Don't fall into the mama comparison trap!
Comparing yourself to others is a stumbling block like no other. Miriam McCaleb celebrates the importance of running your own race.
Theodore Roosevelt, an American president worth quoting, famously once said “Comparison is the thief of joy”. How true this is!
It’s hard to feel joyful and to celebrate the beauty of any given moment when your head is busy running another script altogether. Here’s an example: I recently met up with a long-lost pal whose career I’d read about in the local paper. Before we’d even connected for a coffee, I’d been fighting a tide of questions such as “Am I achieving enough? Should I be working full time so I, too, can have an illustrious career worth celebrating?”. When the day came for us to finally meet, I’m sorry to say that my first thought was not “How wonderful it will be to catch up with this friend”. Instead my mind slid to “Damn, she looks really good! I wish I’d dressed up a bit more!”.
While I’m sure that the comparison trap has always existed (along with its toxic cousins, Jealousy and Envy), the tendency to compare our lives with other people is amplified in today’s social media landscape. Consider the findings of a study by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK: the study showed that 63% of Instagram users (each on the site for about an hour a day) reported feeling ‘miserable’ as a result of the habit. Instagram inevitably encourages us to put our best selves forward. We’re invited to share our lives as though we are stars of a scripted, choreographed story, when life is much messier (and more interesting!) than that. Real life doesn’t always photograph well! God forbid your bench is cluttered, desk strewn with coffee cups, or indoor plants not bursting with health.
The danger of social media (and of comparison in general) is that we can easily spend our entire lives ‘comparing up’ and feeling as though we fall short. Someone is always going to seem like they’re a better mum (whatever that means), a better daughter, a better athlete, a better businesswoman, a better speaker of te reo Māori, a better hairdresser, a better wife, a better interior designer...
We can’t all be good at everything, and we oughtn’t feel ashamed about it. I’m the mum whose kid usually has the scruffiest ponytail in the class, but I’m also the mum who has learned to feel okay about this (it makes her easy to spot in a crowd, and if her older sister is anything to go by, it’ll also make her an independently tidy hair-doer later on!).
The thing is, friends, we cannot and do not know the full life of another. Who knows what a person’s reasons are for seeking a show-home-tidy house, a million-dollar deal, or six-pack abs. Is your friend the ultra-marathon runner running toward her best life? Or running away from something? My hope is that the tidy house, million-dollar deal and marathon-running six-pack all represent a joyful expression of a person’s true self, and are not the stressed-out result of responding to society’s description of what ‘successful’ looks like.
Because ‘successful’ can mean an infinite number of things. Your definition of ‘successful’ might be to own your own home by the time you’re 35, or it might be to have read all of Agatha Christie’s novels by that same age. It’s up to you. In my world, I feel pretty successful when I manage at least one weekly walk in nature. I also thrive if I can get (most of!) my bills paid every month, and find some enjoyment in my work. I feel most successful when my relationships (hubby, BFFs, kids) are mostly good. Such riches! I am thankful.
It’s well worth taking the time to think through that notion – what does success mean to you? Being able to afford pinot noir to share over dinner on a winter’s evening? Or owning a bach, mortgage-free? You (and only you) get to decide, and I’d urge you to really drill down on this one: ensure your desires are truly your own, and that you are not unconsciously absorbing those that have been foisted upon us. We are immersed in a culture that worships a fairly narrow band of ideas (luxury car, sporting gold, thigh gap) when the true width and breadth of human desires is as diverse as humanity itself. What would support your feelings of success, competence and fulfilment? Learning beekeeping? Finishing that accountancy course? Visiting Ghana? If you have written your own definition of a successful life, it’s much easier to resist comparing your own life to someone else’s.
But still it happens! So what can we learn from this? We would be well advised to notice the places in our lives where small comparisons are robbing us of joy. Like the true story from the start of this article, about my coffee meet-up with my long-lost pal. What did we do? Well, about halfway through our polite catch-up about careers and kids, I admitted to her that seeing her polished look (and amazing shoes) made me feel embarrassed about my borderline scruffy, work-from-home sparkly jandals. She laughed, and admitted that she had been victim to a similar comparison trap: I had on a cute frock while she’d worn sensible pants. Our conversation got way more real after that, and I left feeling like I had rekindled a genuine friendship.
It reminded me of a similar story from more than a decade ago, when a dear friend and I were about to go walking with our new babies. The conditions were what you’d expect on an autumnal day on the Canterbury coast: bracing easterly, dazzlingly sunny sky. Our babies were fed and warm, snuggled in their prams. Yet we paused a moment, and stared at each other anxiously. “Oh, you’re good” said my friend. “You’ve got her covered up with a shade cover. That’s important with our harsh sun.” I shook my head. “No! I had just been thinking that you had the right idea by having him under that rain cover – the plastic will block this chilly wind.”
It’s so telling that we were quick to judge ourselves, but neither of us was judging the other (“She really should have her baby under shade…”). Also, neither of us used comparison to notice our ‘success’ (“I’m so glad I thought to protect her from the sun!”). We only saw what we imagined to be our weakness.
LET'S BE HONEST
In both examples, these small stumbles into the comparison trap were laughed off in the moment. Shining light on the awkward feeling allowed authenticity of expression, which can only create more honest relationships. It’s important these small stumbles don’t go unchallenged, because awareness of them will help us resist the giant comparisons.
Like the guilt-inducing comparison of the career mum and the stay-at-home mum. Or the painful comparisons that keep you awake as you ponder the lives of your monied friends, your child-free friends, your friends with great skin, or (sigh!) naturally speedy metabolisms.
But remember, we rarely know the inner stories of others, so pay attention to when your own frustrations contribute to the comparison trap, and whether you have a tendency to fill in gaps about people. Instead, wonder what life is like for them. That speedy metabolism might make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight. It’s not all easy all the time for anyone.
With good friends, we can practise the same authentic honesty I shared earlier in the shade/sun cover and shoes/jandals examples. By acknowledging the clunky comparisons we make, even the biggest and most painful examples can lose some fire. Like when I was struggling to conceive a second time, my friend with three daughters (of whom I was jealous) acknowledged that she thought my life with just one child looked fantastic. I really appreciated her candour, having incorrectly figured that she viewed me with pity – which is how I viewed myself at the time. Beware of filling in the gaps!
Likewise, I recently spent the day with a good friend and his grown-up daughter. Our careers began on a similar trajectory, but I’d jumped off the treadmill – twice – taking very long maternity leave. Now he’s travelling the world, publishing books and enjoying professional recognition, while I’m making toasted sandwiches for grumpy kids, driving on school trips and hunting for lost swimming goggles. What saves our friendship from debilitating jealousy is our ability to speak truth to these experiences: when he shares his latest success I know to say “I’m a bit jealous!”, and when he visits my settled domestic set-up, he’ll confess the same thing.
Meanwhile, I just told my friend’s grown-up daughter that I thought she was the one living the dream! She’s a beautiful young mum running her life out of a lovingly adapted van, and from where I stood, it looked like simple, self-contained bliss! She countered that she thought I had it going on, with my vege gardens, chickens and acres. We three – successful career, mobile independence, and home orchard – could all see the beauty in one another’s lives. By acknowledging the comparison, we removed any bitterness which created an opportunity for us to not only laugh at ourselves, but to remember “You’re right … my life IS pretty awesome!”.
I reckon that’s how you can recognise the comparison trap and effectively disarm it – with observation, compassion and pragmatism. Then concentrate on living your own best life.
TOP FIVE COMPARISON BUSTERS
1. Just call it out! Practise saying “I’m sitting here making comparisons about our lives and feeling a wee bit sorry for myself right now”. Honestly, we all stumble into the comparison trap at times, and you get to be the one to disengage the trap by pointing to it.
2. Nobody’s life is perfect. Whatever aspect of your life that feels like it’s coming up short, just recognise that a minor reframing will probably fix it. “Sure, my kid’s ponytail is scruffy, but HEY – she has clean clothes on!”
3. Count. Your. Blessings.
4. Think hard about your own personal definition of success. Then you get to dance to the beat of your own drum!
5. In the words of that late 90s classic Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen) - which you should go and look up right now if you don’t know it: “The race is long, and in the end it’s only with yourself”. Remember, nobody’s watching! Those comparisons likely only exist in your own mind … so set yourself free! How? See point #1!
Miriam McCaleb is a mother, teacher and writer who works hard to resist the comparison trap. She finds Lord Echo’s Just Do You and Kacey Musgraves’ Biscuits are helpful anthems for exercise, housework or driving. Visit her at baby.geek.nz.
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 45 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW