05/11/2012 06:02 pm ET

Breastfeeding is a Choice, Let's Treat it that Way

Enough already.

It is high time to declare an end to the breastfeeding dictatorship that is drowning women in guilt and worry just when they most need support: after the birth of a child.

Breastfeeding has gone from being an ideal option for new mothers to a mandatory prerequisite for "good" parenthood. Women who do not breast feed, for whatever reason -- all of them personal -- now must confess it in whispers to their friends. They don't dare admit it out loud for fear of risking the disapproval of their peers and colleagues. Why their peers and colleagues feel entitled to ask about such a personal choice is, of course, quite another question.

It is strange. Somehow we have reached a point where the same women who speak angrily of the "war on women" when it comes to family planning don't hesitate to criticize women who choose not to breastfeed. Individual decisions must give way to what others decide is a greater good? That feels like an awfully slippery slope.

Just after I had a baby a little more than a year ago, complete strangers would ask me about how I was finding the art of nursing. I admit I was taken aback. Why did I need to answer that question? And when did private decisions become a public curiosity?

A dear friend of mine who recently had a baby told me of feeling "manhandled" by nurses who came in just after she gave birth and left her feeling awful for the fact that she was struggling to nurse. She is working hard to breastfeed, but told me that "even when it's well meaning, the pressure against formula is huge." And she is hardly the only one. Another new mom told me recently in sheepish tones that she "knows breastfeeding is good," but she finds it nearly impossible and is ashamed that she is considering choosing a bottle and formula for her baby.

Enough. We can help women to make informed choices and assist them with breastfeeding if they can and choose to. After that, it is time to step aside and stop judging.

But today, women weighing in on other women's most intimate decisions is the norm. It seems that even women who are "pro-choice" on nearly every issue imaginable find their tolerance ends when it comes to choices they don't endorse. Or, as it now seems, many open-minded women are open-minded only until other women make a decision with which they don't agree.

The latest example of nursing intolerance is a Mother's Day piece in the New York Times arguing that hospitals should not give free formula samples to women. Despite the fact that "for many women in the United States, where paid maternity leave and workplace support for pumping are rare, and where breast-feeding in public is stigmatized, formula is the easier choice," the author says, sample packs of infant formula, what she calls "maternity swag," is "a gift that does more harm than good."

Who is she to decide? Who are any of us?

No one argues with the many benefits of breastfeeding for those women who choose it. That is not at all the point. And I quite agree with the author that supporting women to make the most informed choices possible is the goal. Women who choose to breastfeed should get as much education and support as possible.

But the question is, why should women who can easily afford formula stop other women who can't from receiving a few free samples that may be a help at a time when families count every dollar that goes out the door? Women should make informed choices, but if they decide against breastfeeding, why should they not save $20 by taking home a tin? This is not about the formula industry. This is about women's right to choose what is right for them.

And it is high time for all of us to respect that.