Mothers make hundreds of choices every day on behalf of their babies. They want to do everything right so they read parenting articles and talk to their doctors. They pester experienced mothers, the embattled soldiers who have come before them. Then, in the moments of quiet contemplation, they must choose what feels right.
More than anything else, it seems, motherhood causes women to question themselves. Even the most confident and secure women feel like they have to justify their choices when it involves their children.
I chose not to breast-feed for reasons as personal as any parent’s decision on circumcision, crying it out or co-sleeping. I’m not here to debate the health benefits of breast over bottle; those are proven. But line a bunch of 8-year-olds up next to each other, and you wouldn’t be able to tell which ones were fed formula. To my knowledge, no college asks whether an applicant was breast-fed during the admission process.
Most pro-formula articles are written in a particular tone. They assume a woman’s work schedule is incompatible with pumping, the baby can’t nurse effectively, or that the mother is not able to breast-feed. Then they list all of the reasons formula is absolutely acceptable. Generally, people who identify with the “Fed Is Best” movement acknowledge breast-feeding doesn’t always work for everyone.
Rarely does anyone contemplate a woman who didn’t try to breast-feed at all, one who doesn’t have a “good enough” reason for her choice.
My decision should have been simple: I didn’t want to breast-feed. But it came with tremendous burden, as I tried to come to terms with the feeling that I was flawed before I’d even become a mother. Breast-feeding, as natural and biologically ingrained as it is for so many, did not feel remotely natural to me.
The thoughts made me anxious, and as I neared my daughter’s birth, I felt like I was forcing myself to participate in a club in which I didn’t want to belong. I wanted to look forward to feeding my baby — to snuggle in and stroke her face and bond with her while she ate. To me, this was not congruent with my growing uneasiness about breast-feeding. Yet, my decision brought shame, much of it from a sense that I was somehow failing my child.
The pressure on mothers to breast-feed is real, and that puts a lot of unnecessary stress on those who choose to strictly formula feed. One study even found women who attempt to breast-feed and dislike it were 42 percent more likely to experience postpartum depression after two months. I wonder why we are doing this to new mothers when the pressure may be causing them real harm?
Part of the judgment is indicative of the larger role of “mother” in general, and the belief that if you do not put your children before yourself in every single way you are somehow defective. But there has to be a balance so women can get what they need as well, not at the expense of their child, but in order for that child to thrive. This cannot be accomplished when women give so much of themselves that they look in the mirror one day and realize they have nothing left to share.
I worried about the consequences of my decision constantly. Not for my child’s health — I had multiple conversations with my doctor and felt comfortable with the formula I’d chosen. But I would work myself up over an article I read or a snarky comment from someone I barely knew telling me I “had to” breast-feed, and start second-guessing all the research I had done.
I would think “How do I know if I’m not comfortable if I haven’t tried it?” The answer, for me, was the level of anxiety I felt every time I thought about breast-feeding. I concluded that I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself. I gave myself permission to believe that “I don’t want to” was a good enough reason. Period.
Over 13 years and three children, I’ve learned that choosing not to breast-feed does not define me as a mother, and it does not make me a selfish person. There have been a million choices I have made on behalf of my children, participating in things big and small that I did not always want to do, because I am a parent, and that’s what parents do. There have also been choices I have made just for me because I am a person, too.
How a woman chooses to feed her child is her decision (and yes, I recognize I was in a financial position to use formula, and that is not an option for every mother). My choice to formula-feed did not invalidate anyone else’s decision to breast-feed. My choice did not affect their life, or their child’s life or, more importantly, my child’s life.
Choice is a beautiful thing.
Julie Scagell is a freelance writer and mom based in Minnesota. Find her on Twitter @74AMB.
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