The Addiction of Comparison

I am a huge Brene Brown fan. If you do not know who Brene Brown is, she is a Social Worker who is also a researcher and storyteller. Her research has had the issues of shame and vulnerability become a much-needed public conversation. I highly recommend any of her books, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Braving the Wilderness, The Power of Vulnerability, along with her many workshops have provide us with important and valuable work. I have read everything she has ever written and I follow her on all of her social media platforms. And while she has said many, many brilliant and noteworthy things, one of the things she says that stands out most to me is that “comparison kills creativity and joy.” And, for whatever reason, I am seeing comparison all over the place these days and it is nowhere as rampant as it is with mothers raising young children.

I am a social worker and I have a private practice where I see a lot of mothers of young children. Additionally, I have friends who are mothers, my daughter and daughter-in-law are both mothers, not to mention that you can find media images portraying what mothers and children look like all over. The demands on these women are enormous. Now, as a caveat, I am not suggesting that there are not high demands on fathers, just that this piece is about mothers. All of the women I know who are raising children are working mothers. They are all very invested in their careers, meaning that they take pride in their work, and want to do the best job they can do. They also care very deeply about raising children who learn what is important in life. They want their children to have a strong relationship to personal and systemic integrity, they want them to value family and friends, to know right from wrong, to play nicely in the sandbox and all of that. They are also invested in their houses, so they like them to be clean, at least some of the time, with the laundry done, again, at least now and again. They also cook or have some plan to put something on the table or otherwise feed their kids three times a day. And, by the way, those careers, that house cleaning, the cooking, the teaching of values all happens amid things like dancing, gymnastics, scouting, religious education, braiding hair, tying shoes, calling the plumber, dropping off dry cleaning, seeing other family members, birthday parties, just to name a few extra-curricular parenting activities. 

Pick one. Any ONE of those things is a full-time job and, while I think we would all say that we know that, we say it in passing. Or we say it dismissively, but I am proposing that we stop and look at the insane demands we put on working mothers who are raising children. Said another way, the demands that we have on working mothers are the demands they have inherited and are largely fueled by comparison. I think women of my generation integrated the demands of our mothers’ generation, then added to it the social-political demands of our own generation, including both working and parenting full time, and then passed those demands on to our daughter, the next generation of mothers. And it may be that they are not even comparing themselves to other mothers but the ideal of mothering that they have in their heads. The idea of what a house with two (or more) kids should look like. What a healthy meal for a family should look like and so forth. I hear it all the time. 

One young mother I know is surrounded by other mothers whose children are several years older than her newborn. She is breast feeding and has returned to work, which requires her to take time out of her day to pump and then refrigerate the milk. She has had to justify this commitment over and over again. Her co-workers have had multiple conversations with her about how much easier her life would be if she would “just switch to formula” because, after all, “formula has been around for years” and it is “just as good as breast feeding.” She has fallen victim to the comparison of the breast-versus-bottle-feeding conversation, but honestly, I cannot imagine why anyone would care how someone else decides to feed their infant. And I do not think they are bad people. I think they are people who view life through the context of comparison. This versus that. Good enough, not good enough. 

Comparison is a national addiction in the United States. It starts innocently enough. The road to the addition of comparing starts, I think, under the umbrella of learning. I am one of those people who likes hand lettering and I have an artistic style to writing letters. Letters I send, almost exclusively written by hand, also involve the use of different color pens and markers, little squiggly circles and so forth. My grandchildren and every child I have ever known under 10 years old, loves to get letters from me because they are so whimsical. Each child who writes back typically mimics my style when they write back. They copy it as a way of finding their own self-expression. And we learn lots of things that way, by finding someone who does it better, and copying their style until we find our own expression of the thing we want to learn. Innocent enough. But I assert that, at some point in the learning, we combine other messages that we pick up along the way, and we go from learning and growing to comparing and being critical of our achievement. And it takes almost no time at all before children are comparing themselves to each other, deciding how they are measuring up, or not. I recently heard that some insanely high number of fourth grade girls are dieting because they don’t like how they look. 

In another instance, I called a friend who, again, is a working mother, has a career and all the above-mentioned things in her life. I wanted to know if her son could check our mail while we were away for a weekend. She didn’t return my call. Almost a month or so later, I ran into her at the super market and she was mortified that she didn’t return my call. I reassured her that it was really no big thing for me. Really. I understood when I made the call that her life is really busy and, had I really wanted to get her, I could have a) called back, b) texted, c) emailed her or d) dropped over to her house. She lives within walking distance. Also, I reminded her that she had answered three other questions I needed answered when we had just moved to the area, but she was having none of it. She insisted that not calling back was a “shitty thing to do.” I love that she cared about how I might have felt that she didn’t call me back. I love that she has those values. I hate that she has turned them on herself. The addiction of comparison. Unstated but implied, good people return calls promptly and it is “a shitty thing” to not return a friend’s call. 

I have example after example of how young mothers hold themselves to a higher standard than is even humanly possible to achieve. I think it is an addiction that, as far as I can see, has not skipped a generation in many, many generations. It is this compulsive thing we as woman have that is like a hungry beast that keeps eating its way through our lives. It is fueled by the generations that have come before us, every time we turn on a TV, radio, podcast or drive by a billboard. It is fueled in conversations we have with each other. It is fueled by unreasonable expectations in the workplace. It is fueled by punitive measures that are imposed if we are not perfect in our jobs. It is fueled by the friends we lose when we do not meet perfect-friend criteria. 

A lot of the women I see in my practice long for a better life because they think the one they have is too painful. In many cases, these women are trauma survivors or have otherwise experienced great loss. But it isn’t just that, as if “just that” isn’t enough, it is that there is an expectation imposed as well. They should be different. They should be better mothers. They should be functioning better in the world. They should feel better, eat better, exercise more, read more and so on and so forth. It is insane. The addictive quality of comparison is just insane- and insidious. 

Comparison kills creativity and joy. Brene Brown couldn’t have been clearer about this. So, this piece is for all the women I know who are raising children. In fact, it is for every woman I know, raising children or not. You are enough. There really is no perfect out there. It is a lie. It was always a lie. It was meant to serve us as a standard, but it turned into a lie. You are enough. If you want to improve some quality in your life or about your life, please do it because it makes you happy, really makes YOU happy, not that it makes you happy to have reached the inherited gold standard. You already have a gold star for being you. Let’s have being you, unadulterated, unapologetic, unfiltered you be the standard.