagine having to hunt that down or use something else.”
The belief that formula food is “unhealthy” or “harmful” for babies is inaccurate. Though breast milk has many nutritional benefits for infants, baby formula is still a beneficial alternative, and can even aid some supplements that breastfeeding cannot. An article titled “Breast Milk vs Formula: How Do They Compare?”, shows the differences in nutrition between formula and breast milk, it concludes that the nutritional value of formula is similar to breast milk.
Despite studies showcasing the misinformation spread about formula versus breast milk, many people still tend to judge mothers for formula-feeding their children.
“There’s still information out there that is inaccurate. People will say, ‘Formula babies, they won’t sleep as long’ or ‘They don’t get the right nutrients.’ The judgment is very unnecessary and nobody should feel bad for formula feeding. Nobody should feel bad about taking care of their child, anyway that you’re taking care of your baby should be your decision,” Foley said.
Despite outside opinions and judgment regarding parenting, raising a child takes time and new moms are there to learn what works best for them along the way.
“There’s no rulebook on how to be a mom. You’re not going to be the perfect mom in two days or a week, it all just takes time. And being how young I was, I just tried to remember to take time for myself and not listen to what other people had to say. You know your baby and that’s it,” De La Peña said.