Care and Feeding

Can I Lie About Switching From Breast Milk to Formula?

My breastfeeding experience was awful, but people still judge me for stopping!

Baby being fed a bottle.
Photo illustrations by Slate. Photo by muaotphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

After a difficult pandemic pregnancy, my husband and I welcomed an awesome baby girl. She’s beautiful, funny, and overall very sweet and chill baby. She was born by emergency C-section, and I had breastfeeding issues from the start. First low supply necessitating supplementation in the hospital, then her latch was bad, then she was a “lazy feeder,” then I got mastitis and got really sick. She went on a “nursing strike” during the infection and the lactation consultant basically told us she wouldn’t work with us unless we got our daughter’s tongue tie snipped. The pediatrician we scheduled with told us our daughter had no such tongue tie and that sometimes nursing issues like mine were largely unexplained, but that feeding her formula would be fine—better, even, for her than continuing a nursing relationship we were both clearly dreading, one that my daughter had already opted out of entirely.

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The lactation consultant gave us an ultimatum and said unless we were willing to see one of a specific list of doctors who were “educated about tongue ties” then she couldn’t do anything else for us other than refer to occupational therapy, which she said probably wouldn’t work. We’d already seen two other LCs in the hospital, and none of them were any help. Pumping wasn’t working (with my low supply, I would take up to 90 minutes every two hours to pump, feed her whatever I pumped supplemented with formula, clean the pump, and burp her, then 30 minutes for food, shower, and any sleep for me) and generated a skin infection in my already cut-to-shreds nipples. I didn’t want to keep pumping when I knew we likely couldn’t reestablish breastfeeding, as I knew I couldn’t maintain the schedule when I went back to work and her feeds were largely formula anyway. I also didn’t want to go doctor-shopping in a pandemic after my pediatrician, who I really do trust, told us any further procedure was not medically necessary and probably wouldn’t work. At just shy of a month, I finally and tearfully gave up breastfeeding, feeling intense mom guilt at not being able to do something that felt so fundamental to being a mother.

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But … it’s been a sanity-saver in our house! The fog and clouds have lifted. I’m no longer feverish and too sick to care for her properly! I’m bonding with my baby! I’m not fighting with my husband! My husband can help feed her and our parenting distribution is more equitable—which is nice in a pandemic where having any kind of outside help is fraught! She is gaining weight and no longer jaundiced and impossible to calm like she was in the hospital! I am confident in how much food she’s getting and no longer obsessing about her weight loss and gain! We are still tired newborn parents, but this existence feels downright tranquil compared to the feverish sobbing of a week ago.

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That said, the consensus among friends, relatives, and even prospective child care providers is that we are basically feeding her poison out of pure laziness, that I am a terrible mother who chose my own comfort over giving her the best possible start in life, that this wasn’t a wrenching decision borne out of a desperate search for answers that weren’t coming but rather a lark. I’ve heard so many painful comments about this choice, and while I know we tried everything that seemed reasonable, I hate feeling defensive (or worse, tearful) in these conversations. So my question is: Is it OK to lie and say I’m still pumping and feeding her breast milk? No one knows what’s really in her bottle, and it’s a pandemic so we barely see anyone, anyway. Is there a way to make this off limits for discussion without lying? I hate being dishonest, but I feel so raw whenever I talk about it that even setting a boundary often ends in me shame spiraling about this choice that, at this point, is made. A lie seems easier. What to do?

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—Fearful Formula Feeder

Dear Fearful,

Congratulations on putting your well-being, your household’s equitable distribution of parenting, and your daughter’s needs first, and for ignoring naysayers who have no idea what’s right for you or your family. Remember, formula is food, and fed is best!

I hereby give you carte blanche to lie about pumping to preserve your peace of mind, with just one caveat. I don’t think you should lie about this to any prospective caretakers, lest they end up getting hired. Instead, do what you already know is right and set a firm boundary up front that you’re not going to discuss your choice to feed your daughter formula—having that conversation may be uncomfortable right now, but this will serve you well in the long-term, and might even help you hire someone who’s a better fit. For everyone else, from prying in-laws to acquaintances, tell them whatever feels right in the moment. It’s none of their business anyway.

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Slate is looking to interview parents and children together—young parents and older ones, younger kids and adult children—for an upcoming project. To participate, send us an email at pandemicparentproject@slate.com with a few words about your family.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two daughters, 3 and 6. My husband and I work, and we spend the same amount of time at home with our kids. Throughout the years, I have done most of the chores—cooking, cleaning, laundry, bathing, story time, etc. I’m also the disciplinarian: I’m constantly telling my kids they can’t do all the things they want to do (eat candy for breakfast, watch TV/videos for extended periods of time, etc). My husband does most of the fun things. The differences in parenting, among other things, have caused many issues in our relationship which will likely end up in divorce. In the past month or so my 3-year-old has told me things like “I don’t love/like/want you,” “I only love/like/want Daddy.” While my 6-year-old has never said those words, she clearly prefers her dad and rarely shows interest in doing anything with me. I love my kids more than anything in the world, so this is truly heartbreaking and leaves me thinking that I’m failing at parenting and feeling isolated. While I think setting boundaries at a young age will serve them well later, I’m wondering if my kids and I are growing apart because of it. Is this a phase? How does a parent get through this?

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—Heartbroken Mama

Dear Heartbroken,

This is a really frustrating dynamic that your husband has, with your help, created. Unfortunately, you’ll need his help to undo it. You’ve described the end of your relationship as a foregone conclusion, but you still have to learn how to co-parent effectively. Lay out the problem for him in the same terms you’ve used with me: You’re doing the lion’s share of the parenting, which includes the household maintenance and management tasks you describe above. He is a special guest star who’s permissive with them—of course they think they prefer him! But they don’t actually love him more. They just take you for granted, which, unfortunately, means you are doing a great job being the stable, reliable support system all kids need. But you shouldn’t have to do that alone.

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Fixing this will take time, and will be difficult, but it’s worth it. As a first step, if you can take your hands off the wheel temporarily without endangering your kids’ well-being, start by doing just that. Take a break. Get out of there for a long weekend (it doesn’t matter where you go—somewhere safe, not far away). Let him fend for himself in terms of both the chores and the nuts and bolts of parenting, and see whether, in the ensuing chaos, you hear a bit less of “I want Daddy.”

Then, after the dust has settled and you’ve restocked the fridge and cleaned the ketchup off the walls, work on either reestablishing the terms of your relationship or ending it and coming up with an equitable co-parenting arrangement. Either way, you can’t continue this way. Consider “I want Daddy” your wake-up call, not a referendum on your kids’ true feelings.

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• If you missed Sunday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

• Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two wonderful daughters. My youngest (3) is a naturally happy, positive kid. She has incredible empathy and tries to help others feel better or calm down when they are upset (she puts her arm around them and models deep breathing, it’s adorable). She gets upset like any other kid, but is already great at self-regulating her emotions (for 3). My oldest, age 6, is the opposite. She tends toward melancholy, is very sensitive, and cries over everything. She’s often grumpy and sassy, and focuses on the negative (e.g., will say she had a bad day when in reality one bad thing happened, like she stubbed her toe, but she also got to go swimming, watch a fun movie, play dolls with mom, etc.). She does have friends (well, just one right now because of COVID, but when she was in school she had several).

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When I’ve observed her with friends, she is always trying to be the leader, demanding others to do as she says (either in her own voice or in the voice of whatever character she’s pretending to be, like a teacher). If she doesn’t get her way or is forced to take turns making the rules, she acts as though she “never” gets to make the rules. She almost never asks if someone is OK when they are hurt or upset. In fact, if her sister gets hurt, she will suddenly remember a booboo from 3 days ago and start crying too. If she accidentally hurts someone, she starts crying and we have to drag a “sorry, are you OK?” out of her. We do our best to model positive and kind behavior (we volunteer together, speak kindly to each other and about others, and talk her through her feelings). However, I tend to have a hard time knowing where the line is between giving her too much attention vs. invalidating her feelings. I realize that it’s not productive to say “stop crying!” or ignore her completely, but when I say “I see you’re upset, let’s talk about it” every single time she cries over something, she is getting the attention she wants.

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I’ve been focusing on kindness the past few days, and giving her gentle reminders when she says something unkind, or in an unkind manner. I ask her to think before she speaks: Would she want someone to say this to her? Last night she started crying because “mom thinks she is a mean kid” which broke my heart. The last thing I want is for her to develop insecurity about how much I love her. Her friends continue to want to play with her and let her be the leader, and I haven’t seen the negative peer feedback to her demanding behavior that would make her rethink how she treats her friends. I do think that a lot of this is normal behavior, that most 6-year-olds are still pretty self-centered, but I worry sometimes that my child’s selfishness and lack of empathy is something more. My husband thinks that she is too young to benefit from therapy, and that I’m blowing this out of proportion, that she will mature and learn over time with our continued guidance.

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I want my child to learn how to be a good friend and citizen, so that others want to be around her and so that she treats the world with kindness. Of course I wish she was also a happier kid, but I realize that some of that is just built into us. I know plenty of grown-ups who tend towards melancholy, including in our families (genetics). Is this totally normal and I should relax? Or should we get her into therapy or she will be doomed to be a bully?

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—Melancholy Kid’s Mama

Dear M.K.M.,

Surprise: I disagree with your husband. It definitely sounds like your older daughter could benefit from some help from a mental health professional. And so could you and your husband, so that you can all learn how to support her as she, in your husband’s words, “matures and learns over time.” We aren’t born knowing how to parent every type of kid under the sun! It’s just not reasonable to expect yourselves to know how to deal with your daughter, who isn’t “doomed to be a bully” but does sound like she’s struggling to manage her emotions. Good for you for recognizing that she’s lashing out because she’s sad, not because she’s a brat. It’s a stressful time for everyone, and kids are feeling the pain as much as adults—maybe more so. They just don’t have the language or self-awareness that we (ideally) do, and they don’t know how to ask for the help they need.

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Side note: It’s definitely within the realm of normal behavior that your 6-year-old doesn’t ask people if they’re OK when they get hurt. Your 3-year-old is precocious in this arena, and she’s also modeling a behavior she learned by watching you interact with her sister.

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For more of Slate’s parenting coverage, listen to Mom and Dad Are Fighting

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a 13-year-old girl whose parents have been divorced since I was 6. For a couple years now, my mom (who I stay with half the time) has been engaged to and living with a man who is functionally my stepdad (their marriage was called off because of COVID). He has three kids from a previous marriage, which was ended due to abuse on his ex-wife’s part. My older two stepsiblings are adults and living on their own. The youngest, “Naomi,” is almost 16 and living with my mom, my stepdad, and me. When Naomi and I were younger and our parents were just dating, we were really close. We drifted apart over the years, eventually talking only out of necessity and barely making eye contact. A lot of this is due to the fact that my mom and I have gotten into explosive arguments semi-regularly (yelling, slamming doors, etc.), which I think brings up a lot of bad memories for Naomi from when her parents were living together. My mom and I started therapy for our fights, and that has helped.

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A few weeks ago, I reached out to Naomi with a text talking about how I missed her and the relationship we used to have and hoped we could talk or hang out soon. I am now convinced that sending that text was absolutely the wrong decision. I have been left on read for weeks. I heard from my stepdad that when Naomi got the text, she read it out loud to him and began ranting about how I was trying to trick her into having a relationship with me, so I could presumably hurt her once we had gotten close. Again, I think this is because of trauma from Naomi’s mom (Naomi, too, is in therapy and has been for a long time). Since I sent the text, my relationship with Naomi has downgraded from nonexistent to outright hostile. Any time I make a comment at dinner, Naomi makes it a point to disagree with me. She constantly glares at me and pretends she doesn’t hear me if I ask her anything directly (such as “pass the salt”). This is making the time I spend at my mom’s house miserable. I don’t know what to do. I understand that this is definitely not the time where I’m going to form a doting stepsisterly relationship, but is there anything I can do so that she doesn’t totally hate me and also I don’t feel like I’m being constantly attacked?

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—Maybe We Can Laugh About This When We’re Older

Dear Maybe,

Ugh, this sucks! I’m sorry that Naomi is being so mean to you. If you feel like it, you could give your relationship one (just one) more try. While I don’t think it was a mistake to send the text, I do think that in delicate situations it’s generally better to talk in real time, ideally face to face. Decide in advance what you want to say, gather your courage, find a time when you think Naomi will be most receptive and then sit down and talk to her. Maybe lead with an apology for how your fights with your mom made the household feel unsafe for her, so that she knows you understand how she feels. Then tell her you really want to be friends again eventually and see if she’s at all receptive. Maybe she won’t be, but at the very least you can clear the air and maybe get to a place where dinner together isn’t excruciating.

—Emily

More Advice From Slate

Is it OK that my grown daughters (33 and 30) still call me “Daddy”? I didn’t think anything about it until one of their friends was aghast when she heard it. Over the years it’s been Dad, Father, Pop, Pops, Papa, but the girls always seem to drift back to Daddy. I still call my parents Mum and Pop when addressing them. I have never insisted on Daddy or forbidden them from addressing me by my first name—they just never have.

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