‘This whole notion of someone else making them feel guilty is a nonsense’{0}

Guilt-Free Bottle-Feeding got a great write-up in yesterday’s Fairfax newspapers, under the title, “Navigating guilt in the milky way.”

Mum Kate van Ingen spoke about the six weeks of ‘hell’ she spent trying to breastfeed her now two year old, and how isolated she felt as she turned to formula.  Dr Nicole Highet of COPE, the Centre for Perinatal Excellence, called for more support for mothers, regardless of how we feed our babies.

But for me the standout quote of the whole piece came from Jennifer James, a lactation consultant and counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association.  It perfectly illustrates the condescending attitude of some members of the breastfeeding lobby.

“This whole notion of someone else making [formula-feeding mothers] feel guilty is a nonsense,” she said.  “If you’re a woman who feels very vulnerable, who’s desperately trying to find out how to breastfeed because nothing seems to be working, then any message about breast milk being best for babies and what they need to optimally grow is going to make you feel like a failure.”

And then, the kicker.

“The women who don’t even try, they’re the ones to tend to hit out and try to find someone to blame.”

Ahh, the old reliable passive-aggressive, “it’s not me, it’s you” response.

Lisa Watson from Bottle Babies has written a very eloquent, from the heart response to to Ms James, but I couldn’t let her comments pass without a response of my own.

Blaming formula-feeding women for their own guilt and sadness is one of the most insidious tactics the extremist breastfeeding lobby.  And adding ‘it’s just because they’re not trying hard enough in the first place’ demonstrates perfectly the ivory-tower bullying that makes struggling mums feel so rubbish in the first place.

When everything in our society – from the baby books, to the posters in the GP’s office, to Miranda Kerr’s selfies – tells us that good mothers breastfeed their babies, how can any woman who is struggling to do so feel anything but bad when she fails to achieve this critical marker of motherhood?

I have spoken to women who have had midwives tell them that their baby will never bond properly with them because they weren’t breastfed.  I know of mothers who have lied to health professionals about topping up with formula because they knew they would be lectured and judged.  Don’t tell those women that they’re the ones making themselves feel guilty.

Even when mothers aren’t explicitly being told they’re doing the wrong thing, the language often used about feeding is deliberately designed to hurt.

In a classic essay published in 1996 entitled “Watch Your Language” the world-renowned lactivist Dianne Wiessinger urged other advocates to change they way they speak about breast- and formula-feeding, because using the stick of deficiencies, she argues, is more powerful than the carrot of benefits.

“Are you the best possible parent?” she writes.  “Is your home life ideal? Do you provide optimal meals?  Of course not.  Those are admirable goals, not minimum standards.  Let’s rephrase.  Is your parenting inadequate?  Is your home life subnormal?  Do you provide deficient meals?  Now it hurts.  You may not expect to be far above normal, but you certainly don’t want to be below normal… The truth is, breastfeeding is nothing more than normal.  Artificial feeding, which is neither the same nor superior, is therefore deficient, incomplete and inferior.  Those are difficult words, but they have an appropriate place in our vocabulary.”(1)

So when, in The Age, a breastfeeding advocate says, “any message about breast milk being best for babies and what they need to optimally grow is going to make [formula-feeding mothers] feel like a failure,” the response must naturally be, “Of course it will, because that’s what it was designed to do.

As part of my reading for Guilt-Free Bottle-Feeding I came across some research by Australian psychologists who have observed that guilt about bottle-feeding is so all-pervading has become the ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ response of formula-feeding mothers(2).  In fact, they found that this guilt is serving a psychological purpose – it’s a coping mechanism, a way for us to show that we are still ‘good’ mothers.  It demonstrates our desire to be ‘good’, even though our body hasn’t met the social ideal.

How tragic is that?  That in order for bottle-feeding mothers to feel as though we fit the ‘good’ mould, we must feel guilty.

So don’t tell me that any guilt we feel is brought on by ourselves.  Yes, we can face up to that guilt, take ownership of it, recognise it is unfounded and choose not to feel it.  But when every single message in our society tells us that good mothers breastfeed, and by extension, that bad mothers bottle-feed, don’t blame me for feeling the blame and shame that society puts on me.  That’s how bullies operate.

There are ways to encourage and support breastfeeding without bullying formula-feeding parents.  Fantastic, sensitive breastfeeding advocates manage this day-in, day-out.  Someone should tell Jennifer James.

  1. Wiessinger, D 1996, ‘Watch Your Language’, The Journal of Human Lactation, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 1-4
  2. William, K, Donoghue, N & Kurz, T 2012, ‘’Giving Guilt the Flick’?: An investigation of Mothers’ Talk About Guilt in Relation to Infant Feeding’, Psychology of Women Quarterly, vol. 37, no.1, pp. 97-112