It’s Okay to Feel Conflicted About Our Choices
I feel the envy creep in for the first time while I’m at Mommy and Me music class. We’re sitting in a circle, waiting for the teacher to bring out the egg shakers and chatting as our babies wiggle and squirm in our laps. We’re talking about new mom things: How different everything is now, how exhausted we are, how we can’t believe we ever felt busy before. Then one mom shares that she doesn’t know how she’d survive if her in-laws didn’t take the baby every other Friday night through Saturday morning.
As I listen to her talk about her two evenings of rest per month and remember the bottle of formula she often pulls out of her diaper bag when her little one gets hungry, I’m filled with envy for her nights away, and then guilt, because I’m a mom who’s committed to breastfeeding.
I really shouldn’t be questioning my choice just because I’d like to sleep in. I’ve known I wanted to breastfeed since before my first child was conceived. As a public health graduate student, I was struck with how much of an impact breastfeeding could make on a baby's health. And, as a woman who often worked with new mothers, I was always awed by how quickly a baby calmed and the peace that spread across their face when they were brought to the breast. When my son arrived I was, very quickly introduced to all of the ways that breastfeeding could be painful and challenging. From a shallow latch to bleeding nipples, to an admittance at four-days-old to the Children’s Hospital with jaundice, breastfeeding was certainly not as easy and peaceful as I’d thought it would be.
Eventually, nursing became easier and I did start to get those glowy, happy feeding feelings I’d heard so much about. But still, sometimes, despite my hard work and deep joy and serious commitment, I envy moms who formula feed their little ones. I envy their freedom of time and their freedom of movement and I feel frustrated that I’ve made a choice that will so constrain years of my life. I’m 100% committed to breastfeeding. But there are often days I feel really conflicted about the choice I’ve made. While I’m sure there are other breastfeeding mothers that also feel committed yet conflicted, I’ve been hesitant to talk openly about the envy I sometimes feel towards formula feeding moms.
This hesitation comes from the fact that every time I’ve come close to sharing fully, I’ve been met with one of two responses. And neither feel at all satisfying. Typically, if I come close to sharing my feelings with a fellow breastfeeding mom, she immediately launches into all of the reasons that breastfeeding is so important, the bonding and health and the fact that our bodies were made to do this… Things that I already know. And when I come close to sharing my feelings with a mom who formula feeds, she immediately suggests that I simply give formula if I don’t feel like my life is consumed with breastfeeding: something I won’t do.
While these conversations are specific to breastfeeding I’ve experienced them play out for almost every major parenting decision I’ve made. As a working mother, when I’ve shared how much I miss my babies throughout the day, I’ve been quickly told that having a working mom benefits kids in innumerable ways (by other working moms). Or that if I miss my kids I should just quit my job and stay home (by stay-at-home moms). When I’ve shared how exhausted I am by co-sleeping or waking up throughout the night, I’ve been told (by a mom who also doesn’t sleep train) that night waking is normal and expected and that meeting my babies night needs is my job as a mother. Or, (by a mom who has used cry-it-out,) that if I’m so tired of waking up at night I should simply sleep train. As frustrating as it is to hear these responses when I’m not thinking about it, I do it too.
When a mom who’s made the same choice as me notes regret, I affirm just how great a choice it is. And when one who’s made a different choice than me shares disappointment, I suggest she simply make a different choice. I don’t do it out of jealousy, or pride, or cattiness. In fact, until I began to feel frustrated at the lack of empathy I received when I shared my struggles with breastfeeding, I didn’t even notice I did it. I think that I (and other mothers) do it because as moms, we all want what’s best for our kids and, as humans, we all want what’s best for all kids. It’s the overgeneralization- the subconscious belief that “what’s best for my child is best for all” that leads to these sort of responses and leaves mothers feeling frustrated, questioning their choices and wondering if they’re alone.
So, the next time a mom shares disappoint or regret about a parenting choice, whether it’s the choice to breastfeed or formula feed, co-sleep or sleep train, stay at home or work, I know what I plan to say. I’ll tell that mom (and myself, at the same time,) that parenting is really hard and that she is doing the very best she can. I’ll tell her that there’s no one right choice for all babies and often, frustratingly, no perfect choice for any baby. With every choice she makes there will be benefits and drawbacks, parts she loves and parts she doesn’t care for. She’ll wonder, probably for a long time, whether she’s making the right choice and, even on the days she feels most confident, there might be a little voice in the back of her mind questioning, wondering, and envying those who’ve done something differently. And, I’ll tell her, that’s okay.
Motherhood calls for us to make choices, it doesn’t call for us to make choices and then to be 100% sure they were the right ones or love every single minute and every single outcome of those choices. As parents, we really are doing the best we can. I think it’s time we start recognizing that it’s okay to feel conflicted about our choices, and commit to giving support that helps each other feel comfortable with uncertainty, okay with envy, and alright with not being 100% sure.