Monday, January 17, 2011

The Comparison Game

I just spent the better part of an hour g-chatting with my cousin. She lives in England, had her first baby at the end of last year and is struggling to feel competent at breastfeeding. My heart aches for her because this is a vulnerable time for any new mom, least of all one who is an ocean away from her mama and other support systems. Her troubles seem to universal, but in her little three-person family, she's not feeling very normal.

Every chance I get I tell her this: "You are a good mom. This is all normal. You are doing all the right things. It is very, very hard." I tell her this because some very wise mamas told me the same thing when my babies were young and I sweated through public nursing, public bouts of tears (from both the baby and me) and public I-don't-know-what-the-hell-I'm-doings. Those words go a long, long way toward nurturing new mamas.

The truth is, we mamas can be sensitive and we need to hear those words. And not just when the babies are babies. We need to hear it when the toddler stares us down and does what we just demanded he not do. We need to hear it when the 9 year old walks away from us when we're talking. We need to hear it as we take another deep breath, counting to 10 (or 100) when the once sweet teen pops off some sass that makes us blush.

But the truth is, we don't hear it and we don't tell it to ourselves. Instead, many of us buy the lie that what's-her-face over there at play group has it all pulled together. After all, just look at her, with her impeccable mommy uniform of designer jeans, sweater set and expertly highlighted, swept-up ponytail. With her toddler who is perfectly behaved, reading already, in her designer get up that is always clean. Damn her, we say to ourselves. We hate her. We make a half-hearted attempt to push it aside, telling ourselves that she may look great, but she's probably not very smart.

And this is only the beginning. We moms face a life time of the comparison game. When is the kid reading, what school does he attend, what toys does he have. It moves on to comparing which extracurriculars and how many. Then it's grades, clothes, romantic interests, colleges,'s grotesquely unending.

I told my cousin today that if she sees another mom who has it all pulled together at the play group, that woman either is a very good actress or a liar. I want to tell her to admit to someone else, someone she respects, that she's struggling. After all, that's the only way to stop playing the game. To admit her days as a new mom sometimes kind of suck will liberate her from a lifetime of second guessing herself. She will find allies. She will discover she is, in fact, the epitome of normal. She will embrace her skills as a mom who knows her baby and she will in turn be able to give the same lessons to another new mom.

It took me far too long to learn this lesson. And it took many of those wise mamas' words to teach me to look deeper. They told me of their struggles and I realized that, in fact, they are not the ideal image of mother. Only then was I able to look beyond my own desire to keep my crap private that I learned we're all doing that. I learned to look past the perfect picture. What I saw was a bunch of moms, trying to make good choices, trying to keep it all together and trying to make it look like we know what we're doing.

I now know that there is a group of women I can call on for advice and expertise. I can ask for help. I can let myself be the mother I am, the mother my kids need, not the mother I think the world wants me to be.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you wrote this, especially the part about sharing your frustration with others. It really is the only way to break out of the game we play with others and the mind game we play with ourselves. And you know what? If you go out on a limb and share your struggles and the so-called friend responds by downplaying it and/or acting like she's never felt that way in her life, she isn't a friend you need to be spending time with. It's a great litmus test. :)

    Oh, and one more thing: strangers can provide encouragement and empathy to new moms, too. It's happened to me and I try to pass it on to others.