We brag about our baby’s milestones, our 4-year-old’s ability to add double digits and our 12-year-old’s success in playing challenge soccer. We also ask pointed questions, such as, “What preschool did Emma get in?” and “Did Cameron make the charter school lottery?” While it all seems honest and harmless, sometimes it’s more about boasting our parenting successes through our children, rather than really wanting answers to the questions.
It’s called oneupmomship, and almost all mothers do it — either consciously or unconsciously — at one time or another. Whether we’re pushing toddlers in strollers, or prodding teens to fill out job or college applications, from pregnancy to empty nest, we subtly vie for Mom of the Year.
This mom rivalry happens in the classroom and at the PTA meeting. It’s obvious on the sidelines of the soccer field, when moms gather to gab at Bunco or the local coffee shop, and even at church.
Paula Spencer, a longtime magazine journalist and the author of “Momfidence!” (Three Rivers Press, 2006), says oneupmomship is the reason behind the increasing popularity of Christmas-letter novellas and bumper stickers that read “Proud Parent of a Baby Who Can Sign 200 Words.’”
Cammie Howard of Huntersville jokingly describes the subtle ways moms try to outdo one another as prize fights. “I picture women standing around in their cutesy workout clothes, smiling and talking,” she says, “and yet a casual downward glance reveals they have on boxing gloves.”
We admit to doing it, and we laugh about it, but experts say this kind of competition can cause serious stress and result in chronic health problems. The reason is that, while we might be falling apart at the seams on the inside and chaos might be ensuing at home, on the outside and to the rest of the world, we’re the picture of put-together perfection. It’s all about the Supermom image, even though we know it’s unrealistic.
Striving for Supermom Starts at 16
Why does mom rivalry run so rampant?
“Competition becomes part of our lives from a very early age,” says Ann Kreindler-Siegel, a licensed clinical social worker and family therapist with Cameron Valley Psychotherapy and Counseling in Charlotte. Girls struggle with body image, and around that, they compete for friends, as well as boys’ attention. “Unfortunately, parents, teachers and coaches play into the competition by praising those who do well and somewhat ostracizing those who don’t do well.” she says, “I think the foundation for oneupmomship starts young, in terms of ‘How do I measure up?’ and ‘How do I compare to her?’”
Just like boys, adds Kreindler-Siegel, girls compete over grades in school, and who does better in the classroom and on the athletic field.
Basically, mothers live in a constant state of being unsure, and it’s this insecurity that leads us to the constant “oughta, woulda, coulda, shoulda” commentary that plays in our brains, says Spencer. In “Momfidence!” she writes that these “momologues” are not about delivering praise and positive reinforcement, but rather about fretting and nagging. Our inner voice, Spencer says, whispers comparisons to everybody else’s kids and tallies up our shortcomings.
Part of the problem, too, is that we try to be all and do all as wives and mothers, and we’re exhausted from trying to be superhuman. We know Supermom doesn’t exist, but we try to live up to that ideal anyway.
“There are many thankless days, snotty noses, bad attitudes, and terrible 2’s, 3’s and 4’s we must endure,” says Howard. “We seem to search for affirmation, and if we don’t get it at home, we quickly begin to compare ourselves to the mom next door. Suddenly, everyone else seems to be more patient, more loving and more put together.”
Tying Our Identity to Our Kids
Kreindler-Siegel says we often parent out of fear — out of the anxiety that we won’t be good enough, and that our children will go out and project this image that reflects poorly on us. “There are not a lot of parents who can step back from their kids’ identities and let them just be,” she says.
The ultimate fear, says Kreindler-Siegel, is that if our identity is based solely on being a mom, then what if we’re not really good at it?
In the oneupmomship ring, moms duke it out because they anchor their identity to their children and, essentially, their children’s success. “So often as moms, we ‘lose ourselves’ to our children,” says Howard. “We spend so much time trying to fill up their lives, that we forget who we are in the process.”
Many women, who are at home with their children full time after putting their careers on hold, end up finding their identity is tied to how much their children are doing because they’re used to measuring success by productivity, and if their children are happy or what they’re feeling on any given day (because customer satisfaction wins awards).
As a mom of two preschoolers, Howard quips a word of caution, saying, “If their children are anything like mine, all of these things can change in an instant, so finding our identity in our children and their successes can be shaky ground.”
Keeping it All Inside
We all know nurturing our children to become the best they can be is our most important job, but often pretending it’s effortless and priding ourselves on appearances — ours, as well as our children’s — gets in the way. We think if we look the part, then magically it will happen.
When women wear their Supermom costume and aren’t willing to take off the mask and be authentic, then the feeling that “I am the only one who is struggling” is perpetuated.
“There isn’t a whole lot of sharing going on among moms about what isn’t going well, so there isn’t any validation that we aren’t the only ones who are having a hard time,” says Kreindler-Siegel. “We go about our lives as if everything is perfect. We don’t want to show on the outside what we’re really feeling on the inside.” The result, she says, is that women’s feelings can remain trapped in their nervous systems, and the mental and physical affects can be very destructive.
Pharmaceutical sales are on the rise, and moms are keeping pace, popping their happy pill with their morning glass of OJ. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, 10 percent of women 18 and older take antidepressants.
Dr. Samantha Suffren, a psychiatrist with Presbyterian Psychiatric Associates who works mostly with women and mothers, says twice as many women than men are diagnosed with depression. “We’re trying to do everything. … We need something to keep us awake and something to help us relax,” she says.
Physically, stress takes a toll on our bodies in a variety of ways. Suffren says it affects heart health and gastrointestinal function. High blood pressure is common, as are constipation and diarrhea — symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Tension also messes with how we eat and sleep, and vice versa. Moms who are constantly running on empty (or overload) and operating on just a few hours of sleep, aren’t good for themselves or their children.
In addition to eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep, Suffren advises moms to try to tune out. “It’s easier these days to compare ourselves to others with e-mail, Facebook and Twitter,” she notes.
Unlacing Our Gloves
The best way for moms to put an end to the one-upping is to take off the boxing gloves and realize we’re all fighting the same battles. If we’re willing to meet in the center of the ring with our guard down, we might just see that our opponents are just as unsure as we are and struggling with the same concerns.
“It’s such a relief when another mom normalizes our feelings — when we can say, ‘Really? I’m so glad to hear your kid does that, too,’” says Kreindler-Siegel.
As a member of the women’s ministry team at Lake Forest Church in Huntersville, Howard mixes humor and realness to encourage moms to stop beating themselves up. “We need to take care of ourselves and find out what it is that fills us up,” says Howard. “When we can find hobbies and activities that bring us joy and fulfillment, we tend to be better moms, and suddenly we don’t feel such a strong need to have our identity wrapped up in our children.”
Real conversations with one another are needed, too. “If we begin to practice being better listeners and encouragers, then maybe, just maybe, some of those playground conversations can become more positive,” she adds, “and we can walk away feeling like we are on the same team with some of the greatest people around — other moms!”
Finally, Kreindler-Siegel points to a passage from the newest book by Jodi Picoult that’s on her nightstand right now. In “House Rules” Picoult writes, “…we are expected to be supermom these days, instead of admitting that we have flaws. It is tempting to believe that all mothers wake up feeling fresh every morning, never raise their voices, only cook with organic foods and are equally at ease with the CEO and PTA. Here’s a secret: These mothers don’t exist. … Real mothers admit it is easier to fail at this job than to succeed. … Rest easy, real mothers. The very fact that you worry about being a good mom means that you already are one.”
Playground or Prize Fight?
Whether in the classroom or on the soccer field, every mom wants to be a winner and claim the title of Mom of the Year. What do Charlotte Parent readers have to say about oneupmomship?
19 percent say they participate and don’t realize they’re doing it.
2 percent say they revel in oneupmomship, because it’s an every-mom-for-herself-world.
39 percent say they never contend with other moms, because we’re all supposed to be on the same team.
40 percent say they occasionally climb into the competition ring, but only with the gal who thinks she knows it all, and always looks perfect.