The battle of all mothers

Why are moms so competitive?

When my son was four, a woman I’ll call Karen invited us over for lunch. I was excited: Her daughters were well behaved and precocious, and she seemed well connected — the kind of mom who could give me pointers on local kids’ programs. She, however, had another agenda. As soon as we sat down in the kitchen, she plopped three carrot sticks on my son’s plate and asked, “If I give you four more, how many will you have?” He stared at her blankly, until she trilled, “Girls?” All of them, even the three-year-old, sang out, “Seven!” Karen, it turned out, was the queen of the teachable moment, even if she had to invent it. When her youngest asked for a slice of apple, Karen demanded, “What letter does apple start with? Good! And what else starts with the a sound?” And so on.

My son was unfazed but, inside, I shrank. Why didn’t he know this stuff? And then: Why hadn’t I taught him? I thought Karen was a terrible show-off and quite possibly nuts, but still — she rattled me.

Why do competitive moms make us anxious and defensive, even when their game is so obvious? You probably already know the answer: Because one way or another, we all play it too.

“It’s human nature to compare, to see how you stack up,” says Sara Levine,* a Toronto mother of twins. “It starts in pregnancy, measuring your weight gain against another woman’s, then it’s what stroller you’re getting, how soon your baby walks and talks — everything. I think it’s OK so long as you do it quietly and don’t say anything nasty.”

*Names changed by request.

Many mothers do, however, say something. Sometimes the intention isn’t to be nasty, but even benign comments can rankle. Levine remembers a friend, who gave birth around the same time, “gushing that her kid was already sleeping through the night, while I was still struggling to get mine swaddled. I already felt I wasn’t doing things right, and her remark only made me feel worse.”

Even more stinging is the competition that usually kicks off with an “innocent” question: “You’re not breastfeeding?!” or “You’re still breastfeeding?!” Comments like this tap into our insecurity while fuelling our defensiveness — and likely spring from other mothers’ own feelings of insecurity and defensiveness.

Why do we do this to each other? Partly because we have so much invested in our kids and care so much about doing right by them, and partly because we’re simultaneously convinced we have all the answers while worrying that we’re clueless. Today, there are so many different schools of thought on virtually every aspect of parenting, from toilet training to sex education, that “a tyranny of choice” creates not freedom, but fear that somehow we’ll make “the absolute wrong decision,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads.

This fear leads directly to contests, overt and covert, regarding “the right way” to parent. Of course, no one can ever really win, but the prize title — best mom — is so valuable that many of us continue to duke it out, even if the competition is conducted only in our own minds (My child never hits and has better manners…).

Judging other mothers

There is, however, a significant problem with judging maternal skill through a child’s behaviour and accomplishments: Some children are a lot more difficult to raise than others, and it’s impossible to judge their moms’ performance without knowing what challenges they’re facing. Mothers with typically developing kids sometimes fail to recognize that a child who comes off as a holy terror may, in fact, have a wonderful mom who’s facing challenges they didn’t even know existed.

“At the supermarket, if my son calls me a ‘bitch’ and starts screaming, I can see the judgment in other mothers’ eyes. They’re thinking, ‘She’s a terrible mother; she’s handling this situation all wrong,’” says Andrea Boulden, a senior manager at KPMG, whose younger son has Tourette syndrome and, therefore, trouble regulating his emotions and behaviour. “When he’s really anxious, he can be loud and obnoxious, swear, provoke someone or walk up to his brother out of the blue and punch him. People automatically assume he does this stuff because I’m a bad parent.”

She gets where they’re coming from because she used to make the same kinds of assumptions, confident that her older child’s good behaviour was proof positive of her own parenting prowess. Today, however, Boulden says, “I try never to judge, even when I see people doing things I disagree with. I just think, ‘I don’t know the whole story.’” And, despite what a casual observer might think, she knows she’s a much better mom now: “I feel like other people are taking Parenting 101, and I have my Ph.D. — just because of what I’ve gone through with my younger son.”

When mothers compete — with each other and through their kids — sociologists and psychologists hear the gears of larger societal forces grinding. Apparently, there’s a connection between moms who sign their four-year-olds up for beauty pageants and moms like, well, you.

Paradoxically, even petty competitions — whose brownies sell better at the school bake sale, say — may be kindled by the weighty responsibilities of motherhood. “As long as mothers alone are held responsible for raising well-adjusted children, we will feel insecure and competitive,” explains Leora Tanenbaum, author of Catfight, an engaging study of female rivalry. What’s at issue is not just results (Whose kid is smartest?) but, ultimately, morality: Who is the most self-sacrificing and devoted mother of them all? As Tanenbaum points out, fathers benefit greatly from this largely unspoken competition. When mothers are under the microscope, judging and being judged on everything from whether they serve organic milk to whether their kids have piercings, fathers can fly under the radar.

Oddly, feminism — so powerful at spurring profound change in so many aspects of women’s lives — hasn’t really altered this equation. While many dads also feel less than entirely secure about their parenting abilities, they don’t seem to beat themselves up over it the way moms do — nor does anyone else. A certain degree of paternal haplessness is expected and tolerated — even celebrated, at least in Hollywood, as goofily lovable. Plus, even highly involved fathers are not held accountable for their children the way mothers are. When a six-year-old repeatedly turns up at school dishevelled, without a drink or lunch, for instance, no one concludes, “His father is obviously negligent.”

The stakes are different for mothers because they’re told (and tell themselves) that, ultimately, it’s up to us. Naturally, then, even relatively minor choices can seem freighted with import and the potential for wrecking our kids’ lives, as well as exposing us as the bad moms many of us, from time to time, secretly fear we are.

Sometimes this results in competitions so silly they’re easy to laugh off. “There’s a PTA inner core at my kids’ school that’s always asking for volunteers, but they won’t let anyone else into their club. They want to run the school and think other mothers just couldn’t do it as well as they can,” says Susan Beatty,* a Toronto mother of four. “It’s like high school, only more gossipy.”

It’s more difficult to dismiss the hyper-competent moms, the ones who peel out of the school parking lot every day in their minivans, en route to enriching kids’ activities. You start to wonder: Are they giving their kids better opportunities? That anxiety can lead to a “herd mentality,” says Anne Lamarche,* whose children attend an exclusive private school in Toronto. “If everyone else is taking piano in junior kindergarten, you’d better get your child enrolled too.”

This kind of competition is not just limited to snooty urban neighbourhoods. “Out here, it’s more about babysitters. Some moms will say, ‘Oh, my sitter used to teach Montessori,’ but they won’t give you her phone number,” says Jennifer Lang,* a mom of two in a small farming community in Ontario. “Hockey is also hugely competitive: whether your kid made the team, which team, on and on. A mother can lord it over you like she is the one on the ice!”

The hockey mom is, of course, the ultimate caricature of competitiveness. But even as she screeches from the sidelines, you have to admire her directness: She wants her kid to win and isn’t afraid to show it. Most of us probably have a touch of the hockey mom inside; it’s why we brag about our kids’ grades and accomplishments.

*Names changed by request.
Mothers who compete

Competition, then, isn’t all bad: Among other things, it’s an expression of how much we want for our children. And, frankly, there’s an aspirational quality to it. Super-competitive mothers have propelled me to sign my kids up for fantastic (but hellishly inconvenient) art classes and shamed me into volunteering at the school, which is surprisingly enjoyable.

But being the best mom you can be usually requires looking inward — not outward— to figure out what’s doable given your own personality and circumstances. When you do, it’s easier to tune out the Karens of the world and cut yourself some slack. Your kids certainly will. As my son, now 11, recently said to me, “You yell too much, but I just say to myself, ‘Hey, at least she’s not a droid like a lot of other moms.’” Not that I’m competitive — but I don’t mind telling you that in my household, that’s a first-place finish.