On letting go of guilt

Look to your right. See that little “ask me anything” box? That links you to a site called Formspring, which is pretty rad in the sense that you can literally ask me anything, completely anonymously, and I will answer you. Sometimes it takes me a few weeks to actually remember to check the darn site, but eventually, I will get around to it.

The cool aspect of this feature for me is that often, the questions people ask me on Formspring become fodder for future posts, and in these dog days of late-late-late pregnancy, I just don’t have the mental fortitude to come up with my own creative ideas. The other day, someone inquired if I had any tips on getting over the guilt of formula feeding, and I was shocked to realize that I’d never actually written a post specifically about this. And dammit, it’s high time I did.

Ironically, this issue has been on my mind quite a bit lately, as I work my ever-expanding ass off on my book, which deals with all the emotions surrounding our feeding experience; and as I sit here, 37 weeks pregnant, still ambivalent/confused/conflicted/undecided about how to feed Fearless Child #2. 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 Jack Newman and numerous others 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?

If it’s not obvious from this blog, 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 FC. 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 me, but 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 hells-to-the-no. And I can say that with a clear conscience, because I have spent two years looking at all the studies, research, politics, commentary, internet chatter, etc. 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 which apparently can now 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?

You don’t.

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.

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.

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22 thoughts on “On letting go of guilt

  1. You have absolutely NO IDEA how much I needed to read this. I thought I was 'over' the guilt of having to formula feed (even though, I have recently found out that I have a legitimate reason for my lack of milk production), and the last couple of weeks I've been plagued with thoughts of 'I'm not good enough because I wasn't able to breastfeed' and 'my son is going to be mentally unequipped because I wasn't able to breastfeed'.

    Thank you.

  2. I got a chuckle at the Jewish guilt part because I always joke that I have Catholic guilt. My dad's side of the family is Catholic, I'm not, but I swear it's in my genes.

    This is a beautiful piece of writing, thank you for this.

  3. Wonderful post! While I've always said I didn't and don't feel guilty about formula feeding, sometimes I feel guilty about not feeling guilty, you know? (Jewish here, my Dad is the master of the guilt trip)

    Also, though I don't plan to have any more children, sometimes I think about how things would be different with another baby (a singleton vs. twins), and I imagine I would breastfeed. Then I see my friend who just had a baby successfully breastfeeding…but getting no sleep and I immediately switch my imaginary baby to formula because it's just easier and I feel a twinge of guilt about that.

    While I totally agree that guilt is an uncontrollable emotion, I try very hard to NOT feel guilty over things I have no control over. Though sometimes it happens anyway.

    But infant feeding choice aside, I really DON'T feel guilty about my parenting choices. My husband and I are enjoying being parents in general and our children are very happy kids. But, it bothers me that mothers are told they need to feel guilty, because it proves they are good mothers. I don't think it's healthy for mothers to walk around in a cloud of crushing guilt just because she (pick something…maybe she went back to work, or maybe she fed the children chicken nuggets 3 times in one week, etc).

  4. Great post. My mother always said that becoming a mother comes with a boatload of guilt and she is right. I did feel a lot of guilt when I weaned my son at 4 months. However, it was the best thing for him because my supply had crashed and he was refusing to nurse. So what was I supposed to do, let him starve? Seeing him thrive and start gaining weight and stop crying got rid of the guilt real fast. I tried my best, and I have to feed him something… I feel there is no point in feeling guilty for doing what's best for my child. If I hadn't tried, or push through the initial latching hurdle, then I would probably feel differently.

  5. Breastfeeding guilt, something I loathe and something I think I have moved past thanks to the magic of time and perspective.

    I had extreme guilt and did so much to try and pacify it. I tried to explain my situation and faced so much skepticism from people who wouldn't dare stray from their belief system that only 1 in 10k or so, or no woman couldn't breastfeed.

    I compulsively read about breastfeeding in hopes that “next time” I would do it right or try so hard that if it didn't work like the first time, I would somewhat be redeemed from only being able to partially provide my daughter with breast milk for her feedings and stopping just after 3 months. I would feed myself to the herd by telling some advocates that I didn't not breastfeed to keep my boobs perky or because I wanted party: I tried to quash formula feeding stereotypes. Hypoplastic breasts was a rare thing according to some. I would see a few posters 'talk' one side of their mouth show sympathy and out the other side of their mouth spew hate towards their sister, cousin or friend who stopped due to low supply. I also repeatedly saw posts informing me or other women who were wearing similar shoes to me that we had choice in our guilt. All the while putting down mothers who didn't, thus essentially marketing the guilt.

    Something happened though, When my daughter was 18 months I fell into a deep depression which I finally sought help for a few months later. One that to this day, I am still not fully out of. I started therapy and talked about my experience (side note, bfing was a morsel of what lead me to therapy, but not the only thing). Another thing happened, my daughter was getting bigger and was very healthy. She was happy (admittedly she had a slight speech delay, but she's caught up and them some), energetic and rarely sick. At the age of almost 4 and a half, she's bright, extremely curious, athletic, learning French at a rapid pace and is a joy. Yes she was barely breastfed, but she was and is doing great.

    Don't worry, even with breastfeeding not working out I still doted and parented her. And that's another thing, the infant feeding was such a small part of her life that it really now feels like it doesn't matter (that said, it's still very hard being in the thick of it). That I did my best in a sucky situation and did whatever else I needed to do to keep the baby healthy and me sane was and is the most important thing!

    I would love to say the guilt is gone and destroyed, however I the decision hasn't been made about hypothetical baby #2 yet. The one thing though I hope will take me through is to have confidence in my choices and know that whatever choices and decisions I make are out of love and reality and not out of ignorance or parental apathy.

  6. I would agree that time and perspective are key in moving past this particular guilt. When you are still in the baby making/infant stages, and your friends are right there with you, it's difficult to see beyond infant feeding. Now that my 2 are well past the infant feeding stage I now see that so many more things help determine their well-being and development(many of them we don't have control over either.) So, I wouldn't say that you don't get over that guilt. You do. It just takes time and a perspective that you may not have right now.

  7. Oh, did I need this today. And, if we have a second child, I very well may need it again. I'm so grateful I can finally start transitioning him to whole milk – no more powder to carry around, no more funny looks.

    Until, of course, we start up with the looks of, “Isn't he too *old* to use a bottle???”

    It's always something.

  8. Thank you so, so much for your blog! I discovered it because someone linked it in another blog post, and while I'm currently formula and breastfeeding, the guilt over the formula just eats away at me sometimes.

    I'm currently on the mini-pill (because I just don't fully trust solely breastfeeding as a birth control option), and I'm pretty sure it's affecting my milk production. So I bought some fenugreek tablets and I'm taking those daily, but I'm still only able to pump one or maybe two bottles a day in addition to trying to feed my son at his other feeding times, and at least 1-2 times a day he gets a full formula bottle instead of breastmilk.

    It's so much work trying to keep my supply up in between feedings that I've thought of giving up completely a hundred times or more, but the guilt always gets to me and I feel like I can't. My husband and family are supportive of me either way (which is great), and just want me to be happy so I can take better care of our son.

    Thank you again for writing your blog – it's going to be my new favorite resource.

  9. @Ashley,

    Thanks so much for joining the party. 😉 I hope we can help and support you through your journey… I know the push/pull of trying to decide how to feed your baby all too well, and I'm so sorry you are going through it. As for the mini-pill, I have heard that birth control pills can disrupt supply, although the mini pill supposedly counteracts that… but you know, every woman is different and it absolutely could be having that effect on you. Hang in there, momma. Whatever you decide, it's gonna be okay. I promise. 🙂

  10. A few words about birth control and breastfeeding: one birth control method that was great for me during breastfeeding was the Mirena IUD (I still have it in). I did take the pill for a month when my daughter was eight months old. I didn't notice any effect on my milk supply, but at that time my daughter was being fed cereals and fruits so I wasn't exclusively breastfeeding anyway. But I decided that the IUD was better because unlike the pill a.) it didn't bring my period back, and b.) I didn't have to remember to take it every day.

    About breastfeeding as birth control, it's probably better than nothing, but on the other hand… my maternal grandmother breastfed and had four kids in four years, my mother and one of my uncles being exactly one year and one day apart in age.


  11. Something I did to help with the guilt:

    I went to a local playground and watched the kids playing. I tried to pick out the forumla-fed kids vs. the breastfed kids.

    I went home feeling better.

  12. Someone linked me to this blog, and I am so grateful to them for doing it, but more grateful to you for posting it.

    You are the first person I have come across, who has made any link to the issue of sexual abuse and problems breast-feeding, without me having to take the plunge and raise the subject first.

    I am crying incredibly cathartic tears, simply because I now feel that someone, out there in the ether, understands. Thank you. Thank you.

  13. i feel the same as Lynne about the sexual abuse issue. i absolutely cant stand the thought of breastfeeding after the things that happened to me. i told a dr once it would make me feel dirty like i was molesting my child, so therefore it was not the best option for me and my child. he said its natural though. he totally missed the point. this is the first i have ever heard of anyone commenting on sexual abuse effecting someones choice to formula feed other than in my own head. no one really understands so i quit explaining it. someone told me once, it was the way God intended for women to feed their children. He must have chosen a different path for me and invented formula. i still get to bond and feed my babies, without formula i would have to have another woman feed them and miss out on that precious, precious time.

  14. I think that the various Midwifes that visited me were so determined that I should breastfeed (and not pump and bottle feed) that they couldn't see past any options other than breast or bottle (formula) No one ever suggested anything to get round the vicious circle of painful/bleeding nipple and my baby needing another feed. Now (3months on) I can see that I could have pumped and bottlefed – and probably have managed to give breastmilk for alot longer than the two weeks I did. Even suggesting combination feeding would have helped. As it was, she got far less breast milk then she might have done, had someone been more open to other options.
    I hate the fact that each midwife's advice was so hell bent on bf.

    Also can I just say that the delightful 'health warnings' that ff boxes have on them is a nice reminder everytime I feed my baby, that I'm doing the wrong thing. Which is helpful now I have no breastmilk available – as I obviously can do nothing about it anymore.

    Also when I was pregnant I was determined to bf, that when I did want to switch to ff, and went on the various ff websites, I was faced with pages and pages of info on how bf is best and “by the way there is a thing called formula, which should only be used a last resort, when you've totally failed at bf” – Yes thanks for that, I am indeed completely pathetic and not fit to be a mum.

    Yes I know the encouragement to bf is good, but not at the expense of mums that would like some info on what actually goes into the ff that I'm about to give to my baby girl. I went on the websites and was faced with a barrage of info on bf not the ff I was asking about.

    On top of that of course, the ff is labelled 'breastmilk sustitute' – Yes not the real thing, just in case for one minute you thought you were feeding your baby the good stuff – you are indeed feeding it second rate rubbish. You are made to feel with all this info on bf being shoved down your throat that your poisoning your baby.

    I don't think ill get over it until I stop having to be faced with 'substitute' rubbish that evidently they can sell to you, but can't tell you anything about, while you pour it down your sweet baby's throat.

    I detest the way ff is demonised by people, and even the brands themselves arent allowed (by law) to do anything but encourage you to bf. Tell me what other industry encourages it main 'competitor' if you will?

    I love this article. First straight bit of thinking about the issue. A welcome relief in this overwhelming see of info on the old interweb.

    Thank you again, and sorry for the ramble.

  15. I'll admit it: I'm a BF counsellor, and I do believe that babies are born expecting to breastfeed, and that formula can't touch breastmilk nutritionally (they've not even discovered half the composition of BM yet because they can't identify or replicate it). With that said, I would never scorn a mother for formula feeding, and accept that it IS a legitimate choice. My role is to help mothers who come to me, and want to breastfeed. I applaud your comment “don't do these things to erase your guilt. Do them to seek the truth.” Many mothers do things differently 2nd or 3rd time around, because of following their feelings. But it's not right to bully mothers if they've made an informed decision – it serves no purpose other than to make them angry and blame people like me for their guilt!! (I would help a mother to wean her baby or mixed feed if it was what she wanted, but I would make sure it was an informed choice – or she'd feel grief later.) Yes – it's OK to embrace guilt if you've chosen not to breastfeed – we can't control our hormones, so it's a more harmonious ride if we don't fight them. However, I believe that in most cases of 'failed' breastfeeding it's actually GRIEF that mothers are feeling more than anything (It's been shown in cases of PPD that when a woman doesn't breastfeed, her body thinks the baby has died and goes into mourning), and any guilt should be reserved for the 'professionals' who let her down by not pointing her to skilled help to overcome her breastfeeding difficulties.

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