Thursday, July 21, 2011

Keeping up with Mama Jones

"Even the most perfect looking family can have some serious junk going on behind closed doors. No one is immune to family issues because doing "family" is just plain hard." ~ Hal Runkel

The Brady Bunch's Jan tries to wash away her pre-teen angst with lemon juice
For as long as I can remember, I have fallen into the comparison trap. As a young girl, I would stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom, picking apart every detail of my face, comparing it to the faces of everyone else I knew. I focused on things like the freckles that covered every inch of my face - no one else I knew had freckles like this. What could I do to get rid of them? After watching an episode of the Brady Bunch where a pre-teen Jan attempts to render her own freckles invisible with lemon juice, I was convinced I had found the solution to my problem. (It didn't work).

Being the slightly odd child that I was, I also longed to possess physical features that have probably never crossed another child's mind. For example, I longed to have a more wrinkled forehead. I saw the dignified wrinkle lines that my mother and father wore like a badge above their respective brows, and wished that I could look so smart and worldly. I stood in front of my bedroom mirror, scrunching and contorting my face, trying to get new lines to form. (This also didn't work).

As a parent, I have held onto this unfortunate tendency to pick apart every detail of myself (and sometimes my child or family as a whole), comparing notes with anyone and everyone to determine what is "normal." Is my child developmentally on track, compared to other children? How do I compare to other moms in my efforts to breastfeed my child as a baby, or discipline him now that he is a toddler?

It's been...well, a challenge, to say the least. Why do I do this to myself? And why do I seem to do it even more now that I'm a parent? I believe I've found a couple of clues...

Looking for that Greener Grass
Social Comparison Theory, posited by social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s, states that people have a natural tendency to evaluate their own capabilities, and they often do so by comparing themselves to others. Festinger hypothesized that, with respect to these comparisons, "There is a unidirectional drive upward," or a desire to increase one's abilities to match those of the individuals with whom they are comparing themselves. Further, "the more important the...ability is to the person...the greater will be the drive for evaluation." (Festinger, 1954)

So, parents...assuming that Festinger was on the right track, can you see where this comparison thing might prove to be a rather dangerous exercise? You have the perfect storm of comparison here. Not only do we have a natural drive toward making these comparisons, but parenting is something at which many individuals continually strive to improve. It is also perceived by many - parents and non-parents - to be a very important endeavor.

The problem arises when we take into account one crucial fact: children are not comparable. Families are not comparable. We are as different and unique as the day is long.

More importantly, as the quote at the top of this post suggests, the people - and parents - we choose to compare ourselves to may not be what we think. Take the mother who appears to have an "easy" child, or a woman who seems to be perfectly juggling work with family and other obligations - they have challenges, too, although they may not be apparent to others. Particularly in the case of a mom-to-mom exchange, the unyielding pressure in our culture to be a "supermom" could very well be influencing the course of conversation, and you may just be seeing what they choose to share with you.

Try Contentment, not Comparisons
While there is no harm in aspiring to be a better parent, or in wanting your child to be the best s/he can be, constantly focusing on our perceived shortcomings is never a good thing, for parents or their children. It can make you - and, consequently, your children - feel as if you (or they) are never good enough. Conversely, finding ways to make yourself happier and more content with where you're at can result in happier children in the long run.

One of the key ways to sidestep the comparison trap is to simply be aware of it. Borrowing from a post by one of my favorite bloggers, here are a few more ideas for avoiding negative parenting comparisons:
  • Focus on your strengths instead of your shortcomings. What are you really good at when it comes to parenting?
  • Make peace with your imperfections. None of us are perfect. No, not even that supermommy from your child's playgroup. 
  • Just stop. Seriously...stop. Sometimes the best answer is the most simple one. When you catch yourself comparing your child or your family to others, keep in mind that everyone has challenges. Yours just might be different from others'. 

    So what about me, you ask? Well, I think it's safe to say that the insecure, pre-teen Jan Brady inside of me is (mostly) gone. In her place is a new-ish mother of a precocious little boy, trying to make all the "right" choices.

    Lately, I've been working on taking my own advice. I try to be patient and forgiving with myself when I make mistakes (which is probably more often than I'd like to admit). So far, it seems to be paying off. An unforeseen result of my efforts has been that I've begun to genuinely enjoy my child and my family more...I can accept and appreciate them exactly as they are, rather than wishing they were something else. I still strive to improve, and to make informed decisions when faced with parenting challenges (of which there are new ones daily). But when I screw up, I go easy on myself. I'm doing the best I can and, ultimately, isn't that the best that any kid could ask for?

    Works Cited
    Festinger, Leon.
        1954. A Theory of Social Comparison Processes. Human Relations 7: 117-140


    1. I just want to note that it is sexy as hell that you have a works cited on your blog.

    2. You might be interested in the studies done by J. Kagan in 1994 involving parental and child temperament. It is only loosely related to your blog, but it was found that ill tempered children that are met with patience and firmness in parenting tend to outgrow their ill temper, but if met with impatience or harsh judgement will not outgrow the temperament.

    3. It is true, the most powerful tool we have for controlling our natural tendencies for comparison is within ourselves. BTW, your mother does not have wrinkle lines, but if she did I am sure they WOULD be dignified.

    4. Thank you for your comments! I appreciate the book recommendation, and I will definitely check it out.