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Social media has been a judgmental cesspool for parents, until the COVID and formula crises

What can we learn about kindness from these messes?

Ashley Maddox feeds her 5-month-old son, Cole, with formula she bought through a Facebook group of mothers in need May 12, 2022, in Imperial Beach, Calif. "I connected with a gal in my group and she had seven cans of the formula I need that were just sitting in her house that her baby didn't need anymore," she said. "So I drove out, it was about a 20-minute drive and picked it up and paid her. It was a miracle."Gregory Bull/Associated Press

A certain brand of social media is really just aspirational pageantry designed for parental self-validation: Instagram is full of mom-influencers who stage photo shoots (or maybe they really do live in showroom kitchens, who knows) feeding pristinely groomed kids pureed artisanal rhubarb with captions like “Love my messy life!” The true intention, of course, is to make you contemplate your own genuinely messy life and wonder if you have landed on the wrong planet, not to teach you how to up your rhubarb game.

But that’s benign compared with the parenting groups and Twitter cesspools where parents — mothers, typically, let’s face it — are actively critiqued for working while having children (ruthless); dropping out of the workforce to raise children (retro); making their own reproductive decisions (expletives not fit for print); and an array of genuinely inconsequential parenting choices that strident opinionators and amateur parenting gurus exploit to work through their own insecurities: sleep-training methods, potty-training techniques, and the most fraught: feeding.


The prevailing sense seems to be that if you just align yourself with the correct philosophy, then you can hyper-engineer your kids for life and be welcomed, enlightened one, into a tribe of approval. Truly, though, you will not be able to identify a child by their feeding method by the time they’re old enough to eat string cheese in kindergarten. (You might be able to identify the ones with condescending parents, however.)

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Back before my children were capable of feeding themselves, they drank formula. I found myself sputtering up a defense in many social situations and in my writing, too: I’d had breast reduction surgery! I took Lexapro! I was legitimately justified and not just some anti-science sloth! Yes, people actually asked me why I did it and sometimes offered unsolicited opinions. It stung, not because I thought I’d made the wrong decision — I hadn’t — but because women feel so compelled to criticize one another when we’re all just doing the best we can. Most parenting choices aren’t moral ones. But I get it: We all want to feel we’re doing it right, as though we belong, and that drive can manifest badly.


Now the formula shortage and COVID have tested us again: parents banding together with intel on where to find Enfamil; scouring CVS at 2 a.m. to set up vaccine appointments; distributing masks; creating instant networks to share information and hold each other up. If there’s a silver lining in this disaster, it’s that women have come together in ways we can’t let slip away. Fellow Boston writer (and Holliston mom) Deborah Farmer Kris messaged me that it’s “the eons-old capacity [of] mothers to take care of each other’s children when society conspires against them.” It has shown the best of group-think; the ultimate in virtual momentum.

Two women stand out to me. One is Keiko Zoll in Swampscott. She created freeformulaexchange.com essentially overnight for families to donate or ask for formula through a free account. So far, she’s received more than 3,000 requests. She launched the site after listening to an NPR story about the shortage while driving home. She started sobbing in her driveway.

“I was so overcome. I was a preemie mom nine years ago. My son was born 6.5 weeks early; we supplemented with formula, then went exclusively. It was a hard decision but in his best interest. He had gastro issues and needed a specialty formula. What if I were that mom now?” she said.


When I asked about her motivation, she didn’t hesitate: “We are the greatest country in the world with a national formula crisis. There will be babies who will die because they can’t be fed. It is unconscionable to me that we as a nation are allowing this to happen,” she told me.

And there’s Suleika Soto in the South End, a parent organizer with the Boston Education Justice Alliance and a cofounder of Families for COVID Safety (FamCOSa), which represents families in public schools throughout Boston. These volunteers banded together last fall to advocate for increased pool testing, high-quality masks, remote schooling when appropriate, tents for outdoor lunches, and other protections particularly for vulnerable populations.

“We’re looking for equity in COVID protections,” Soto said. Her group has met with the Boston Public Health Commission, advisers to Mayor Michelle Wu, and other important stakeholders. They’ve hosted rallies, sent letters, met with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and organized without fear.

“My mission is to lift our voices and get our students what they deserve: a safe school environment, better resources, more resources,” Soto said. So far, she’s seen some successes.

“BPS did announce they are providing tents for any school that requests it and has space to do it. That has been a win for us. Keeping the mask mandate was a win for us,” she said.


Those are just two examples. There’s also Olivia Adams, who whipped up the MA Covid Vaccines finder while on maternity leave to help families snag appointments when they were so scarce last year. There’s Arianne Dellovo, who launched Formula Fairies of Greater Boston Area and Southern NH to match busy working families with formula. There are town-wide Facebook parenting groups throughout the state where people are offering to buy formula or posting photos of shelves where it’s stocked. People are swapping info and mobilizing with a common goal: to support parents just like them because this stuff has leveled us.

And then there are the anonymous voices of supportive strangers. Last week, a mom on Twitter posted a plea: “If you have had to give your baby formula and they turned out to be a happy and healthy nugget please comment here. My mom guilt is insane right now.”

The Internet responded in droves with support and photos of functional, thriving bottle-fed kids who — guess what? — look just like any other child.

“My bottle-fed kids are both brilliant, healthy, well-adjusted young adults. Let it go. Formula is fine. Mute the haters,” one mom of now-grown, formula-fed kids responded.

That’s the spirit I hope we extract from all this: Look for the heroes and mute the haters. Whether you believe in baby-led weaning, breast-feeding, bottle-feeding, cloth-diapering, co-sleeping, working while parenting, staying home, fashioning elaborate photo shoots of rare apricots: We’re all in this together, and we do better when we realize it. It’s the best validation of all.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.