What’s Behind the Need to Compete as Mothers?
How Cultural Conditioning Blinds Us to Joyful Mothering
(This interview with Dr. Zucker is from the authors of the new book, Good Enough is the New Perfect.)
TNP: Why are moms so competitive with each other?
JZ: Culture sets up a troubling dynamic between women – mothers or not. Comparing ourselves to one another is a mainstay embedded in the fabric of cultural confusion and promotes separation rather than connection. Motherhood seems to stir profound insecurities for women as they traverse the simultaneously joyous, daunting, rewarding, and vulnerable journey that is parenthood. Women are often stymied by the overwhelming amount of time and energy parenting requires, leaving little room for pre-motherhood activities. Most people aren’t forthcoming about how anxious they feel, how isolating mothering can be, or how fulfilling it is to love a little person in such an inexplicable way. Competitiveness bubbles below the surface from pre-conception onward. Painfully insecure moments pool in the psyches of mothers as they contemplate a million tiny and meaningful decisions and feelings throughout the day.
The majority of mothers I work with in my clinical practice describe feeling that other mothers are doing IT better, have IT more together, and feel like everyone else is gracefully sliding through their days unaffected by the challenges and pitfalls of mothering.
Looking in on other people’s lives from a distance and through a lens of fear inevitably heightens self-doubt. Insecurities proliferate when we insist that everyone else is doing IT perfectly. Why do we get muddled in unending comparisons? Do our children benefit from these mindless moments of self-loathing that take us further away from our relationship with them? What does this insidious cycle model for our burgeoning children as they come to learn about connection, self-esteem, and community?
TNP: How can moms stop comparing themselves to others?
JZ: Comparing ourselves to other mother’s only serves to create distance, despair, disenchantment, and deleterious disillusionment. It pokes and prods at widespread sequestered insecurities. The fissures in friendships among mothers often catch women by surprise, even when they have been active participants in the decay of the relationship. Comparing and contrasting magnifies our unnamed inner struggles, fears, and scratches at antiquated shame. We rarely feel more empowered as we strip someone else to the core, even if it somehow feels justified and fortifying in the moment.
So why is this insidious way of (non)relating so commonplace? Why does it practically feel like a cultural requirement to look outside of one self to verify if one is “good enough”? My hunch is that women are scared. Deeply terrified. They are expected to be perfect and can’t be. Women are human, after all – not Barbie, not Superwoman, and most definitely not Charlie’s Angels. They are scared to “fail.” They fear being deemed a “bad” mother based on each and every decision, their lifestyle choices. Mothers are desperately bogged down by worry that they aren’t juggling “well enough” today even if they felt they were juggling “perfectly” yesterday. The whirlwind of doubt can drain the beauty out of mundane as well as miraculous experiences throughout the ever-changing relationships with our children.
To stop comparing is a revolutionary act. Taking the time to look inward to address ancient and newfound feelings of dis-ease can shift the family paradigm. Persisting in patterns of relating that clearly don’t serve you is a recipe for continued inner distrust. Changing this cultural vestige is always possible.
TNP: When moms strive for perfection, what is the impact on their children?
JZ: Children need their parents to be present — not perfect. Research shows that emotional consistency, attunement, and quality interactions lay the groundwork for relational trust and a sense of feeling safe in the world more generally. Perfection is not possible. The more children see their mother’s chasing after perfection, the more pressure they inevitably feel to strive for some version of perfection as well. Newborns can sense how their mother feels. Infants pick up on the emotional state of their caregivers. Toddlers decipher each and every expression. We need to take seriously the fact that little people are shaped by how we feel and the ways we behave. Being less than perfect is the human condition. The sooner mom truly digests this, the more apt she is to embrace a less binary model of being a woman = perfection vs. failure. It’s harder to acknowledge and truly embrace that we live on an emotional continuum made up of wonderful days, challenging weeks, beautiful months, and that we often can’t predict how we will feel from one day to the next. Steadfastly seeking perfection is an attempt at being fully in control. Trying to control is an attempt at being shielded from unpredictability. For the most part, these dedicated attempts at being “perfect” are thwarted by real life happenings. Running after perfection simply means we miss out on Right Now. What’s so painful about being present in this moment? Maybe a little. Maybe a lot. The courage to remain present and to model presence for your child is bound to cultivate an environment of emotional intimacy that is complex, real, and hopefully chalk full of rewarding play. Perfection chasers too often miss out on the playfulness of life altogether. Children naturally want to thrive and will do so with exquisite beauty when accompanied by mother’s who are more dedicated to being present and less interested in attaining perfection.
TNP: What are the most important pieces of advice that you can offer to new moms?
JZ: Here are some healthful tid bits for women to savor as they embark on motherhood. Trust yourself. Rely on others. Ask for help. Seek support. Connect with loved ones. Take time for yourself. Expect to feel amazing, awful, and everything in between. Throw perfection out the window!
Be present. Get professional guidance if you feel you want/need it. Read books about parenting if you find them helpful but ultimately be sure to integrate their wisdom with your own mothering methods. Respect your body and the postpartum journey. Curb unrealistic expectations. Be the role model you always dreamed of having. Be wholeheartedly honest with yourself. Experience whatever it is you are experiencing. Denying feelings does not make them go away. Feelings are feelings not facts. Change is possible. Communication is key. Depression and anxiety do not go away on their own.
Rest when you can. Honor your emotional temperature. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about being you. It’s never too late to revisit your childhood experiences – doing so will benefit and enliven the family you’ve created. Don’t take little people’s behaviors personally. Newborns/infants do not manipulate. Treat yourself like a queen when you can (whatever that means to you). As soon as you feel you finally “figured it out”, “it” will change. Be flexible. LAUGH. Address burning feelings. Whatever you are feeling, other mothers have felt. You are not alone. No feeling is off limits. (New) motherhood is ubiquitously overwhelming. Sleep deprivation can make you meet a version of yourself you never wanted to know. There is not one way to give birth, feed, sleep, or raise your child. Do what feels resonant for you and your baby, not what is trendy. Plan and then roll with what arises. Play and enjoy the ever-changing ride!
(For more insight into cultural conditioning for competition with ourselves and others, read Bringing Light to the Dark Side of “Natural” Parenting.)