Feelings about formula: Why guilt can be a positive thing
Here’s a little discipline secret that would disgust most pediatric psychologists: guilt is a highly effective parenting tool. 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 why we are made to feel guilty about formula feeding: it's a highly effective tool. Advertising executives know this. Politicians know this. Advocacy groups know this. It's time we did, too.
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 two years looking at all the studies, research, politics, commentary, internet chatter, etc. My stance is that breastfeeding is a personal choice, one that needs to be carefully weighed and balanced, looking clearly at risks and benefits. Like any other important parenting choice. 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, on occasion. Or, you'll feel guilty because you hated nursing, and turned to formula right away. Or because you never even tried to breastfeed. 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… 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.
Suzanne Barston is the author of Bottled Up: How the Way We Feed Babies Has Come to Define Motherhood, and Why It Shouldn’t (University of California Press, October 2012). She blogs at www.fearlessformulafeeder.com.