Pregnant peoples’ bodies and lives are already under siege with the imminent unraveling of Roe v. Wade, making it near impossible for those living in anti-abortion states to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Meanwhile, over the last several years, conservative politicians have made abundantly clear that the self-described “pro-life” ideology used to justify such abortion bans does not apply the second a child is born, at which point the life of that child—and their quality of life—is no longer the government’s problem, but the mother’s alone.
Now, as 40% of the most popular baby formula brands are out of stock, signaling a national formula shortage and sending parents into a panic, Republicans both in office or running for office in the upcoming midterm elections have politicized the healthcare crisis as a failure of the Biden administration.
And while Biden and our inefficient Democratic representatives are sure to shoulder some of the blame, mothers and parents have once again become political pawns, while very real conditions threaten to endanger the lives of their children. After several grueling years of pandemic parenthood in which women wound up responsible for the majority of unexpected childcare, parents say they are now struggling to fulfill the most basic needs of their children. All the while, conservatives continue to spout off just how much they care about American “babies,” and other parents push their “Breast is Best!” agenda on women and birthing people who often physically do not have a choice (including, notably, adoptive mothers). Not helpful!
“It’s so freakin’ discouraging because it’s just one other thing to think about when you’re already juggling a million things as a mom, right?” Sing Weist, a new mother in Ventura, California, told Jezebel in an email. “You’re running on minimal sleep, you have to get diapers, and everything’s so expensive. It’s just really unfortunate that this formula company couldn’t get their shit together because moms are so reliant on this. It’s just another thing to have to stress about when your plate is already overflowing with so much shit that you have to take care of.”
Already strained by pandemic-related supply chain issues over the last two years, according to The New York Times, the baby formula shortage was exacerbated when Abbott Laboratories, one of the biggest formula manufacturers, issued a voluntary recall and closed one of its plants after the FDA began investigating the hospitalizations of five infants, two of which died. In April, the shortage took a turn towards the disastrous, with Target, CVS, and Walgreens among the retailers limiting how much formula parents can purchase at a time. In an interview with Forbes, pediatrics professor at the University of Texas at Austin Dr. Steven Abrams recommended that panicked parents running out of formula ask their pediatrician’s office for “samples” or try “smaller stores that you may not normally stop at.”
Weist luckily was able to find some formula at Costco and has been sending it to one of her friends, whose baby only takes a particular formula. She said her friend’s child has been experiencing adverse reactions, including diarrhea, because her mother no longer has access to her regular formula. Weist herself, who is in the process of weaning her baby off of breastfeeding, says her daughter still isn’t old enough for solid foods, making her entirely reliant on any form of milk. “When I’m not able to provide that, it’s scary to think about,” she says. “Then I’d have to pump more, which is also really stressful, and stress impacts milk production, so it’s just a vicious cycle. You kind of go into panic mode.”
Unfortunately for impacted parents, the government seems woefully inept at handling (if not completely unaware of) this dire issue. “I don’t believe there’s a national stockpile of baby formula,” Psaki told HuffPo during a White House briefing on Monday, adding that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is “working around the clock” to fix the problem, without detailing at all how they were “working” on it. According to The Wall Street Journal, manufacturers are also working to increase output, but HuffPost also noted that only former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D), who is running for Senate in Iowa, has released a semblance of a plan.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) offered no advice on the situation, helpfully, but made time for some finger-wagging, tweeting, “The silence from the Biden administration and FDA is unacceptable as parents across the country are worried about feeding their children.” Elsewhere on the internet, Florida Republican candidate Lavern Spicer said, “What the hell kinda president doesn’t address a NATIONAL BABY FORMULA SHORTAGE on HIS WATCH? The kind that doesn’t want them to be born in the first place I GUESS.” New York GOP Congresswoman Elise Stefanik tweeted that “Joe Biden’s America looks more and more like a third-world country with each passing day,” and Texas congressional candidate Trey Nehls lumped the formula shortage in with other pressing crises like “CRT in our schools,” arguing that “We need an administration that will put families first!” And, of course, transphobic assholes added their voices to the cacophony, suggesting that men should donate some breast milk. Fuck off.
It’s fitting that the same political party that suggested we shouldn’t allow access to abortions because we need an increased “domestic supply of infants” is offering no solutions as to how we should feed all of these infants right now. This is also the same party who are considering banning morning-after pills and IUDS in order to “put families first,” while profiting off a capitalist system that is, in part, why we do not have enough formula in the first place. When formula production is left up to public companies, food scarcity becomes intertwined with capitalism, as opposed to an entirely separate human rights issue.
Annie Greene, a registered nurse and lactation consultant (IBCLC) who works at Georgetown University Hospital as well as in private practice, says that the families she’s seen are “pretty desperate” to take home as many ready-to-feed bottles as they can and that families are more likely to want to breastfeed in the hospital setting due to the uncertainty of formula availability. But Greene isn’t surprised to see the shortage being politicized.
“Feeding babies is always politicized, to be honest. There is such little postpartum support after discharge in general, lactation consultants are few and far between (there’s only about 30K of us globally), and lots of babies need some supplementation even when mostly or eventually exclusively breastfeeding, so it’s never a question of choosing breast or formula to me,” Greene told Jezebel. “What’s scary is the families who are working toward exclusive breastfeeding or combination feeding and do need that supplementation can’t get it and are panicking. The other option is donor milk, which is hard to get without a prescription from a pediatrician and quite expensive.”
Greene also isn’t surprised to hear that other parents are blindly suggesting that parents simply breastfeed more, based on the trans-exclusive “Breast is best” command. But pregnant people often can’t lactate for a number of medical reasons including physical discomfort, lack of weight gain, extended NICU stays, past sexual trauma, or even preference. Greene supplemented her own kid with formula after she went back to work as a nurse because she didn’t have time to pump as much as she needed to, adding that formula can be “truly life saving and necessary” even for breastfeeding families.
Lydia Page, another new mom in the New York area, says the current shortage has struck an obvious nerve amongst an already frantic and judgmental group of parents who insist that breastfeeding is the only way forward. “Breastfeeding isn’t easy and isn’t a viable option for a lot of caregivers. The assumption that someone can simply switch to breastfeeding to deal with the formula shortage is insane, and the way moms are shamed for not breastfeeding—my god! I’m telling you, these people are feral,” Page told Jezebel. “I do think this happening right now as we’re watching Roe and abortion access crumble is so telling—insisting that every pregnancy must be carried to term while we have practically no support for families when the babies arrive.”
Low-income parents, as always, are bearing the brunt of the impact, while conservatives fan anti-trans flames around pregnancy and breastfeeding. But this formula shortage is far more than just a political flashpoint: It’s horrifying proof that widespread support for women and parents is still nearly nonexistent. The reality is that parents and pregnant people, who’ve already been through far too much over the course of the pandemic, are suffering as they do everything in their power to feed their children, while the people elected to represent them squabble amongst themselves. Parenthood has long been minimized as the easy route, but mothering, including breastfeeding, requires dedication, consistency, and creativity: In other words, breastfeeding is labor. And it seems as though no one gives a fuck that the responsibility of this bout of food scarcity is, yet again, becoming women’s problem alone to solve.
Despite what all the Mother’s Day cards might say, parents aren’t superheroes. Like normal people, they need help raising a family, and they don’t seem to be getting help any time soon.