You see them everywhere you go. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They appear harmless, even friendly. You’ve been exposed to them your entire life, but they still have the power to intimidate you. They’re in the grocery store, the car pool line, the park, even your own neighborhood. You see them on TV and read about them in your favorite blogs and magazines. Who are they?
The other mothers.
I first started to notice the other mothers in pregnancy when other young women my age were also starting families and I attended their baby showers. I started to notice things the other mothers were doing like making homemade quilts or scrapbooks for their unborn babies. Some of the other mothers were stenciling little chickies around the border of the nursery wall they had recently painted sunny-side-up yellow. I wasn’t interested in or good at doing any of those things (which never bothered me before), but I began to compare myself to those other mothers and wondered for the first time if I would be a good mother.
The attention I paid to the other mothers only increased immediately after giving birth to my beautiful, healthy baby girl. She had a rough time coming into this world and was having a harder time learning to latch on. I was in one of those ridiculous hospital gowns that tied in the back but didn’t provide a way for a new mother to nurse. I had just endured 33 hours of labor and had only recently awoken from what I would soon discover was a typical night of horrendous sleep. I was grimy and exhausted, overwhelmed and in tears as I sat there in my hospital bed, gown down, trying to figure out how in the world to feed this child when in came three of the cutest, perkiest, do-goody other mothers I’d ever seen. I wanted to die. They were just some sweet women from church coming to cheer me up in the hospital, but their very presence suddenly made my superhuman efforts to keep it together look horribly awkward and embarrassing. Where was my lipstick? Why didn’t I remember to pack something to nurse in? Could they tell I had been crying? I was certain they had never been in a situation like mine, and I was humiliated. There was that question again: Would I be a good mother?
Once I came home from the hospital, the other mothers seemed to come out of the woodwork. One was making homemade baby wipes to be thrifty. Another was doing a “Mommy & Me” swim class with her infant. There was the other mother who wore her old jeans 6 weeks after childbirth thanks to her daily jogging stroller workout. Yet another was pureeing cooked vegetables from her own organic garden. Some other mothers were teaching their babies to read before they turned one.
As my children got older and started preschool and then elementary school the other mothers became harder and harder to ignore. Now they were school carnival committee members asking me to volunteer, Brownie troop leaders planning amazing outings and crafts, and hostesses for the birthday party extravaganza of the century. I wasn’t doing any of these things. Was I a good mother?
I could never match up. Some other mother was always doing something better than me and looking better while they did it! It made me feel lousy. To assuage my bruised ego I would sometimes compare myself to the “other” other mothers. You know — the people who never have a clean house and take their kids to McDonald’s three times a week. Those other mothers who yell at their kids and let them pee behind the trees at the park. I always came out on top when I compared myself to the “other” other mothers who didn’t make it to the preschool open house, who didn’t take their kids in for regular dental check ups, who didn’t accessorize. Yes, I was a good mother after all.
But the truth is I didn’t feel that great comparing myself to the “other” other mothers either. Maybe they were doing the best they could at this mothering business without a spouse or support system. Maybe they had very little money and a lot of stress I knew nothing about. Maybe they had health problems, a family member with a disability or some other challenge. Maybe it was just a bad day! No, it didn’t feel any better to compare down than it did compare up. (Especially because sometimes I could really relate to the “other” other mothers!)
What was my problem anyway?
I was trapped in what I now like to call the “compare snare.” I had forgotten I was equipped with my own inner compass that told me how to be the best mother I could be. I was looking outside myself for answers, and the more I compared myself to others, the more miserable I was. John French had it right when he said, “To compare is not to improve.”
The problem comes when we compare our weaknesses against someone else’s strength and find ourselves getting depressed and discouraged instead of motivated and encouraged. Marvin J. Ashton said, “There is a natural, probably a mortal tendency to compare ourselves with others. Unfortunately, when we make these comparisons, we tend to compare our weakest attributes with someone else’s strongest. Obviously these kinds of comparisons are destructive and only reinforce the fear that somehow we don’t measure up.”
The “compare snare” also leads us into feeling we are in competition with other mothers. A sure sign of this is thinking about having more than or being better than. Motherhood is not about who makes the moistest cupcakes, who goes to yoga most often or who has the best dressed kids. There is nothing wrong with trying to be the best mom you can be, but when we start comparing and competing over things that really have nothing to do with mothering, something potentially good turns into something undeniably bad.
How can we direct our energies away from comparing and competing with other mothers toward uniting with them in our common cause of raising good kids? I think at least some of the answers can be found in giving and getting. Let me explain.
Give yourself a break. If you are reading this right now, you are most likely a conscientious mother who is trying to improve herself. It is probably for those very reasons you occasionally get down on yourself and compare yourself to other mothers. It is my experience that the mothers who have the highest expectations for themselves are often the most susceptible to feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes the harder we try the harder we fall! I once knew a beautiful, talented, sweet mother of five bright, well-behaved children. I was a brand-new mom, so I looked up to her and thought it was obvious she was doing a tremendous job. You can imagine my surprise when she confided in me that she was having a really hard time. When I asked why, she said she was frustrated with herself for not getting up earlier in the morning to exercise because she was up so frequently at night with her newborn! At the time I was impressed she was trying so hard, but now that I have four children of my own I wish I could go back in time and tell her, “Give yourself a break!” We can’t always live up to the expectations we impose on ourselves, and we certainly shouldn’t impose other people’s expectations on ourselves either. Motherhood is tough even on a good day, so do yourself a favor and give yourself a break!
Give yourself a pat on the back. Now that you aren’t being so hard on yourself, try actually being kind to yourself. As moms, we make all sorts of crazy lists for things we have to do, things we should do and things we would do if we just had more (fill in the blank). Here’s a list to make before you do anything else on your to-do list tomorrow: the top 10 reasons you’re a great mom. If you can’t come up with 10 things on your own, ask your husband, mother, sister or best friend. Better yet, ask your children! You may be pleasantly surprised by their answers. This is not vanity; this is much-needed affirmation of your value as a mother based on your unique personality, strengths and gifts. Only note those things that really matter to your children. (Because that is what motherhood is about, right?) Are you a great snuggler? (That’s what my 5-year-old loves about me!) Do you make your kids feel welcome and happy when they come home after school? Can you play Candy Land 10 times in a row without falling asleep? Do you have the patience to listen to the ramblings of a tween with a smile on your face? Whatever it is, write it down, and put it somewhere you can refer to when you feel yourself falling into that “compare snare.” You’re doing a great job, Mom, so give yourself a pat on the back!
Give it up. Once you learn to be more forgiving and kind to yourself, you’re ready for the next step: giving up your pride and the imaginary battle for “Mother of the Universe.” It actually feels nice to give up pride — to acknowledge your weaknesses and own them. Life is so much easier and enjoyable without pretenses. Trying to show “Mrs. Jones” you’re always on top of everything only causes both of you grief. You can never let your guard down, and she can never be herself around you. I actually go out of my way now to quickly expose my weaknesses to other mothers because I have found it immediately knocks down any potential walls and creates an atmosphere of honesty and mutual support. What mom doesn’t need more of that? I have a long list of things I don’t do that I used to consider prerequisites for being a good mom. I don’t sew, scrapbook or have a garden. I’ve never been a room mom, and I don’t like making crafts. You don’t have to be good at everything to be a good mom, and you certainly don’t need to be the best at anything. (No one would like you if you were anyway!) Motherhood is not a competition; it’s a commitment to our children. Save your mental and physical energy for things that really matter like a good long talk with your teenager or an afternoon at the park with your toddler. And by all means, make crafts with your preschooler if you are good at that!)
Give credit where credit is due. Being able to admit and own your weaknesses as well as recognize and utilize your strengths makes it much easier to give credit where credit is due. What I mean by this is, if one of the other mothers organizes a really great class party, runs a 5K with their daughter or wins the community cookie bake-off, you can easily compliment them and give them credit rather than falling into the “compare snare,” which often leads to feelings of inadequacy and criticism. Let’s face it, the pretty popular girls turned “supermom” are out there, and they do some amazing things, but we don’t need to feel threatened by them or in competition with them if we are confident and comfortable with ourselves. It feels good to give an honest compliment, to recognize someone else’s efforts and relinquish the need to be in the spotlight.
Get real. On the other hand, sometimes we overestimate how hunky dory the other mothers’ lives are because we only see them at their best on a good day. Our judgments about other mothers (especially ones we don’t know too well) are most likely incorrect. We’ve all had the experience of making a judgment about someone only to be proven wrong once we got to know them. We don’t really know what the other mothers are struggling with. Just because someone is a fitness trainer and the PTA president doesn’t necessarily mean they are keeping it all together at home. Everyone has to choose how to spend the same 24 hours each day. Most people who are particularly successful in one area of their life by necessity neglect something else. No matter how put together she may seem on the outside, you can be sure that other mother has her own personal challenges. You might also be surprised to know that the “intimidating” other mother is intimidated by you! What comes naturally to you and seems completely ordinary just may seem extraordinary to her. As mothers, we need to get real and recognize that we all struggle with something. Be ready to give that other mother a break, and let her feel she could come to you and share her struggles if she needed some support. It’s so much better than comparing from afar!
Get with the program. Now that you have a realistic perspective of the other mothers, you can get with the program and befriend any and all of them. It’s a wonderful thing to be a part of “Club Mom.” There are literally millions of women out there ready and willing to be your friend and supporter because of the universal bond of motherhood. As fellow mothers we know and understand so much about each other simply because of our common experience. When my fourth child was just six weeks old we took our whole family to Disneyland. I was feeling a little sorry for myself because I would have to miss out on some of the fun to go to the mother’s lounge and nurse the baby several times that day. What I didn’t expect was how many other mothers would be doing the same thing! I had so much fun getting to know those other mothers through the wonderful, instantaneous bond of motherhood! We shared birth stories, nursing tips, and crazy mom moments. We laughed as we commiserated about the mutual struggles we all encounter when our children are babies. Don’t be afraid to reach out to one of the other mothers. They may be caught in the “compare snare,” and your friendliness could be what they need to help them see how rewarding it is to be a part of this great sisterhood called Motherhood!
Get on with your life. Marquis de Condorcet said, “Enjoy your own life without comparing it with that of another.” You have children to cherish, and they are only getting older. Move on! Be your own kind of mother! Your children were sent to you, not to the other mother down the street. Being your best self instead of trying to be like someone else is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children. I believe our families are not accidental, and by celebrating and utilizing your unique personality, interests and talents you cannot help but be the mother intended for your children. The added benefit is that kind of role model will allow your children to be their best selves as they approach adulthood.
I don’t wonder anymore if I’m a good mom. I know my children are happy, healthy, safe and loved. What is more important than that? Whether or not I get a green and orange vegetable on the dinner table every night or make personalized Christmas stockings by hand like that other mother is no longer my measure for success.
We all wish we could do certain things over and for me, I wish I could go back in time to that day in the hospital when my first child was born. I would welcome those cute little other mothers into my room, laugh at myself, have a good honest cry and ask them to tell me about their experiences. I would be more open to their advice as well as their friendship.
Motherhood can be one of the loneliest jobs in the world, so who better to share it with than those who are on this exhausting and exhilarating journey with us? Who better than the other mothers!
CHALLENGE: Choose one thing you feel insecure about as a mother and let go of it. Journal about it or write it down on a piece of paper and tear it up or burn it.
QUESTION: How do you avoid the “compare snare” in your own life?