On the morning of my son’s first gymnastics class, I was exhilarated. Not because watching toddlers jump from mat to mat avoiding “lava” was my preferred form of entertainment, but because we had officially entered a new era of motherhood—the “we don’t have to be home for a morning nap” era. My two kids must have sensed my positive energy, because the typical morning shuffle went smoother than ever. I had even managed to make an online account to process the payment and sign the waivers ahead of time! Soon we were loaded up in the minivan and ready to see the world that existed between the hours of 9 a.m. and 11 a.m.
Not long after gathering in the gym we were met by the coach. He gave us a wave before instructing the kids to put their coats and shoes in the cubbies and form a line on the green tape. I watched as roughly eight toddlers began unzipping their own jackets and pulling off their own shoes. “Mommy! Help me! I need my coat off!” yelled my son. With my 1-year-old waddling towards the foam pit, I hurriedly tore off my 3-year-old’s coat and shoes. “There you go honey, have fun!” The insecurity in my voice was audible. In comparison, all the other kids—some younger than mine—could perform a skill that my child could not. I did not even think to teach my 3-year-old how to take off his coat.
It took me a few days to shake the feeling that I was holding my firstborn back because of my cavalier approach toward developmental milestones. What other key teaching moments was I forgetting?
The comparison trap in motherhood is common—and unavoidable. Since that day, there have been countless similar instances that have rattled my confidence as a parent. I’ve also experienced this phenomenon in reverse; once, at the library, as my toddler scanned his own books at the self-checkout, a parent stared wide-eyed before asking me how old he was. I knew what she was thinking.
Why are mothers so susceptible to the comparison trap?
To help answer this question, I reached out to Ciera Kirkpatrick, PhD, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Nebraska, whose research focuses on how messaging in the media affects individuals’ mental and physical health.
Dr. Kirkpatrick first pointed out that comparisons are a normal part of the human experience and are not always a terrible thing. She expounded on Social Comparison Theory, a concept dating back to the 1950s that explains social comparison as a key tool in helping humans with their innate desire to understand themselves.
“As humans, we have a natural tendency to want to improve ourselves. Comparisons can help us figure out who we want to be and what we want to achieve. [They] can also give us valuable information about how to achieve those things.” Dr. Kirkpatrick says. She suggests that it can be beneficial for parents to compare their bedtime routines to those of other parents, for them to realize that there may be a better method to achieving their goals.
Dr. Kirkpatrick senses that the magnitude of the transition into parenthood—stepping into entirely new roles—along with our immense desire to want the best for our children, makes mothers especially susceptible to comparison. “The transition comes with a lot of uncertainty, and we can seek certainty by looking at what other people are doing and comparing ourselves to that.”
When social comparison becomes unhealthy
A little comparison can be healthy, but in the age of social media, unlimited content in the palm of our hands has created an abundance of opportunities for comparison. That combined with social media’s particular ability to idealize portrayals of motherhood through editing and filters, according to Dr. Kirkpatrick, has made the problem a lot worse. Certainly for me, a sweet picture of my friend’s toddler writing their name in chalk can stir up feelings of comparison and doubt if I’m not careful.
To help identify when social comparison has become unhealthy, Dr. Kirkpatrick suggests checking in with your feelings as a good first step. “If we start to notice that every time we see posts from a certain influencer, we start to feel poorly about ourselves or start to be in a bad mood, then that’s likely a sign that the comparison is unhealthy,” she states.
“We can also identify social comparison as unhealthy when it starts to change our behaviors in a negative way. For instance, we might find ourselves pushing clutter out of the way before taking a picture of our child.”
As a first-time mom herself, Dr. Kirkpatrick has become mindful of the content she posts. “I no longer always make sure my kid has a clean face before taking a picture. I’m OK with the background of the photo being a messy house.”
How to avoid falling into the comparison trap
To start, it’s important to first acknowledge those feelings of comparison, says Jackie Loughlin, a wellness consultant and host of The Art of Perspective Podcast, whose clients include top female politicians, executives and social media influencers—people whose presence on social media is a job requirement.
“The conversation starts with normalizing the comparison, those feelings of judgment. It’s very human to experience and feel those things,” Jackie shares. When those feelings become too frequent and intrusive, Jackie likes to guide her clients using her “Blinders, Bumpers and Buckets” technique. She walked me through questions that can help anyone who is aiming to find more peace and fulfillment in their lives.
3 steps to reducing the comparison cycle
To avoid the comparison trap, Jackie recommends writing out answers to these three questions.
Blinders: What do I need to cut out of my life? What accounts do I need to unfollow?
Bumpers: What boundaries do I need to have? What boundaries are working now?
Buckets: What are the buckets of my life, that in keeping full will satisfy the needs of myself and my family? How do I stay within these buckets?
Put into practice, Jackie’s tool has reduced much of the self-doubt I experience in motherhood.
To enact “blinders,” I’ve stopped asking comparative questions to my mom friends about things like what their kids eat for dinner and if they use floaties to swim. I added “bumpers” by setting a rule about the sports and activities we commit to: one per season. I became deliberate with the pictures that are framed throughout the house—me and the boys on our first hike, a photo of my late grandmother’s house, my husband and I traveling—as continual reminders of my “buckets”.
Although I still have days where comparison gets the best of me, it is becoming easier to let it go and stay focused on my own family and values. What motivates me most is ultimately my kids—who will grow up in an even more competitive and online world—to hopefully serve as an example of purposefully maintaining healthy self-esteem.