The dictionary defines “competition” as “an event in which people try to outdo others”. In the instance of mommyhood, such an event is an everyday occurrence for some mothers. Whether it’s trying to look as good as the mom who lost all her baby weight within six weeks of delivering, or the mom who keeps her kids occupied with clever craft projects while you stick your child in front of the television set for an hour and a half, feelings of competitiveness can strike even the most positive-minded of moms.
I’m consistently amazed by the mothers in my community who have sparkling homes and immaculate kitchens, and look sleekly put-together all of the time. How do they do it? Recently, I was taking advantage of a visit with my mom to clean out my bag while my son CC got to play with his Nana. I found a half-eaten cookie, a gnawed-on cereal bar, and a wedge of veggie burger, to say nothing of the crumpled receipts, dollar bills, and coins. And that was just in the front compartment! I also know that the pockets of my jeans contain an old grocery list, some change, and crushed cheerios. And yet my friends maintain shining wood floors, crisp, clean wardrobes, and bags free of month-old foodstuffs. That’s an issue I feel insecure about. For every mother, though, it’s different.
EVERYONE FEELS INSECURE
Take Rachel, 36, a mother of two. For her, appearance is a hot-button issue that raises feelings of competitiveness with other moms. “I personally feel that after giving birth, I lost my sense of style,” she laments. “My clothes don’t fit the same; I feel lost.” Meanwhile, her mommy friends complain that they’ve been up all night, and yet, “they look absolutely glamorous.” For Rachel, however, being competitive over appearance only serves as motivation. “It definitely pushes me more,” she says. “I’m not going to give up.”
Chloe, a 33 year-old mother of toddler Evan, had a similar experience. “I guess we’re all a bit insecure, but since having Evan, I haven’t been able to spend any time attempting to stay in shape,” she says. “I do look at moms who seem more fit than me, dress better than me, maybe look more put together or trendy.” So she made some changes. “At the point I was feeling most low, I changed my wardrobe a bit, added some jewelry, maybe a touch of red lipstick and started walking more. My mood improved and I felt less competitive.”
It’s great when women can override their feelings of insecurity and competitiveness and use those feelings as a springboard to self-improvement. But other issues are more complex. “My biggest struggle is that my husband and I both do everything; we don’t have a nanny. We just don’t have the funds for that,” says Rachel. She feels a distance from her friends who “have the au pair, or the full-time nanny. They just don’t get my lifestyle; I feel disconnected.” Judy, 42, is also a mother of two. “I wish there was a greater forum for openly talking about these areas we feel insecure about,” she says. What are some of her hot-button issues? Those mothers who seem to be able to do it all; bake, prepare school lunches, or put together engaging craft projects for their kids on a rainy day. “My son was getting teased because he gets a free lunch at school,” says Judy. She started to worry. “Am I not making enough time to make a healthy lunch for him every day?”
THE PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT
Feelings of not doing enough add layers and layers of pressure upon moms who are trying to do their best. Judy bought what she thought was brown rice at Costco, only to discover once she returned home that she had bought white rice instead—a food considered a far less healthy alternative in her community of mothers. “I’m not feeding my children quinoa, I’m feeding them white rice,” she frets. Meanwhile, two of her mom friends, each with three children, are “always baking,” and their children are “always engaged in some sort of contemplative educational thing.”
Case in point: during a recent snowstorm, Judy pondered whether it would be all right if her son watched two movies during the stay-indoors day. And what were her neighbors doing with their children? “Using paints to draw their own snowflakes,” Judy tells me incredulously
Judy understands that her own past plays into her feelings. “I think competitiveness is directly proportionate to feelings of inadequacy,” she says insightfully. Her mother was a single parent who “worked her ass off and never had any money.” At the same time, Judy’s grandmother would send money for Judy to partake in activities, resulting in Judy’s feeling that “I was oftentimes the poorest girl in whatever environment I was in.” And indeed, the way we were brought up “can be a road block to feeling confident and competent,” explains Jayne Gumpel, a family therapist with a private practice in Manhattan. “Sometimes I find that the one is most competitive is the most sensitive to criticism and was wounded as a child and made to feel like she is not ever good enough!”
It can feel like a cycle of unhappiness and insecurity, which isn’t lessened when compassion and empathy is found lacking in the community. Recently, Judy was in a group of other mothers, one of which she describes as “always happy, always runs everything, never says she’s having a mediocre day.” Judy, having a rough day and feeling stressed almost past her endurance, burst out with how she was really feeling. Instead of feeling supported, Judy says the group awkwardly moved on to another topic, avoiding her outburst—and missing out on an opportunity to have an honest, candid discussions about the insecurities that face every mother. Liz, 29, has felt similarly isolated since she had her child. She was hoping that in her new role as mother, she would make friends who would last a lifetime. Instead, she says, “I have met dozens of moms but not one has become what I consider to be a real friend… I find that even the ones I thought were friends are making snarky comments, or just flat-out rejecting me.” But Liz makes an excellent point: “There is so much guilt and insecurity associated with motherhood in general,” she says. “I would so much rather talk about it openly than continue to feel alienated in a room full of peers!”
WHAT CAN WE DO?
So what’s a mom to do? For one thing, we all need to be supportive of one another and accept each other’s differences—and maybe even learn from them. Feeling completely opposed to television in your home? Maybe it’s worth taking a page from the book of the mom who gets dinner ready while her son peacefully takes in an episode of Sesame Street. Personally, I never have a problem grilling my friends about the secrets to their success—I’m sure sometimes they feel interrogated, but they are never anything less than generous with their tips and suggestions. And keep in mind that practically every woman is dealing with insecurities of her own—even that mom who seems “perfect.” “Poor self esteem and fear of rejection,” can drive some mothers to up the ante with their competitiveness, says Gumpel, such as lying about their daughter being toilet-trained. But this can be harmful not just to a mom’s relationships with other mothers, but to her children. It’s “very sad if a mom has to do that, because the child will ultimately not feel safe to be him/herself,” explains Gumpel.
STRONG RELATIONSHIPS, STRONG COMMUNITY
But don’t run away from your feelings—or the feelings that other moms may awaken within you. Since having CC, I have met other mothers whose own issues play into their communication with me. My instinct with any interaction that seems even slightly hostile or angry is to run in the opposite direction from that kind of “negativity.” But that is not always the right response. Actually, it can be beneficial to have friends who challenge you. “I think we all need a supportive community of women,” says Jayne Gumpel. “But it’s worth the effort to learn to deflect and to have a strong sense of self when in a relationship with someone agressive/strong willed. We often learn the most from those who challenge us the most!”
It seems there are two things that almost every mother has in common—feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, and the desire to belong to a strong and supportive community of other mothers. We can make this happen. It’s inevitable that we won’t always agree with the choices our peers make, and vice versa. And meeting each other halfway with candor and acceptance can be a scary thing to do. But if we show each other support and love, we can have the kind of relationships with other moms that we very much need—and deserve.