I am often asked: Why do formula feeders frequent breastfeeding sites? Why do they trawl through breastfeeding-related discussions only to declare that the process made them feel guilty? Why would a grown adult put themselves in this situation, a situation which is clearly triggering? In this post, I’ll explain the reason behind this bizarre phenomenon. I'm talking about the green-eyed bitch:
a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck
In short, formula feeders specifically seek out pro-breastfeeding stimuli because they are envious, or should I say, defensive formula feeders do this. Extremes of envy are not universal amongst all formula feeders, rather, those partial to defensiveness are aptly prone to envy. In a previous post 'How to Spot a Defensive Formula Feeder' I described the tendency of defensive formula feeders (DFFs) to actively seek out contact with breastfeeders and breastfeeding literature:
“Their behaviour has a self-defeating, almost masochistic quality. It is as if DFFs welcome the process of getting hurt and are attracted to media which triggers them. They actively seek out breastfeeding forums, blogs and advocates. If they mistakenly stumble upon such a group, they do not leave. Instead they enjoy the masochistic buzz of being offended and arguing.”
It’s as if they have an almost irresistible fascination with ‘the other team’. They are caught up in envy. Now, to point out the bleedin’ obvious, envy is not a pleasant emotion to be tangled in. It is painful, conflicting and shame-inducing. To cope with envy there are two major defence mechanisms that the DFF can utilize: avoidance or obsession. For our purposes we’re concerned with the latter.
In the chapter of my book devoted to envy, I discussed the mechanics of this emotion - in this post I’ll give you the condensed version: Envy is wanting to have what another person has, for the DFF, their feeling of envy centers on their lack of a breastfeeding relationship. This lack creates a void, something is missing - is less than - especially in comparison to the envied one.
Envy stings when the DFF compares herself to breastfeeders. As she is wrapped in this painful experience of being unable to live up to the standards that other mothers have attained, the DFF’s attention is focused on these other mothers. Essentially, a secret bond is created between the DFF and breastfeeders. I call this the ‘envy bond’. Breastfeeding mothers get settled in the DFF’s thoughts as an obsessive mental preoccupation. A constant comparative thinking starts, sometimes with increased curiosity about the actions, attitudes, behaviours of the envied. Fascination with breastfeeders and sensitivity to breastfeeders’ treatment of the formula feeder renders the latter vulnerable to shame. Breastfeeders are, often unwittingly, a prominent and powerful force in the experience of formula feeders’ envy. Let’s expand on this:
Many studies around feelings of envy and competitiveness have suggested that what is envied tells more about oneself than it tells about the envied other. The envied other is a mirror of the lack one feels inside. To be activated, envy needs an 'other', someone who is showing or mirroring what is consciously or unconsciously needed or wished for oneself. Ever wondered why moms tend to feel envious of certain moms and not of others? Why does a DFF feel painful, almost visceral, envy at the sight of a mother nursing her child, but not at the sight of a very rich celebrity creating a dream nursery with expensive decor, or the sight of Kate Middleton displaying blow-dried perfection just hours after having given birth before retiring to her palace?
The answer is twofold: firstly, envy is felt chiefly toward those who are our peers, for reasons having to do with ‘justice’. People do not necessarily envy the wealth of celebrities, because the discrepancy does not reflect badly on them. It is only when the discrepancy between someone else’s success and one’s own failure serves to demonstrate or call attention to one’s shortcomings that envy results. DFFs envy breastfeeders precisely because they could have experienced similar success. It was within their grasp. The breastfeeding mother is signalling or mirroring some parts in the formula feeding mother that have not been used, developed or activated.
Secondly, breastfeeding displays those characteristics, attitudes, or behaviours that carry some meaning to the DFF personally. If breastfeeding did not carry a particular worth, it wouldn’t be noticed or would simply provoke indifference. To quote my book:
“The irony is that however much mothers deny, distort or misconstrue the truth about breastfeeding, it continues to matter to them – enormously. In fact, they deny, distort and misconstrue breastfeeding because it matters to them.” (Breast Intentions, 2014).
Breastfeeders absorb an important part of the DFF’s thoughts, a process characterised by observation, scrutinization, sometimes obsessive mental preoccupation, as if the DFF wishes to know everything about successful breastfeeders: how are they feeling? succeeding? performing? By doing this, the DFF is trying to gauge what went wrong in their own breastfeeding journey and whether she could have tried hard enough. She is unconsciously researching to find an answer to the ever-present question: Why could these women do it but not me? What personal qualities do they have that I don’t?
Of course many DFFs disguise their envy. They seem, from the outside at least, to be more hostile than envious. They disparage breastfeeding advocates and/or denounce breastfeeding’s benefits, belittling it as inconsequential. This, my friends, is a mere farce, a defence mechanism, and quite a prolific one at that. In order to pacify their envy, DFFs attempt to persuade themselves and those around them, that what they envy - they actually loathe. Freud labelled such behaviour ‘reaction formation’ – an attempt to deny one’s true emotional state by taking on the opposite. DFFs are trying to pacify uncomfortable feelings of envy by downplaying breastfeeding.
"Okay, I get it, but why are you telling us this?"
I’m telling you this because although envy is a bitch, she is also a great motivator. Feelings of envy can either thwart success or stimulate it. So, if you’re a DFF reading this, I urge you to redirect your envy towards positive means. When you realise that your envy of breastfeeding reveals more about yourself than about the breastfeeder, the envy-bond between you both becomes looser. This can be a turning point for you. What I’m proposing here is a different use of your emotional energies. This point needs to elaboration:
Remember in my recent post about Mommy Guilt I explained that emotions provoke or provide energy: this energy can be proactive such as feeling admiration, motivation, inspiration. Or it can be reactive such as feeling angry, resentful, jealous. Usually it is not the emotion but the use of its energy that creates the problem. Trawling through breastfeeding forums and causing arguments is a reactive and destructive use of your emotional energy.
Constructive and proactive uses on the other hand, such as researching relactation or lobbying for health policy amendment, will help to mobilize the emotional energy to produce positive change. Indeed, drastic changes can be brought about over the powerful energy fuelled by emotion. Feel let down by the health care system? Lodge an official complaint against those health professionals you believe were negligent. Think formula is too risk-laden, too expensive? Lobby to get formula production more strongly regulated. Feel there isn’t enough support for breastfeeding postpartum? Start a petition and get your local politician involved. Want to breastfeed right now? Look into relactation. Envy can open the door to a wealth of positive change – if you channel it productively rather than destructively.
Indeed, envy is a signpost for change. Envy is evidence that you are still wanting, that you haven’t given up hope – and that’s awesome! Redirect this emotional energy to find out ways you can fulfil your breastfeeding goals. By all means, use envy as a mirror, that is, look at breastfeeders, explore where and in which ways you could emulate them now, or in the future. Observe and assimilate their coping strategies and problem-solving techniques. In fact, using envy as a motivational force and catalyst for positive change will enable you to experience a component of similarity and affinity with the very breastfeeding mothers you have been envious of!