I heard warnings about the formula shortage shortly after the mask mandate lifted in my town in North Carolina. My family was thrilled that life appeared to be going back to a semblance of normalcy, that my eight-month-old daughter could finally see people’s faces in public, that I could comfort her at the grocery store with a smile. Our hope was short-lived.
The original formula recall announced by the FDA in February did not include the brand we used for our daughter, which made me assume that we would not be affected. As a first-time mom already concerned about keeping her baby safe during the pandemic, I didn’t need another thing to worry about. I thought that the government would step in before families had to go out of their way to find food. We noticed the large empty spaces on shelves at every store remained optimistic that help would arrive soon. Yet the shelves only grew emptier.
Stores began limiting how much formula each customer could buy. I started receiving frantic texts from friends saying that they had to drive out of town just to find a box of formula. By March, part of my routine became waking up early to check websites and drive to stores, most of which were empty by the time that I arrived. Mom groups online were filled with women asking about homemade recipes and pondering if they could begin breastfeeding. Homemade formula recipes – containing raw cow’s milk, Karo corn syrup, even tea – began to circle the internet. Our pediatrician warned me against these alternatives but nothing was said to address the desperation leading parents to take these measures.
As my anxiety over meeting my daughter’s basic needs grew, I felt guilty about choosing formula to begin with; I never tried to breastfeed because of my psychiatric medications. It didn’t help that so many people online seemed to believe that breastfeeding was an easy answer to the crisis. I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have sacrificed my mental health more to feed my child.
Normally a box of formula lasts us about a week; we were lucky to find even one a week on shelves. I began having panic attacks that the next box would not be found and that we would be forced to use one of the ad hoc recipes online. My psychiatrist increased my medications to help me cope.
My mother-in-law agreed to look for formula while driving from Nebraska to visit us. We relaxed a bit: surely some formula could be found on a 1,200-mile road trip. But we were wrong. There was none. Someone at our church offered us several boxes of expired formula from Germany. I read from many health experts online that the nutrients in formula start to degrade over time and bacteria can develop in formula past its due date – but we didn’t have any other options. Maybe I am just a first-time mom who needs to stop Googling everything, but I was desperate for someone to assure me that I was making the right choices and taking appropriate risks to keep my daughter alive.
The problem with taking formula that your child’s body has never ingested is that there’s always a chance that it won’t be digested well. The expired formula left my daughter constipated and miserable. It’s not a matter of just finding any brand of formula that you can get your hands on. Like many others, my daughter has a sensitive stomach and several types of formula even contributed to her colic dela as a newborn.
I built a network of moms who would look for my type of formula while I looked for theirs. This is how we made it week by week. My gym became a drop-off place where women traded containers. All of this transpired while my news feed was filled with articles demonstrating how little our politicians seem to care about keeping women and children safe, even alive. The shelves of our cupboard remained empty.
My husband called our pediatrician to ask if we could supplement with whole milk, something that we had put off because of the risks of additional digestive problems. In the most severe cases, introducing cow’s milk too early can lead to intestinal bleeding. Our doctor signs instructed us to mix half of the with milk and watch of an upset stomach. I tried to remain calm even though everything we were doing felt like a grand science experiment just to keep our daughter fed. I wanted to trust my doctor, but it is hard for me at this point to trust any authority with my child when our own government figures expected months to take action on the shortage, forcing us to in order to meet our most basic needs.
Fortunately, our daughter was able to tolerate the milk. But even with half the formula, we still struggle to find what we need. I recently had a friend in Boston mail me three boxes that she found 30 minutes outside the city. The support of my community is the only thing that keeps me believing in my daughter’s future. I recognize that it is a luxury to even have a support system to help us get by.
Every day I am counting down until my daughter’s first birthday in July, when she can stop formula – when this crisis for my family will hopefully be over. But even this doesn’t bring much relief because of how many others I know will still be trapped in hopelessness.
Anna Gazmarian‘s memoir about mental health, southern culture, and evangelicalism is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in October 2023