Women have always been notoriously competitive with one and other. The phrase dressing to impress other women obviously stems from this fact. And designer apparel like handbags and shoes sell as way to garner the envy of other women, not men. But does this competition extend to motherhood?
During my freshman year of high school, the female students were given a choice in the summer/spring uniform – polo shirt and khaki skirt or polo shirt and khaki shorts. For a girl who had attended Catholic school her entire life, a brief respite from pleated skirts seemed like a godsend. So my best friend and I stupidly convinced our parents to invest in the new khaki shorts – just the shorts, no skirts needed.
When they arrived a month later we knew we had made an epic mistake. Instead of cute form fitting shorts that may or may not highlight our non-existent butts, we were faced with amorphous, long shorts that managed to hit at the worst part of the leg and had a crotch that popped up like an unwanted boner every time we sat down. Needless to say this was an inauspicious start to our high school experience.
Years later while I still laugh at the trauma of a semester in the horrid khaki shorts, I also lamented the fact that no one warned me. Fast forward to September of this year and the first day of preschool for my oldest child. While we didn’t have any fashion faux pas, I might as well have been wearing the khaki shorts. Somehow I missed the memo that the whole stay at home mom social code is exactly like high school. And while I have definitely grown in style and hopefully grace since puberty, the year was still quite harrowing.
So are women just naturally petty and competitive or does something about being a mom, especially a stay at home mom, bring out some primal cutthroat instinct?
There has been plenty written about the subject. My favorite is the show Odd Mom Out on Bravo. It documents the struggles of a slightly eccentric mom of three on the Upper East Side. While I don’t live on the Upper East Side, things are just as fiercely competitive in Nowheresville Suburbia. And the competition can be about the stupidest things. Here are few observations.
First, moms self-segregate into groups which I believe correspond to their old high school cliques. The jocks are now the moms in perennial yoga pants, pushing a double stroller. The overachievers have become the super involved helicopter parents who have their toddlers enrolled in a million brain enriching activities. The hippies/environmentalists wear their toddlers in Navaho print slings, eat organic, vegan everything and treat a variety of ailments by rubbing essential oils on their children’s feet. And of course the mean girl/popular crowd are now the wine loving mommies who schedule adult playdates to snark on everyone else.
Second, even the stupidest things are turned into competition. On the last day of school, I discovered that one of the moms was secretly butt hurt over the fact that my child was the tallest in the class. This is even more galling because both she and her husband are about the size of a Keebler Elf. Unless her child was adopted, height wasn’t going to be his thing. But seriously, everything is noted and tucked away in some mental ledger. The type of car you drive, your diaper bag, the size and style of your engagement and wedding rings, and even the way you dress to pick up or drop off your child.
Third, there is an art to in-person mom bragging. I won’t even bother with social media bragging because we all know how that goes. In-person mom bragging is done during the most visible part of the school day. At my child’s school it was during dismissal because there was always a captive audience of moms waiting for their children. Grand vacations to Europe were announced along with impossible developmental achievements. You would think my child attended school with billionaire geniuses if what I heard was to be believed.
Finally, beneath every exaggeration is an underwhelming kernel of truth. At an end of the year party, a mom made sure to mention that her daughter had written a letter to the teacher. I’m sure this was no coincidence. She knew my child hated handwriting. She also just happened to have the letter and proudly passed it around to the other impressed moms. But a little digging revealed that what seemed an impressive feat for a toddler, really wasn’t. It turns out little Penelope Grace was pushing 5 in a class of 3 ½ year olds. Of course her fine motor skills would be off the charts. It wasn’t a fair competition.
So is this level of competitiveness new or just an extension of our highly competitive society? Social media has made it very easy to create a persona or dream life for all to admire. I personally know people who only try new experiences in order to post something interesting to their various social media sites. Are children simply another new accessory to add to the perfect life image? Additionally, we live in a world where raising cultured Brainiac children is highly coveted. The popularity of books like Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom by Amy Chua is only one of many examples.
So what is a non-competitive mom to do? I struggled with this dilemma for an entire school year and came up with one answer: Just be. Life is too short to spend bickering or worrying about what other people think. At the end of day my children are loved, happy, and healthy. I can’t ask for more. And if someone is irrationally jealous because my child hit a growth spurt, then I really don’t need them in my life.