the mommy contest

So many people have written lately on just how judgmental other moms can be, and Jen has written a great post on letting go of that tendency to be an “Extreme Parent.” And while I could say plenty about that drive for perfection, I’m most interested in contemplating the results of conversations like these.

We have this tendency as parents to be really sensitive about our choices, but we also have tendencies as parents to be judgmental of others’ parenting decisions. As a result, we live in this parenting culture where instead of supporting one another through the hardest job we’ve ever undertaken, we become adversaries. Mary might feed her kid nothing but Super Deluxe Extra Fun Meals from her favorite fast food place while Jane feeds her kid a completely raw, vegan, orange, liquid diet. These two meet, and inevitably both parents feel sensitive about their choices, judged by the other, and even a bit (or more) judgemental of one another’s choices. What is this phenomenon? Why can’t our parenting choices just be our parenting choices?

It seems to begin with pregnancy: who you choose for pregnancy care, the type of birth you hope to have, the type of birth you do have, whether or not you circumcise your boy, what you name your child, what you do with the cord blood, and so much more. And from there, it just escalates and grows to include how we get our kids to sleep, how and what they are fed during infancy, what sort of diapers they wear, where they sleep, who cares for them, whether they go to daycare, what kind of preschool they attend, and on and on and on.

But why does this happen? Why does Jane care so much about the brand of diapers Mary buys, and why does Mary care so much about where Jane’s kid sleeps? How does that affect them?

Honestly, unless they’re living together and parenting together, it doesn’t.

I suppose my theory is this: Parenting is hard. When it comes down to it, while we may all have theories, hypotheses, assumptions about how this should work, we won’t know the outcome for a number of years. We’d like to think we are making the best choices for ourselves and our families, but we’ve got media and family and other parents throwing other ideas at us all the time, so there’s a certain amount of uncertainty and thus even insecurity that comes with parenting. But we have our values and our research and our observations. We have what we know about our kids and our families. We throw all of that together, and we come up with what we think is a pretty good way of parenting our kids.

And then somebody else comes along, and maybe they seem like they’ve got it together better than we do, or at least they talk that way. This makes us question ourselves. We get a little defensive, and we look for something to judge, and we look for ways to elevate ourselves, and the cycle continues.

(Please, at this point, if you’re finding yourself reeling, saying in your mind, “What the hell is she saying? I would never do this!” know that I’m generalizing about our culture of parenting–primarily in the U.S. I am by no means saying this is true of every parent.)

Unfortunately, all of this has created a culture of constant competition. We can’t just be moms in support of one another anymore. Instead, we have to size one another up, and while we’re at it, see where we stand too. It’s exhausting, and it’s damaging, and I wish we could all just stop.

What will it take for us to find that support, to be those supportive moms? Is it even possible? Clearly we can’t all go to group therapy to learn to stop being so codependent, but maybe I can be more mindful. Maybe I can take a step every day to show another mom that I support her in her choices (so long as she’s offering her child love and meeting the child’s basic needs–I’m not saying I need to pat abusive parents on the back here). Maybe I can just be open when I hear a different approach than I would take. Maybe I can show interest in how that mom is using those approaches or how they’re working out. Maybe if I find myself reacting to something another parent does that doesn’t jive with my parenting, I can just stop that reaction and realize that I am parenting my own kid, and that parent is parenting her own kid, and clearly we’re making the best decisions for our kids because, after all, we’re supposed to be the ones who know our kids the best. Right? Right? I doubt my efforts will change the world, but perhaps we all just need a little more compassion from one another, a little acceptance that it does take all kinds of parents to raise the different kinds of kids we’ve been given.

I see this at work to some degree in this moms’ group I’ve joined. For the most part, the moms there share similar parenting philosophies, but there are certainly variations, and when there are, the majority of people respond with a spirit of curiosity. They ask questions and discuss how things work. They encourage one another. The group isn’t perfect, and there are those defensive, judgmental, sensitive moments, but I’m beginning to see what’s possible, and while certainly imperfect and far from mamatopia, it’s pretty fascinating, and heartening.

Now, talk to me about this:

Do you think it’s possible or even realistic to think we could move past a culture of mommy competitions? Or are we all just doomed to continue this cycle forever?

Are you supportive of other parents’ choices even if they aren’t choices you would make yourself? Are there any steps you think parents should take to forward a more compassionate, empathetic culture of parenting? Is there any benefit to this competitive culture–something I’m not seeing?

I really look forward to seeing your responses, and I encourage you to ask other parents you know what they think too.


And finally, a disclaimer: I am not writing this in judgment of any one person, group, etc. I am openly critical of this cultural trend, and I am writing to explore potential answers. Please do not take offense if you regularly enjoy Super Deluxe Extra Fun Meals or follow a raw, vegan, orange, liquid diet. Likewise, please avoid emailing death threats if your name happens to be Jane or Mary. These were merely hypothetical examples and were not meant to offend any group, dietary choice, or naming preference. Thank you. 😉


Filed under parenting

11 responses to “the mommy contest

  1. I think parents have always been judgmental of other parents, and no, I don’t think it will ever stop. Parenting is an extremely intense experience and we naturally form strong opinions about things as we go through that experience. We all do it, even if we don’t mean to or try hard not to. For example, I realized that my original comment to Jen’s post was very judgmental of parents who don’t let their kids watch tv or have treats. It was based on an opinion I formed after seeing a friend of mine parent her kids this way. I like to think I’m not that judgmental, but clearly, I can be. I try very hard not to be because I know I’m not perfect and many times I think other parents are making better choices than we are. I really try to learn from what other parents are doing and I’ve used many approaches I’ve read about on blogs in my own family. I respect other parents, but I think there are certain things that we all feel strongly about when it comes to parenting. When we see another parent struggle where we’ve had success, we feel that we have permission to give advice, without thinking about the fact that maybe they’ve already tried what we did and it didn’t work, or maybe they just know their kids better than that and know it won’t work for them. All kids are different, all parents are different, and no one way is going to work for everyone. Sometimes the same approach doesn’t even work on two kids in the same family.

    I think the key is just to pay attention how you’re reacting to things. Like you said, be more mindful yourself. This is something I try to do all the time now, to try to realize that hey, these aren’t my kids and their parents know how to raise them better than I do. Those parents know what works for their own family, so even if it might not be a choice I would make or understand, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad choice. And then you just hope that other parents will think the same when they look at choices you’re making.

  2. I really appreciate your perspective on this and I think this is a very insightful post. To be honest, I’m much more able to relate to and be supportive of folks (like you!) who maybe have a different parenting style but are honest about the fact that we’re all still figuring these things out in the way that works best for our families. I am less interested in offering support to people who constantly pat themselves on the back for being the most self-actualized parents on the block. I think if all of us were a little more honest with one another about the challenges we face as parents, we wouldn’t feel quite so judged when other people have a different view of things.

  3. Yep, similar. I have a very easy time with people whose choices differ from mine a great deal (because I feel confident to that degree), but a harder time with folks whose choices are just a bit different and speak about their choices as if they are the best thing ever, rather than also sharing the realistic shadows that have to be in so many choices, and rather than being a bit more matter of fact or self-reflective. A friend of mine said, about debate in general, that a conversation between two people with wildly different views is not that interesting, but when two people share more similar views, that’s where things heat up, for better or, I suppose, for worse, as you are referring to here…

  4. I am guilty of sometimes secretly judging parents, but I would never deign to tell them they’re doing something “wrong.” I’m sure there are things we do in our household that others judge as well and no one is perfect. I’m a fan of moderation. I don’t believe TV, fast food, sugar, etc in moderation is going to negatively affect kids. I DO believe any one of those things on a constant basis *may.* It also bothers me when Nutella and I go on date nights and at 10pm and even later, see little kids (toddlers especially) out and about…some totally melting down because hello, they should be in bed. So yeah, judgy about that kind of thing 🙂 I think most parents are doing a good job though…navigating these waters is hard and sometimes you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do.

  5. Tej

    Interesting conversation and I’m glad to hear it. About 2 years ago I stumbled on a blog whose author had gone back to working outside the home after a while as a SAHM. Her honest sharing about her choice seemed to have been seen as a declaration of war by her SAHM readers. By the time I stumbled on the site there were hundreds of comments many with full on insults, name calling etc. I think you hit on something with your theory about why we judge. It really is the hardest job in the world and we want more than anything to get it right and we also hear that consistency is important so we pick our theory, convince ourselves that it’s the right theory and we implement it. Then someone comes along with a whole different theory that questions the premise on which ours is based. It’s heady stuff.
    Thankfully I didn’t have any issues with PPA after my kids but 2 of my closest friends did and so I’ve been able to benefit from their wisdom. I think of parenting as a process with lots of opportunities for course correction. Crude as it is to state it in these terms, it is essentially an experiment and a gamble. I choose to do X & Y because my hypothesis is that it will result in = compassionate, kind, fulfilled and self-assured child and adult. Because I acknowledge that my plan is a hypothesis I don’t feel threatened when I hear of another theory. I listen hard and think it over to see if it makes sense for our family and if it’s practicable. Sometimes I think “good for them but there’s no way we could do that” or “I’m not so sure about that but great if it works for them”. Other times I think “that’s a great idea. we’ll have to try that.”
    In other words, I try to be open and non-judgmental. There are however, things that I elicit a strong reaction from me and I usually don’t comment because I don’t want to seem judgmental. One such thing is co-sleeping. I know it’s a very popular practice in the mom blogging land and many people endorse it like it’s the way to go and it seems to work for many people. But, it always sends shivers down my spine.

    Our son seemed incapable of sleeping on his back so we put him to sleep on his side. By the time he was a few weeks old, he would roll over on to his tummy to sleep. Given the huge Back to Sleep campaign his insistence on prone sleep caused us much stress and I read everything I could find on SIDs. I know Dr. Sears and other attachment parenting experts argue that co-sleeping is safe but most ‘independent’ sleep experts, including most public health authorities consider co-sleeping a serious SIDS risk. This is not to say that co-sleeping = SIDS but when I see people strongly advocating co-sleeping or casually talking about it seeming either oblivious to the risk or without noting the precautions they take to increase safety (e.g. not co-sleeping with an under 6mth old, not drinking, firmer than normal mattress, no blankets or other soft things etc). As the mom of a prone sleeper, I am certainly not meaning to be judgmental but I always feel moved to comment when I see mention of co-sleeping. Not so much for the sake of the blog’s author but for the sake of new moms out there who are reading to figure out what to do with their newborns and may get the impression that co-sleeping is A-okay.

  6. c storm

    We’re sometimes foster parents, which means we see the extremes of parenting. It also means that we sometimes watch parents struggle – valiantly, desperately – in the toughest possible circumstances and in the direst possible poverty.

    What I keep learning, over and over, through this process, is that while I think ‘my way’ of parenting (limited sugar, firm schedule, no TV, huge amounts of talking and reading, early and consistent chores) is uber-important, having these choices is also a luxury.

    There are fabulous parents who manage to do a stellar job while raising kids in poverty, but they are robbed of so many choices. I think my kids are doing great but I’ve become so much less judgmental as I see more and more situations in which kids are hungry, sad, over-stimulated and unscheduled, and moved from school to school willy-nilly, and their parents are helpless to change events.

  7. judecorp

    I really think there is an institutionalized sexism component to the mommy competition. For so long, women have had to defend their choices (largely to men) up and down, and we have been looked at through a microscope while we did ANYTHING, and now we bring it down on each other.

  8. Great post. The mommy competition makes me crazy. It’s so hard to feel like anything and everything we do as parents might be judged in some way. I also fear sometimes that I may come across as judgmental. For example, last weekend I was at a party with a lot of other parents and kids my age. The host’s 13 month old son was happily dancing along with some kiddie show on TV. The host asked if our kids liked the show as well. Our kids don’t watch TV, but I worried that if I told her that, she might interpret it as me making a judgment on her parenting.

    I later learned that her twins watch a little TV in the evening while she and her husband have dinner together. It gives them some time to be “alone” and have adult conversation, and reconnect with each other. My partner an I eat with our 14 month old twins, so evenings are always chaotic. We have very little time to re-connect. Although I’m not sure I’m willing to give up on the TV thing just yet, I wonder what I am missing out on, and how my life could be easier if I eased up a little and stopped worrying about how I might be judged.

  9. poppycat

    I’ll tell you, I’ve never felt as much pressure to be perfect as I have since becoming a mom. It is self impossed and also comes from other mothers. I always wonder if I am being judged by the crunchiest of the crunchy for eating meat, using disposable diapers, being a working mom or buying my kids halloween costumes instead of making them and it does make me question how much more I could be doing to raise my kids “right”. Having twins has and being a working mom has forced me to lower my expectations for myself and while that pains me greatly, it is also probably really good for me to realize that the world will not end if a gram of processed sugar passes my children’s lips. I do the best I can for them and although I wish I could do more, I think it is more than enough for them to grow up happy, healthy and loved. With that in mind, I also think that I have become more tolorant of the choices others make for their kids. While I do catch myself judging sometimes, I now have the ability to stand back and realize that there is more than one way to raise a healthy happy kid, not just my way. I have far more compassion for parents than I did before I had kids and really, I have very little time to worry about how others are raising their little ones. I’m so busy worrying about me and mine I cant worry about others.

    The way you areticulated this issue and its causes is spot on and reminds us all of our part in either raising up and supporting other moms or tearing them down and making them feel inadequate. For a job as hard as this one we all need as much support as we can get. Thanks for the reminder T.

  10. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t participate in this kind of contest, even against my better self’s instincts. And if I were hard pressed to justify why, I’d probably confess that my negative judgments of other parenting styles make me feel better about my own parenting style. So really, it’s all about insecurity. People are just so damn insecure, all of us! And when it comes down to something as crucial and important as how we raise our children, we want to think we are making the right decisions – about food, about circumcision (Rose and I are still not completely settled about our decision on that one), about discipline…and every time we hear that someone else does something differently, we can see it as a signal that we’ve made the wrong choice, or we can decide that THEY have made the wrong choice and feel satisfied (and sometimes smug) that we were so much wiser. So, no, I don’t think anything will end this competition, unless we can become less insecure and anxious in general. My better self likes to think that, as my friend Abby says, “everyone is just doing their best.”

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