What's up with competitive parenting?

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Most competitive mothers are simply trying to gauge their child against others to reassure themselves that all is well.
Most competitive mothers are simply trying to gauge their child against others to reassure themselves that all is well.

Once you announce you're pregnant, it can feel like you're in a race with other moms-to-be.

Who puts on the least weight? Who sets up the cutest designer baby room? Who has the more "natural" birth?

For some women, this is just their first glimpse of "mom shaming" and the pressure to ensure our kids are as cute, smart and stimulated as other babies whose moms are acing it at parenting.

It's unexpected. Aren't we all supposed to have each other's backs?

A whole new world

"My baby and I had a rough start. She was a poor sleeper and I struggled to breastfeed. I joined a baby group for support but I was surprised when I started to dread the weekly meet-ups," says Denise. 

"Other moms would share how their baby was sleeping through the night, or they had so much milk they could donate it to a milk bank. I started to feel uncertain about my ability as a mom. I didn't realise how competitive other moms could be." 

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Shrugging off her insecurities as part of her adjustment to motherhood, Denise, like many of us, found that the subtle competition to be "mom of the century" intensified as her daughter got older.

"I know people are proud of their children. But when I saw friends on Facebook sharing that their child was already walking at 10 months, or what foods they were eating, or their elaborate first birthday cake, I couldn't help feeling that I was losing at a game I hadn't even wanted to take part in," she continues.

We all experience moments when we feel inadequate as parents and to balance this, we often put on a supermom facade.

Izabella Gates, author and founder of Life Talk, a local non-profit that promotes proactive parenting, says: "People express their feelings of inadequacy in different ways."

"Some deal with the emotions by putting others down. But most mothers who appear to be competitive are simply trying to gauge their child against others to reassure themselves that all is well." 

For some mothers, a shift in lifestyle can push the A-type personality button.

"If you've been working and suddenly you find yourself at home caring for a child, your whole identity can become wrapped up in how you're performing as a mom. A change in a role can make one feel very vulnerable," Izabella adds.

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A competitive mindset leads to two outcomes, says Australian psychologist Ruth Fordyce.

First, we may feel superior to others, which leads us to distance ourselves from other mothers – and lose out on their potential support in the process.

Second, like Denise, we judge ourselves as bad mothers, fuelling feelings of shame and anxiety.

The call of the wild

Some research shows that our tendency to compete with each other could be an instinct – or even a survival strategy - we developed as a species.

"Competitive breeding" – in which female primates essentially rival for the strongest mate – is written into our DNA.

This sets us up to compare our offspring with others and behave in ways that we think will make others respect us, even if we don’t recognise we're doing it.

Another theory is that our ancestors' survival, as with primates today, depended on women receiving help from other women who helped raise the young as a group.

This DNA heritage makes us naturally tuned to seek out ways to rate who are the "best candidates" to help support us in raising our young.

Check your emotions

Being Alpha Mom may have worked for our ancestors, but does it work for us?

And if it doesn't, how do we fight the instinct to compete?

Reading books and researching our children's developmental stages can give us the information we need to feel confident that all is on track.

However, every baby is different. You can get sucked into feeling that your baby isn't tracking as well as the others, which can fuel competitive feelings.

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Ruth agrees it's important to remind yourself of two things.

First, each child is unique. When we check how other children of the same age are developing, we're merely trying to assess if ours is meeting milestones. We want to know that they are okay.

The challenge is to avoid judging our abilities as a parent if we feel they're not exactly in line with those of others.

"It's important not to attach our self-worth as mothers to our child's behaviour, academic success or other outcomes," Izabella says.

As parents, our primary role is to care for and love our children. They're people, not projects.

"You're unique as a parent too. You bring your special abilities to parenting your child. Celebrate your strengths and those that align with your values, not those of others," Ruth says.

Avoid the world of Instabragging

Izabella has been running parenting forums for nearly two decades and says she has seen the impact of access to social media.

"It's a wonderful tool for sharing things," she says, "but it can also expose us to unwanted advice or comments that we feel put us down," she warns.

Remember, social media only reveals our "best lives". Your friends aren't going to post updates of their low points.

"People only post highlights of their parenting journey. They're not posting the reality of parenting and the tantrums and the tears on both sides. When we read these posts, it's hard not to compare ourselves to these experiences," Izabella adds.

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Keep this in perspective when you feel bad when other mothers broadcast their children's successes. Bounce back with humour and self-deprecation.

Share the "mess" in your life with your friends online and in real life. When you step out of the "arena", you'll find others will share their insecurities and perceived failures with you too.

You'll discover new friendships and support.

What about moms who have children who have special needs or who display signs of slower development or challenges?

"Don't get caught up in the social media hype. It's important to join a forum or support group where you can share with other parents who are in a similar situation."

"They're in the same boat and can relate to the feelings and struggles you are going through and can offer you a safe community to share them," Izabella advises.

Focus on your inner strength

Our ability to parent and fight those feelings of inadequacy come down to our self-esteem.

"When we're coming across as being competitive, what we're trying to express to others is that we're doing fine as a mother and our children are thriving," Izabella says.

She recommends working on your self-confidence and self-esteem if you feel inadequate.

"Liking and accepting yourself will give you peace and the strength not to succumb to pressures from outside. It will help you build a resilient family."

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How do you strike a balance between being proud and pushy?

"I don't think many of us go out to compete with other mothers, but it sometimes comes across like that. Work on developing feelings of contentment within yourself without needing positive comments or attention from others," she says.

"Pushing our kids to excel is another expression of 'competitive parenting'. We all want our kids to have the best opportunities, but the pressure our children are under is driving depression."

"We've got to separate ourselves from our children and see their individuality and their own needs and not live through their successes."

Lastly, she adds, give yourself a break.

"Children need their parents to be present – not perfect."

The more children see their parents chasing after perfection, which is an attempt to keep in control, the more pressure they feel to strive for perfection as well.

"Parenting and life are unpredictable," Izabella says.

"Your newborn senses how you feel, your toddler follows your expressions and comments closely. Your confidence as a parent will shape how your child feels and behaves later on in life." 

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