What is this thing we refer to as “formula feeding guilt”? Is the very fact that we feel it evidence that we should feel guilty, as some believe? Is it true that no one can “make” us feel guilty, and that if we think we have something to feel guilty for, we probably do?
I don’t think guilt is a controllable emotion. Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish; guilt is built into our genetic code, and even if you believe more in nurture than nature, the Jewish mother stereotype is spot-on (and as my husband and I were just discussing, sometimes dads can be just as effective in inducing this potent emotion – my father-in-law is a guilt zen master). Guilt is something I feel comfortable with; it’s an old friend, at this point in my life, and a highly effective tool that I am already using to discipline my kids. Who needs time-outs when a simple “do you want to make mommy sad?” can get the job done?
Seriously, it works. And you should try it, if simply for the sake of experiment, because that is the crux of my argument on formula feeding guilt: it’s a highly effective tool. Advertising executives know this. Politicians know this. Advocacy groups know this. It’s time we did, too.
This might sound odd, coming from someone who despises the shame-inflicting nature of parenting literature, but I think it’s okay to feel guilty about your parenting decisions. It means you care. It means you know enough to realize what society expects from you, and what you expect from yourself. It means you are lucky enough to have options, to have been given the luxury of making a decision.
Now, when it comes to formula feeding, things get a tad more complicated. Ask me if I think anyone has a reason to feel guilty for using formula, and the answer will be a resounding no. And I can say that with a clear conscience, because I have spent four years looking at all the studies, research, politics, and commentary. My stance is that breastfeeding is a personal choice, like any other. No more, no less.
But just because there’s no good reason for you to feel guilty, does not mean that you won’t. You will feel guilty because you want the best for your child, and everything we are told is that breastfeeding is the superior choice. You’ll feel guilty because you wanted to breastfeed, and you feel like you failed. You’ll feel guilty because you’ll read something three months down the line about someone even worse off than you who “persevered” and is still happily nursing her two year old. You’ll feel guilty because you’ll read articles that portray you as a victim of the system, someone who fell prey to the “booby traps”, and you’ll hate yourself for being so naive and weak, because every other mom around you is nursing, and the booby traps didn’t catch them, so why you? You’ll feel guilty because you imagined yourself as a breastfeeding mom, and here you are with your bottles and expensive powdered food that apparently, as of 2010, can sometimes be spiked with bugs. Good, good times.
Or, you’ll feel guilty because you hated nursing, and turned to formula right away. Or because you never even tried. You’ll feel guilty because you hate your body so much, hate how large and out of control you felt through the nine months of pregnancy, and can’t handle the thought of not having that control back at the soonest point possible. You’ll feel guilty because someone hurt you, badly, many years ago, and now the thought of feeding someone from your breast makes you want to scream… and you already feel guilty about being abused, despite years of trying to work past it, so the guilt just builds, and builds. You’ll feel guilty because you’re putting your own needs before your infant’s.
If you are formula feeding, there’s a good chance that at some point, you will feel guilty. Because guilt is closely related to self- doubt, and self-doubt is part of being a parent. Of being a good parent. Self-doubt means you are flexible, that you are a thinker, that you question your decisions. It means you are not dogmatic, that you have empathy, that you are human. It means you are educated and responsible, because you have listened and read and absorbed enough to realize what the “right” choice supposedly is.
So… back to the original question: how do you get over the guilt you feel about formula feeding?
Don’t even try. Rather, you claim that guilt as a badge of honor. You taste it; roll it around on your tongue, and spit out the bitter parts. Suck out the kernel of truth that’s hiding in there, the truth that negates all the hyperbole that reduces mothering to a pair of mammary glands and an over-simplified vision of what it means to love and nurture a child.
Do your research. Read studies. Talk to parents who have breastfed, and those that have formula fed, and hear what they have to say about their kids. Seek out others who have had similar experiences so that you know you are not alone. But don’t do these things to erase your guilt. Do them to seek the truth. Do them so you can viscerally, intellectually, and emotionally feel secure with the path you’ve chosen/been forced to walk down. Trust me, if you do this, you will feel better. The truth is comforting.
By consciously trying to “get rid” of the guilt, you are telling yourself that you have something legitimate to feel guilty about. You don’t. At the same time, you have a right to feel whatever you feel about your experience, and it’s tough to shut out those ominous voices when you are already riddled with regret and anxiety. The last thing you need is to feel guilty about feeling guilty. Even my grandmother, the Grand Pooba of Jewish Guilt, may she rest in peace, would agree with me on that one.
Originally printed on FearlessFormulaFeeder.com, November, 2010.