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Coming to terms with the competitive nature of motherhood

June 04, 2012

Mothering is hard, isn’t it?

Midnight feedings, sick babies, potty training and temper tantrums are difficult, no question about it. It is wonderful and beautiful and hard, all at the same time. But lately, motherhood has become challenging for me in a different way, and one that I’m not proud to admit.

When I look around at some of my friends with children who are the same age as mine, I feel competitive. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

If my child was potty trained earlier than someone else’s, I give myself an imaginary pat on the back. If someone else’s kid is eating cucumbers and carrots while mine screams for McDonald’s, I feel like a failure. My feelings about parenting are heavily influenced by my social media sphere, too. When friends tout their child’s successes on Facebook, I instinctively compare.

And although I am careful not to express these feelings outwardly (I just complain to my husband), I know that this isn’t good- for me or my family.

As I’ve worked to understand my feelings and motivations, I’ve realized that this seems like a return to adolescence. When a bunch of moms get together with their kids, I can’t help but feel like I’m in high school again.

Adolescence is hard because we are just beginning to figure out who we are and where we belong in this world. We carry around a huge mess of insecurity and confusion as we sort that out, and it seems that becoming a mother isn’t very different.

Even the most confident and competent women experience insecurity as they enter the world of motherhood. We are responsible for these precious lives, and it is easy to feel like every little thing we do has HUGE consequences. There is no instruction manual that outlines the exact steps to take for perfect children. Well, actually, there are a million of those, except they all seem to give differing opinions and conflicting advice. They leave us utterly confused, second-guessing ourselves and our choices and feeling insecure.

As a result of the insecurity that I feel, I look around at my friends to see how they do it. I want to make the right choices for my daughter and often, I’m unsure of myself. I look for reassurance from those around me. And like an adolescent, I ride waves of confidence and self-assurance that alternate with feelings of inadequacy.

Feeding this self-doubt is the “5 steps to success” parenting culture.  If you believe what you read, then you’d know that all issues in parenting can be boiled down to a nice, neat list of to-do items. Any problem can be solved in 5 easy steps, 3 helpful tips or 7 simple solutions.

In my experience, this is just false. Parenting is complex, every child is unique with their own needs, and certain situations present specific challenges that can’t be solved with a universal list. The culture of easily actionable to-do lists and simple solutions make me feel that I must be doing it wrong, because it feels hard to me. Really hard, sometimes.

And, I think other mothers feel the pressure as well to make it seem easy, even if it isn’t. So we all parade around trying to put on the best mask that we can muster. We measure ourselves against other people’s masks, not realizing that they are just as insecure as we are and that they feel like it’s hard, too.

So, knowing all of this, where do we go from here?

I believe the first thing to do is just be honest, with ourselves and each other. The truth is that no one has it all figured out. No matter how well put together a Mom looks or how confident they seem, they don’t have all the answers. Sometimes the ones who put on the best face are the ones who are the most broken on the inside.

When those feelings of inadequacy come to the surface, remember that what we see on the outside or an anecdote on Facebook isn’t the whole story.

I know that I also need to be kinder to myself. I love my daughter, and I do everything I can to parent her to the best of my ability. Am I perfect? Nope. But, she doesn’t need perfection, and neither do I. I am going to feel good about the choices I’ve made. And, as I loosen the reigns on my own expectations, I realize that some of these things that I measure myself by are simply inconsequential anyway. Does it really matter if a child gets potty-trained at 22 months versus 26 months? In the long run who really cares?

What’s truly important is that I love my child for who she is, nothing less and nothing more. These milestones that I compare to others are more about me than they are about her, anyway. I choose to love her in a way that says my love is never about what she does or how well she does it, it simply is.

In the end, this thing called parenting isn’t a race to be run or an exam to be aced. It’s a journey, with twists and turns, peaks and valleys. And as we travel, it’s nice to have others to come alongside us, not for competition or comparison but for love, support and companionship.