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Ask Lauren

The Comparison Trap

Do you constantly compare yourself to other moms and judge accordingly? In these tough times, it's best to go gentle on ourselves and others. Columnist Lauren Smith Brody is here to help.

Written By
Lauren Smith Brody
Maria Ines-Gul
This morning, I clipped my son’s nails at the breakfast table. Why on earth is this gross fact relevant? Because it reminded me of something even more embarrassing, my tendency to compare myself to other moms.

In fact, avoiding that very act has, for years, been my benchmark of competence as a mom. Let me explain. Ten years or ago, my toddler, husband, and I were invited over to the home of an old friend of his. She and her husband had a newborn, and their place—and I say this as a not very neat person myself—was a sty. There were electrical cords all over the floor, yesterday’s food on the counter. I spent two hours making small talk and trying to keep my son from grabbing things that might kill him. When it was time to eat, I sat down, cleared a spot at the table, and there next to my bagel was...a toenail clipper.

In the moment, I actually didn’t really judge that mom negatively. If anything, I kind of thought, wow, how amazing she was so unselfconscious and up for hosting. (Also, please note that it didn’t even occur to me to judge the dad—hello, implicit bias.) But I immediately latched onto the comparison of my life and hers. That memory has kept me feeling okay about my mothering for a decade now. My kids are a month late for their dental check up? Well, at least I don’t have a toenail clipper on my dining table. They haven’t had a vegetable in years? Toenail clipper superiority!

And now, mid-Pandemic, five months into being a working mom with no childcare, there’s a nail clipper on my table.

Here’s the deal: I would love to tell you not to compare yourself to other moms. But that would be hard advice for any of us to follow for reasons that date back to cavewoman times. All of the decisions we make in early parenthood feel vital—literally, life-providing: whether you breastfeed or use formula, cry it out or co-sleep (or in 2020 whether you make your two-year-old wear a mask). It’s only natural to judge and assess and say emphatically, this is what is right for me. It’s what you do with those inevitable judgements—both internally and externally—that counts. Also how you evolve along the way.

So yes, it’s normal and maybe even okay to compare yourself to other moms (silently!) but only if you promise yourself not to take it personally when you suspect they’re doing the same of you!

Now onto this month’s Q’s:

Q: How can I stay friends with another mom when I so envy the break and rest she gets that I...just...don't?

A: I’m guessing you’re thinking of another mom who doesn’t have a j-o-b, or who has resources for a lot more help with childcare than you do. Or maybe both. Must be nice!! But actually, maybe it isn’t. One very simple (not particularly mature, but effective) way to quell your jealousy is by thinking of ways that this other woman might be jealous of you. Does she wish she had the intellectual outlet that your career gives you? Does she envy the example you’re setting for your kids?

The grass is always greener—that’s just human nature—but in these times of really stark inequities, that grass is growing an inch a day, and the lawnmower is broken, and it’s 95 degrees out, and we’re all feeling extra sensitive. If this friend is someone you don’t really love, maybe take a break for now in the name of self-care. It’s not exactly hard to avoid people during social distancing. But if she’s a true friend whom you care deeply about, look in the mirror, figure out what piece of this is really about you, and talk to her about it! Explain that you’re stressed and stretched and frankly jealous. I’d bet you anything, she’ll tell you something about your life that she admires, and she’ll probably offer to help too.

Q: How do you deal with judgement when it comes from your own mother? Judgy grandmas are so tricky!

A: Nearly all judgy grandmas judge for one of two reasons: 1) They want a chance at a do-over because they have some regrets about their own parenting, or 2) They just really want to spare you the pain of getting something wrong or learning something the hard way. Both of those reasons are rooted in love. So start there, take a breath, and realize that your mom isn’t trying to make you miserable.

Then, if you want to get into it with her about why you’ve decided to, say, let your kid have Velcro sneakers, explain the root of the problem and enlist her help: “Actually, Mom, our mornings are super rushed, and taking 10 minutes to put on Nate’s shoes makes me crazy. Could you help me? Maybe you could teach him how to tie them over FaceTime?” This is, of course, assuming there are doors to get out of and preschools to attend by fall, but go with it for wishful thinking’s sake! At best, you’ll get a kid who learns how to tie his shoes and a proud grandma. At worst, she will get a big reminder of the patience required during parenting and be more empathetic...and less likely to offer “advice.”

Q: I'm not ready to "resume life" during Covid. I’m continuing to quarantine and am very anxious. I'm struggling to justify my choices without feeling constantly judged by others. I find myself often deflecting with humor, but it's painful not to feel understood. What would you do?

A: You don’t need to justify anything to anyone but yourself. We all have different factors (geographic location, health vulnerability, capacity for anxiety, resources of time and money) that impact our decisions.

What you do need is a shortcut explanation for your position, preferably one that doesn’t require you to make fun of yourself for being “uptight.” (I’d call it an elevator pitch, but if I’m honest I’m avoiding elevators these days myself, which has led to some awkward do-si-do-ing with my neighbors in our building’s hallways.)

See if you can come up with something that fits in about three sentences that follow this pattern:

1) Clear stance
2) Acknowledgment that the situation sucks for everyone
3) Proof of rational thinking without actually having to get into the details or engage in defending them, and
4) Offer of another solution
Something like this: “We’re not doing playdates yet, as much as it breaks my heart not to see you guys. I have lots of reasons and mixed feelings about it, but I also just know you’ll respect our family’s decision. Can we do a FaceTime with the kids over ice cream tonight?”

Come to think of it, ice cream every night for everyone. These days, all the regular rules are canceled, except the most basic: Be good to yourself, be good to others. Ask for and give the empathy we all need.

Lauren Smith Brody is the author and founder of The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity and Big Success After Baby. You can follow her on instagram @thefifthtrimester.