Care and Feeding

Am I Selfish for Not Wanting to Breastfeed?

An infant holds a bottle.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by 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,

My husband and I are expecting our first child in September. We are very excited and nervous—and sometimes a little terrified. Before I got pregnant, we discussed how we would raise children and one of the things we talked about was how I do not want to breastfeed. At all. And since getting pregnant, I have not changed my mind. If anything, this pregnancy has cemented the idea that this is the right call for me. I have not enjoyed being pregnant, I want control over my body again, I do not want to be solely responsible for feeding my baby (particularly in the middle of the night), and, honestly, I want to be able to drink a glass of wine (or two or three) again when I feel like it. But despite all of this, I am feeling very conflicted about this decision. All the articles I’ve read on the subject state unequivocally that breastfeeding is what is best for the baby; all the bottle-feeding articles have been directed at women who have tried but cannot breastfeed. While none of my close friends have had children yet, all the women I know with children have breastfed or are breastfeeding now. I have floated my plan to bottle-feed my child past a few of my close female friends and their responses have ranged from “Don’t you even want to try?” and “I’m sure you’ll change your mind once he’s born” to “Is this because you want to go back to drinking?” and variations on “But you do know that breast is best, right?”

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I would like to note that my husband has been supportive and has told me that it’s my body and my decision. I came home the other day and he was doing research on bottle-warmers and the best brand of bottles, so no matter what I decide, I know he’s on board. My question: Am I being selfish? I know that some women cannot breastfeed and this causes them terrible anxiety and guilt. What does it say about the type of mother I’m going to be if I’m not even willing to try? I know that not everything about being a parent is going to be to my liking. So should I think of this like changing diapers and listening to the Wiggles—something I need to just grin (or, rather, grimace) and bear because it comes with the territory?

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—I Feel Like a Bad Parent

Dear IFLaBP,

When you ask what it says about the “type of mother” you’ll be, it seems to me you’re asking if not breastfeeding—“not even trying,” because you don’t want to—means you’ll be a bad mother. It does not. Plenty of babies are bottle-fed; they are fine. Some mothers can’t nurse their babies; some hate it and do it anyway; some like it pretty well, or tolerate it for a while, but tire of it; some love it. As I’ve said many times before, motherhood is not a monolith.

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That doesn’t mean that your decision doesn’t say something about what type of mother you will be, though. And it might make sense to come to terms with that now, if for no other reason (and there are other reasons!) than to shore yourself up for the ongoing commentary on your decisions. (Because I guarantee that if you tell people anything about any decision you have made—from where the baby sleeps to what you do when the baby cries, from what you decide about child care to when and how you potty-train—they will have opinions, and those opinions will probably be critical.)

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But first let’s deal with the question of nursing. As your husband (good for him!) notes: your body, your decision. If you don’t want—for any reason—to breastfeed, then don’t. “Trying” is unlikely to change your mind (in fact, since the first days and weeks are often the hardest, and it can take a while before nursing a baby feels as natural to the mother as we’re all told it is, unless you were to commit to “trying” for a fairly long period, it seems a pointless exercise at a time when there will be enough on your plate). As noted: We human beings who’ve borne children are not all the same. Why should we be?

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Which brings me back around to what your decision about nursing tells you about what’s ahead. I think it’s likely that it tells you that you’re not going to be a relentlessly self-sacrificing mother. Is that so bad? Honestly, I don’t think so. As a mother who fell with a thump at the self-sacrificing end of the spectrum, I know I overdid it. Looking back, I know I should have thought about myself more (or, um, at all); I should have let my child know early that she and I were separate people with our own separate needs. I course-corrected later, and that was good for both of us, but a little self-interest before that would have been healthier—for both of us.

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Of course, it’s possible to overdo “self-interest”—to neglect a child, to always put our own needs ahead of theirs. That’s not what you’re planning, and I trust that’s not what’s going to happen. You’ve made a rational decision about one small aspect of raising your child, based on how well you know yourself. I would stop floating that decision by your friends, by the way. If it’s your anxiety that’s driving you to talk about it, keep in mind that these conversations are not soothing that anxiety—they’re making you feel worse.

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The things people say to you when you mention your plan (and, I’m guessing, the plan itself) are stirring up fears in you that you are “too selfish” to be a good mother. That’s why I’m suggesting you take some time now to think about what your mothering style overall might be, what your life will look like once your child is in it. While you can’t plan for everything—and, as I’ve also said before, once the real-life, nontheoretical baby comes into the picture, the best-laid plans tend to change, then change again—you can talk through what you think you’ll want to do, and why. Parenthood is full of surprises, and for me some of the biggest ones were my own responses to it and the many ideas I’d had that I let go of. But even if you end up doing precisely the opposite of what you decide now, the key is in understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing, and doing it thoughtfully—not automatically.

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

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I have a fantastic 6-year-old son, who is very talkative and interested in the world, as 6-year-olds are. We’ve recently been a bit flummoxed in how to help him talk about larger people. This started a few years ago when I called one of our cats “chonky,” and when he wanted to know what that meant, I told him it meant “fat and lovable.” Then a few weeks later, he called his aunt “chonky,” in a way that was meant lovingly … but to avoid possible embarrassment for my sister-in-law, I told him that “we only call animals ‘chonky,’ not people.” Since then, we’ve had occasions when he’s called his grandma fat—and many people are sensitive about that, so I want him to be sensitive about what other people feel and what he says … but I’m afraid it will turn into a fat phobia, where he thinks being larger is somehow wrong, or to be worried about because he can’t say anything about someone’s size. We tell him that people come in all sizes; we haven’t tried to explain that society does not treat larger people well, so I’m open for suggestions about how to talk with him about this that’s both sensitive to other people and but won’t accidentally perpetuate negative feelings toward larger people.

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—Love in All Sizes

Dear Love,

The lesson you need to impart is not what to call “larger people” or that he needs to be worried about what to say about someone’s size. It is that it is never acceptable to comment on another person’s body—period. If he asks why (and if you ask why), the answer is: Other people’s bodies are their private business. And if he asks why that’s true (because inquisitive 6-year-olds are unlikely to let this go that quickly—especially if he’s heard other people, including you and your wife, talk about other people’s bodies), you can talk about why privacy matters, why it’s easy to hurt people’s feelings without meaning to, and why appearances are not important compared to the things in life that actually matter. We’re all responsible for not perpetuating the ludicrous, reductive idea that how much people weigh, or what color they’ve dyed their hair, or whether they have piercings or tattoos (or anything else about how their bodies look) tells us anything about who they are. There are so many other things to talk about! Surely, when it comes to his aunt and his grandma (for example), you and your son can think of many topics of conversation that have nothing to do with the shape of their bodies.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My question is about whether and how to tell my friend that I think her youngest child is way behind, developmentally speaking, and needs a serious intervention. My friend’s youngest, “Charlie,” is turning 3.5 this month, and I’ve known my friend since shortly before Charlie turned 2, when my kids and I moved to her neighborhood. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last year and a half without my friend, or how my kids would have gotten through without her kids. They are our COVID bubble, and we’ve spent a lot of time together.

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In the last two and a half years, Charlie has hardly developed—they still barely speak and when they do talk, it’s incomprehensible to everyone but their parents, and this 3.5-year-old still hasn’t reached a lot of the CDC milestones for 2-year-olds. Delayed speech is but one of their problems.

My friend is smart, and cares deeply about her kids, no question. She immediately arranged appropriate intervention when her older kid had a problem that a teacher pointed out, and now that problem seems solved. But I think she has a weird blind spot about Charlie, and I worry that they’re missing out on a chance for early intervention that could make a huge difference in their life. I also worry a lot about my friend. She’s the type who feels deep mom guilt about everything. I worry that if I am right, and Charlie does have a serious delay that would benefit from early intervention, when my friend finally figures it out, the mom guilt will kill her.

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That’s the one hand. On the other hand, my friend is smart. And loving. And it’s not like Charlie is abused or neglected—not even close—and I’m a firm believer in not judging other people’s parenting unless a kid’s health or survival is at stake. And while I believe I would want someone to sit me down and tell me to my face if they thought my kid had a serious developmental problem, the truth is that I’m not always excited to receive parenting advice (which usually comes from my parents). I worry that telling my friend about my worries will put a huge strain on our friendship. I don’t want to tell her or anyone their parenting is inadequate, and even though I definitely don’t believe that about my friend, I think that’s still what she’ll hear, because that’s what I would hear in her situation. What’s the right thing to do here, and the right way to do it?

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—Worried

Dear Worried,

I have a very smart friend who has spent the last 30 years advocating for her child with developmental disabilities—who has done everything possible to ensure that he would have as good an education and as fulfilling a life as possible. Sometimes I forget that when I first met her, her toddler showed signs that others recognized as developmental delays before she was able to. I wondered at the time why she didn’t seem to wonder why her son was not behaving like a typical child his age, and why her pediatrician seemed not to have mentioned it. I stayed quiet, though. She was so competent, so wise, so together—and I was childless, in my 30s (What do I know? I thought. Maybe I’m wrong, and even if I’m not, maybe it’s none of my business). I am still glad I said nothing. Once she was ready to face it, she zoomed into action, and has not stopped zooming since. (Maybe she needed to gather her resources, save up her energy, prepare for the battles ahead.)

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As you can see, I do not believe it is your place to speak up. But if or when the time comes that she has to face what you believe are the facts, and she does indeed feel like a terrible mother (and I know that hole, that tunnel: It is very dark in there), your being there for her, reminding her that she is a good mother who loves her children deeply, and offering your support in any way you can, will be crucial. That’s when she’ll need you to speak up, loudly and as often as necessary.

—Michelle

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