Shawn Johnson Got Real About 'Mom Guilt' After Deciding Not to Breastfeed
Since giving birth to her first child, the Olympic gold medalist has had to shift her initial breastfeeding game plan—and learn to stick up for herself and her parenting choices in the process.
If there’s anything Shawn Johnson and her husband Andrew East, have learned in the three months since welcoming their first child into the world, it’s that flexibility is key.
Three days after the new parents brought their daughter Drew, home from the hospital they were overwhelmed with her incessant screams. She wasn’t latching, a move she had mastered at the hospital, and she was using her tiny vocal cords to make sure everyone in the room knew it. “She was like, I don’t want to do this anymore,” Johnson tells Shape.
The couple had been set on breastfeeding, but no matter how many contraptions they tried and consultants they brought in to help, Drew wasn’t having it. Soon after, they called in the necessary reinforcements—a breast pump and a bottle. “I remember pumping for the first time, giving her a bottle, and she was instantly happy,” says Johnson. “You can tell it’s right for her.”
Bottle feeding was working beautifully until, two weeks later, it became clear that Johnson wasn’t producing enough breast milk. On one particularly difficult, tear-filled night, East says he went into full-on dad mode and began researching the best alternatives for breast milk. He landed on Enfamil Enspire, and the couple (who are now spokespeople for the brand) ultimately decided to supplement Johnson’s breastmilk with the formula.
They aren’t the only new parents making this choice, either. Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life, less than half of infants are solely breastfed through the first three months, and that proportion drops to 25 percent at the six-month mark, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, like Johnson, some mothers may opt to supplement or feed only with formula if they aren’t producing enough milk, have certain medical conditions, are going back to work, or have a baby who is sick or born prematurely. (ICYMI, Serena Williams stopped breastfeeding to prepare for Wimbledon.)
For Johnson, straying from the notion that “breast is best” by feeding her daughter both breast milk and formula from a bottle was the right decision, but it still racked her with guilt. “I feel like there’s such a stigma out there that if you’re not breastfeeding, you’re somehow coming up short for your child,” says Johnson. “It’s such a terrible feeling as a mom, feeling like you’re coming up short, and I don’t think like moms should feel like that because they aren’t.”
This pressure to be the “perfect” mom doesn’t fall only on Olympic gold medalists. Half of new moms experience regret, shame, guilt, or anger (largely due to unexpected complications and lack of support), and more than 70 percent feel pressured to do things a certain way, according to a survey of 913 mothers commissioned by TIME. For Johnson, this comes in the form of daily comments from people on social media—or even friends—telling her she could keep trying to breastfeed or asking if she had tried putting Drew back on her breast to see if she’d latch. (Related: This Woman's Heartbreaking Confession About Breastfeeding Is #SoReal)
Even though Johnson and East read the online critiques of their parenting decisions, they’ve learned to adopt a thick skin. They try to remind themselves that they must be on the right path if their daughter is happy, healthy, and fed—not screaming and crying. To East, shifting from their original feeding plan has even made their marriage stronger: By taking on more of the load, he’s able to show Johnson that he’s invested and willing to do whatever he can, he says. Plus, East is now able to have intimate moments and opportunities to bond with his daughter that he otherwise wouldn’t have.
And to the moms who feel pressured to raise their child a certain way or judged for diverging from the status quo, Johnson has just one piece of advice: Stick up for you and your baby. “I think, as parents, you can’t listen to other people," she says. "They're preaching what worked for them, so of course they think it’s right. But you just need to figure out what's right for you. It’s the only way you’ll survive.”