Monday, August 23, 2010

On Motherhood, Breastfeeding, and Guilt

I saw this video the other day, and instantly loved it.

And yet, as I was watching it, as much as I immediately wanted to share it across every online space I could, I also kept thinking, "Oh, but this will make some moms feel guilty..."

Ah, guilt.  It goes hand-in-hand with motherhood, it seems.  I'm sure fathers feel guilty as well, but it seems moms are the ones who get hit the hardest with guilt... possibly because it is an unsaid assumption of Truth that however a kid turns out, is a direct reflection of how well his or her mother raised them.  And so not only do you have us newbie moms fretting over whether we're making the right decisions (fairly understandable, given that we have no idea what we're doing most of the time and no way to tell short-term how well it's really working out) but also mothers of full-grown adults who still feel guilt over whatever they did or did not do long ago.  I've often heard both my own mom and my mother-in-law lamenting over their past mistakes (nevermind that all their kids have turned into healthy, happy, well-adjusted, and productive adults).

But while guilt presides heavily over most parenting decisions, for some reason the act of breastfeeding vs formula feeding hits the hardest of all.  It's difficult these days to mention any benefit of breastfeeding without a public outcry of "Stop making moms feel bad!"  Which means that while many of breastfeeding's benefits are well-known, many others are just not talked about, or certainly not to the extent they would be if the benefit came from any other act.

Unfortunately, part of this reaction is the result of a few misguided but very outspoken breastfeeding activists who use shame and ridicule to try to get mothers to breastfeed.  Clearly, this is the wrong way to go.  And for any of the formula-feeding mothers who've had to face this type of activists, I don't blame them for cringing anytime anyone says anything about breastfeeding to them since it triggers all those same feelings from being berated for your choice/outcome.

But we need to figure out some way to get out of this current stalemate.  We can't keep not talking about breastfeeding for fear of angering mothers who didn't/couldn't breastfeed.  We also can't keep harassing moms for the decisions we make.

The latest numbers I've seen are that, in the US, about 70% of mothers start out trying to breastfeed in the hospital, but only about 30-40% of moms are still exclusively breastfeeding at 3-6 months.  Something is happening there, and we need to find out what.  My guess is a lot of it is due to poor support for moms who really do want to breastfeed-- support in the hospital, support from friends and family (who themselves may have formula-fed and believe there's no difference or discourage breastfeeding because "boobs are for sex"), support from the public so moms can feel confident to nurse whenever and wherever they need to.  It is for all of these reasons that we need to have open, honest conversations about breastfeeding and why it is so beneficial to both mothers and babies.

I have many friends who have breastfed their babies for 6 months and beyond. I also have several friends who tried to breastfeed, and for whatever reason had to stop.  No one deserves to be ridiculed or shamed for the way they feed their baby.  All mothers deserve understanding and support, whether our babies get breastmilk or formula.  And while this is certainly much easier said than done, I think we mothers need to learn how to feel secure in our decisions and not allow others to make us feel bad about them.

--If you choose to give your baby formula instead of breastfeeding, that's your decision.  I may not agree with it, but then again I don't have. It's your body, your baby, your decision.

--If you tried to breastfeed but had to stop before you wanted to for whatever reason, know that you did what you could and that's all anyone can ever ask of you.  You don't have to answer to anyone else about why things went the way they did, and you don't have to apologize.  If you plan to have more children you can do research to see if the obstacle(s) you faced could be avoided next time.  But ultimately, it's up to you.  Only you can know what your unique situation was.

--If you are a breastfeeding mother who is struggling, know there are so many great resources for you, so many people who will be understanding and try to help you as best as we can.  Find a certified lactation consultant, talk to other breastfeeding moms, use online breastfeeding forums.  Chances are good that you can find a solution and move past whatever roadblock you are facing.

Guilt is only useful when it motivates you to change something that is within your control.   If it's out of your control, let go of the guilt. It is not doing you, nor anyone else, any good.  Breastfeeding or giving your baby formula does not make you a good or bad, worse or better mother.  It makes you a mother who breastfed or gave her baby formula.  Hopefully if we can let go of that guilt, we can then talk about breastmilk versus formula without automatically going on the defensive or turning to attack one another.


  1. Since breast feeding was never an option for me, I let go of the guilt before it even set in. I have not, however, completely let go of the anger I feel towards the few "well-meaning, but misguided women" who berated me when they saw me feeding my babies from a bottle. Even though they did not know me or know why I was bottle-feeding, they felt it their duty to inform me that my "choice" was wrong. I'm just thankful that both babies are too old for it to be an issue any longer!

    But, of course, I did manage to find other areas to feel guilt. Of course!

  2. I think this is such a huge issue and certainly one that needs to be better dealt with on so many levels. I stopped breastfeeding because I was told to give my babe formula by my health visitor due to weight loss (I was new and didn't know better so did as I was told! I would know better now!). After that he refused to feed from me but I expressed for 5 and a half months, I am so proud of the determination that took, but I still feel guilty about it all! Guilt that I couldn't feed him and guilt that I didn't express for longer!
    Guilt and parenting go hand in hand, we will no doubt experience it forever, I can't imagine there is a way to 'fix' the way the breastfeeding issue in particular raises so many anxieties. I always figure mothers will only ever do what they feel is the best thing for their baby, the big problem I see is that there is so much to learn before you have a child and no one specific to teach it to you!

  3. This really is SO true. I work in an office where we've recently had a little baby boom, and I'm the only one breastfeeding (at 9 months). A few tried and didn't continue for various reasons, and a few didn't try. Every day I feel like I have to censor myself because I don't want to imply that I disapprove of how they are feeding their babies. I don't judge them at all for their choices, but I have heard them talking and exchanging misinformation, and if I speak up, I get a very chilly attitude. It's unmistakeable.

    I know that I shouldn't do anything to make those moms feel guilty, and I go out of my way not to, but I shouldn't be treated badly either. I don't think I'm better than them, but some of them treat me like I think that way. If I mention nursing, it's not an attack, and I wish it wouldn't be taken that way.

    So, I've decided that I will simply do my job when I'm there and work to promote BF on a bigger scale outside of the workplace.

    As for guilt, there sure is no shortage of that as a mother....that's for sure.

  4. I've shared this on my blog. I hope that's okay! Let me know if you'd rather I not and I'll take it off. I just LOVE this. It's exactly how I feel. I too have been hesitant to talk about it because of guilt, for I truly respect every parent for doing their best. But I still think we should talk about it so people know how important it is. I think some people decide not to try, or to give up early, because they don't know all the benefits. Anyway thank you for this great post and sharing the video. I'm at if you'd like me to remove my reference to your post.

  5. Wow I wish I read this post 10 months ago. I on the contrary feel that breast feeding is the norm and it made me so guilty that I only breast feed my baby 1 month. I was a breast feed baby and it seemed the right thing to do, but no one told me about the challenges of breast feeding and I was so alone and so hurt on my breast feeding crusade that I did it for only one month, even today on the shower I was thinking with a 10 month old baby that I was very stupid because I used a drug to make the milk stop coming, I hate my gynecologist I haven't been back since the birth of my child. I felt so alone and still feel so guilty and I have the most perfect and healthy baby girl, and every time some one ask me about breast feeding is a slap on the face because women who breast feed answer like ohh I do believe in breast feeding and if I didn't, they don't know how many tears I cried, how after 20 mins on each breast I pumped for 15 min more, how sore my breast where, how painful it was ALL the time. Some times I consider having another child just to make it right, very stupid indeed. The worst part is that I was the happiest mon the day after I quit bf, and my baby a happy child with a full tummy from enough milk, the sad part is that today I blame my failure on the stress I had in that moment, my marriage was ending with a 15 days old baby I don't know maybe I just wasn't made for bf, who nows. Sorry for the long post, such a sensitive subject and what I want to say is thank you for your post and to the moms out there remind them that they are not alone and that motherhood is many thing one of them breast feeding, not the only one nor the most important, motherhood should be guided by love and that way everything will come into place even the mistakes.Love for your self and your baby.

  6. I love this post, have printed it out and hung it on the wall at work. I'm a lactation nurse at a hospital. I never, ever want to make someone feel bad for their choices. I just want to help those who need and want help. At the same time though, I want to share what I know. It's so hard -a very fine line. Anyway, thanks for writing this and supporting breastfeeding. It makes my heart sing to see this type of boobie love!

  7. I nursed both my children for 16 months and the second for 18 months. I did it for so many reasons, but also because I didn't want to deal with washing bottles and having to prepare stuff. I felt so much guilt all over with everything and still do. This is the worst of all habits we inherit from I'm not sure who. It was interesting how some people supported, others thought I was crazy. Then with number 2 it was also interesting to see how opinions changed.

    I have to admit, I felt more guilt because I was ready to stop nursing long before they were. I kept going, but that's where the guilt came in. Finally, I stopped when I couldn't take it anymore. My kids nursed through the night well past 1 year and not getting sleep just killed me. My kids are also very small so I felt guilty that they were not getting enough from me, but I could not bring myself to give them formula. Who knows what was right or wrong, but I'm glad my pediatricians encouraged me to do what I was and reassured me that they were both just petite like both our families. I heard stories of doctors who pushed for rapid weight gain, and I'm so glad we didn't encounter that.
    Thanks for your post. It's reassuring there are others who deal with all this guilt.



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