When best friends Angela and Jody became pregnant a month apart, they agreed to support each other in motherhood and enjoy their little ones without comparing them. Support? No problem. Enjoy? Easy. Not compare? Well, they're working on it.
The competition, Angela found, seems to start at birth with Apgar Scores. Despite respiratory distress, fetal monitoring and a desperate forceps extraction, her son Mason pulled through with a commendable 9 on that first exam. "According to the nurse, only pediatricians' kids get a 10," Angela reports.
Jody had a water birth -- no drugs, just deep breaths and mantras to get her through two days of labor with her baby, Emily. "Emily looked so relaxed and alert when I went to visit them in the hospital," Angela recalls. "It didn't matter that people said the same thing about my son. I was sure he wasn't as relaxed as Emily. To top it off, guess whose Apgar Score was a perfect 10?"
Competition can be painful, damaging and seemingly unavoidable in today's world, where being second is synonymous with not winning. In addition, as some women have come to expect standard workplace rewards like paychecks, raises and those "good job" pats on the back, becoming a mother can seem like a full-time volunteer job that gets little recognition. Very often, the only reflection of how well a mom is doing is her children. If they aren't doing well, she may feel like a failure.
Katherine Guerin, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Center for Family Learning in Rye Brook, says, "The goal is for the mother to have a non-anxious attachment to the baby -- to be happy with the child she has, instead of the child she wishes she had."
But in the dog-eat-dog world of the playground, it may be impossible for a mother not to notice that the child born two months after hers already climbs the jungle gym like a mini-mountaineer or has verbal skills that make her want to cue up the Baby Mozart tape. The first two years may be the hardest when a mother is new to this life-transforming task. It' a job for which no one is properly trained and one which can evoke deep feelings of inadequacy.
Even harmless questions like "What's Bobby's latest trick?" can jumpstart the comparison game. What if Bobby doesn't have a latest trick? Or worse, what if Bobby's latest trick is something that Johnny -- who's the same age -- mastered months ago.
David Pangburn, M.D., a pediatrician at Winchester Hospital in Massachusetts, says, "If there's a true area of weakness, then it's necessary to intervene early. That may mean sending the child to a speech therapist, having his hearing tested, or enrolling him in an Early Intervention Program. But we do see many parents who think their child is not quite up to the level of other children. These parents have to realize there's a lot of normal variation, and it doesn't mean the other children are smarter or better."
The voluminous amount of child-rearing books seems to worsen rather than improve matters. In previous generations, mothers had Dr. Spock and some time-tested advice from their own mothers to see them through teething, crawling and the terrible twos. These days, the childcare shelves sag with pediatrician-endorsed tomes that promise definite answers when often there are none. Dr. Guerin says, "The overload of information coming at parents paralyzes them and often leads to unfavorable comparisons between their child and what the standard is." She tells of one client who read that a developmental milestone was supposed to happen by 7 1/3 months. At 7 2/3 months, the mother got fretful when her daughter wasn't there yet.
Cheryl, a mother of two, says that in her son's first year she had to stop reading the books completely. They were making her such a wreck, she packed them in a box and put them in the attic. "Without them," she says, "I could notice what my son was doing, instead of what he wasn't."
Â "To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, every parent believes their child is above average," Dr. Pangburn says. "And we don't necessarily want parents coming in saying otherwise. But that can turn into: If every parent has an above-average child, what happens when you start comparing them?" He believes that, in many cases, the comparison is less about how well our children are actually doing and more about the parents' insecurities.
It's hard not to be insecure, however. At some point in her life, a mother may have been picked last for gym class or not invited to the prom, was the tallest or smallest kid in the class, or got rejected by her top choice college. She may have struggled and suffered, and is afraid her children will have to do the same. Perhaps she hopes that if her child is just the right percentage on the growth chart or a budding athlete by his first birthday, maybe he'll have some chance she didn't.
"Another parenting challenge,"Dr. Guerin says, "is not to create perfect children but to be the best parent to your child, no matter what the child is like. If you can reduce your own emotional distress, then you pass less anxiety down to your children. And that is a gift."
OUR KIDS: THREE GOALS FOR REDUCING THE ANXIETY
Recommendations from Dr. Katherine Guerin:
Keep A Broader Perspective: Instead of comparing children to a book's standard or another parent's child, remember what your own child does well. HowÃ??Ã?Â¢??s his emotional quotient or lateral development? Is he super sociable? Extra determined? We all have strong and weak areas, and we must recognize that this makes us human.
Connect to Family Members and Friends: A mother's emotional bank account is worth more if she has well functioning relationships with many people. Isolating ourselves with our daily struggles will only compound them, whereas connection with supportive, understanding adults will not only help us function better, but will allow our children to be well supported, too.
Remember Your Own Childhood: Take time to sit down with your husband, a close family member or understanding friend, and talk about where you struggled as a child. Did you wish you were smarter? More athletic? Prettier? If so, how do these feelings connect to your expectations and wants for your kids? Understanding your own childhood anxiety will help keep you from passing it on to your children.
SANDRA A. MILLER is a nationally published freelance writer. She and her psychologist husband, Mark Santello, Ph.D., teach communication techniques to parents at their relationship self-help site: HaveAQuickie.net.