A few weeks ago I was cleaning out boxes of old belongings from my childhood home. I went through four dozen journals, most with only the first ten pages filled, seven jewelry boxes crammed with key chains and friendship bracelets, and a hundred million pictures (maybe not that many, but close to that many). Most of us grew up in the age of film. You remember, that thing we had to load in the back of our camera, wind up, and then actually have printed to see any photos. The result is boxes and boxes and boxes of pictures. And a few very teenage girl photo albums I’m sure I picked up at the Limited, Too somewhere around 1995.
As I sifted through these collections, I did a lot of remembering, a bit of crying, and plenty of story-telling. Then I pulled out maybe a dozen pictures total, the most sentimental ones that brought me back to a person or a place that I thought I might tell my babies about someday. The rest, they currently lay in peace in a recycling center somewhere in Northern California. It’s not that I am unsentimental; my fun-saver camera skills simply did not lend themselves to capturing memories worth a thousands words and, frankly, most of pictures were—to put it nicely—not good. But as I thought about these memories of the young girl and teenager and eventually young adult that I used to be, I remember something so clearly: I was always comparing myself to someone else in the picture. It was a disease that plagued me at an early age, and one I had a hard time shaking as I grew older.
But you know, now I am a mom, which should be the fastest route to getting your stuff together because we are, you know, responsible for other humans. And with two kids, a husband, a job and a mortgage, I am surely mature enough at this stage of my life to not compare myself to anyone anymore.
Well, that is a lie. A big, ugly lie.
I’m still plagued. But I am learning, I am growing, and I am longing for freedom. And after hours of feeling sorry for that teenage girl who was a fake version of happy in pictures that I was clearly starving in, and sad in pictures when other beautiful young girls stole the show with their prom dress and fancy up-do’s, I have a new resolve to kick this comparison bug in the arse. I’m determined with a new motivation to do something: to stop that.
The ugly truth is that I have compared myself to other mamas since day one. Whose body held up better in pregnancy, who breastfed longer, whose baby smiled/rolled over/sat up/said “mama” first? I think a lot of us do this, both intentionally and unintentionally. After a few years of self-induced pain and, on the other hand, totally false confidence, I am certain now that more than anything else, this thing called comparison is what kills the beautiful spirit of camaraderie in motherhood. This constant sizing up of one another, of our methods, our theories, and worst of all, our children—this is the most ugly thing we do as mamas.
We allow ourselves to feel a little bit better or a little bit worse based on another person. We compare birth stories, nursing success, first steps, best behavior, who works, who stays at home, schools, food, and clothing. Then it gets exhausting and after we've had a few more kids we realize so few of the things we measure against each other really matter, but we keep doing it. Because just like our little toddlers who will say our name three hundred times until we give them our full attention, we just want to be seen. We want to be affirmed. We want some evidence of our devotion and sometimes we look in all the wrong places to find it.
We’ve got to stop that.
I wonder if we compare so much because motherhood—this grand, beautiful, lifetime title of mother—is impossible to measure. We don’t love things we can’t measure. We like bank statements, fiftieth percentiles, calendars, good report cards and to-do lists. And because our own little ones can’t give us a fair performance review, we sometimes use other mamas and other children for one instead. Let’s all just stop that. We need to be part of a village far more than we need to feel like chief in the village.
Being a mom is forever. And the goal, or at least one of the goals, is to send our babies into the world so well loved that they cannot help but to be a force of love themselves. We need this generation of little people to grow into big people who simply care about each other right across those lines of race, religion, intelligence, talents, and preferences. When they watch us compare—and they will—that is what they will do, too. We must let them find us seeing people rather than fighting to be seen; caring for others, not competing with them.
And that evidence of devotion we all desperately want the world to see? Well, I think that if our heart longs to do a good job raising our babies, if our love is loud and our laugh is contagious, if we cheer on our children whether they hit a home run or only collected bats after the game, if a hard earned "C" is celebrated in the exact same manner as the honor roll, I think in the middle of all those things lies plenty of evidence of a child well loved.
And a motherhood properly measured.