Being a mother in the seventies and eighties could by no means be described as easy. When my mother raised my three siblings and I, she did so with a fraction of the resources I have access to today. Nappies and dishes were washed by hand, healthy recipes from friends were accessed only by scribbles on the back of an envelope and groceries were carried home from the local store, after stopping to pay the bills (with real, paper money!) at the post office. When I consider what life was like for my grandmothers who raised six and nine children respectively in the post-war fifties, the contrast becomes even greater.
Comparing my life as a working mother raising three boys, to the experiences of my mother or grandmothers, seems silly, because of our vastly different circumstances. Why then, did I find myself regularly comparing myself (and falling short) when I considered the lives of the women around me, and those I admired on Instagram? In my quest for social connection, the temptation to compare was becoming toxic. Comparing myself to others was distracting me from what was really important and it was inducing feelings of insecurity that I really didn’t like.
Behavioural Science supports what was playing out in my reality. When you consider the experience of motherhood through the lens of Social Comparison Theory, initially proposed by Psychologist Leon Festinger in the 50’s, you can understand how women self-evaluate themselves, and seek to define their identity as a mother by comparing themselves to other mothers that they are connected to. Social Comparison helps us to figure out how we want to live our lives and who we want to be.
As a constantly-evolving role, we can get a sense of how we measure-up as a mum, and build motivation to improve and grow by looking to the opinions, behaviours, and lives of others, as a guide. Social comparison can be healthy, but it can also lead to feelings of inadequacy, guilt, competitiveness and depression. When we engage in comparison too often, and base our comparisons on incomplete or highly-enhanced versions of reality, we can step onto a slippery slope of insecurity and prevent ourselves from thriving in our most important role.
Technology makes it worse. Today, we don’t only have the opportunity to compare ourselves with the mothers we meet at school drop-off, soccer practice and at other social events, we now have unlimited access to images of perfection in motherhood via our smartphones. Never-ending images of motherhood shared by friends, influencers and complete strangers, can be found by tapping aimlessly through our Instagram feeds. The opportunities to compare are limitless, and the temptation to engage in negative social comparison can be overwhelming.
It gets worse before it gets better. Even though we know that what we are viewing on social media is a carefully curated highlight reel, we still use what we see as a source of comparison, often without conscious awareness. Using someone else’s highlight reel as a benchmark to evaluate our own day-to-day reality is the perfect way to encourage feelings of inadequacy and dampen our self-esteem.
So, was my answer a social media detox? Well, no – although it would have been a healthy thing to do nonetheless! My decision to let go of the temptation to compare was what really made the difference. Freeing myself from this soul-destroying habit, meant that I was still able to indulge in the benefits of social media, without feeling like I was failing in my most-important role, because of regular and unrealistic comparisons to others.
If curbing your urge to compare feels like something you could benefit from, here’s something I considered; If comparing myself to others distracted me from connecting with my purpose, could re-connecting with my purpose, distract me from comparing myself to others? Yes it can, and it did.
Now, when I feel the urge to compare myself to someone who appears to have it all sussed (because of their wonderfully-behaved children, their perpetually-stylish wardrobe, their daily home-baked goodness, disciplined approach to fitness or their career success), I remind myself of the unique journey all mothers are on, each one filled with joy and suffering, and I re-connect with what matters most to me. With this new perspective, I can appreciate their expressions of joy, rather than depreciate my own self-esteem. By staying highly-engaged with my own purpose, I am less likely to feel the pangs of insecurity that comparison invites.
Want to know the best part? By removing comparison, I’ve made room for compassion and for connection. When we stop feeling like we aren’t good enough, we are more open to connecting with others, and to relating to them with warmth and positivity. Letting go of the temptation to compare and the self-judgement that accompanies it, means we can focus on appreciating (and enjoying!) our own current reality, and sharing in the joy of others.
Judging my approach to motherhood by the benchmarks set by my mother and my grandmothers always seemed irrelevant to me, and through self-examination and some advice from science, I now see that social comparison to any mother really is something I can do without. Resisting the temptation to compare, results in a happier, more compassionate, connected and thriving woman, and I like this current version of me.