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If Parenting Is a Competitive Sport, Is There Ever a Winner?

While one-upmanship can bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best: namely, moms who recognized that competition is fine, but camaraderie -- and kindness -- is better.
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A few weeks ago, I posted something on my Parents Magazine blog about what I
thought was a not-so-great day of parenting on my part. Without rehashing the
whole she-bang, it involved frayed nerves, a short temper, even shorter work
deadlines, and near fisticuffs with a woman at Hale and Hearty when she accused
me of cutting the line -- which I hadn't. I'd merely been standing there for ten minutes
while my kids debated the impossible debate over which tomato soup to order.
Rightly or not, my head nearly exploded.

To be honest, I didn't think much of the post, other than it was kind of a semi-
humorous, universal slice of life of a working mom who had less than a perfect
day of motherhood. But then the barrage began on Facebook: a slew of replies that
stated that they couldn't believe that I thought I had it bad; that if I thought that was
a rough day, I should walk a mile in their shoes; that asking them to read my account
of my (supposedly) terrible day was a waste of their time at best, and an insult to
their intelligence at worst.

It was a classic game of one-upmanship that I certainly hadn't meant to ignite, but
perhaps I should have been expecting anyway. Because these days, parenting is
akin to a competitive sport. It's not just about where your kid goes to school or at
what level she's reading or whether or not he is the best player on the little league.
Because that sort of one-upmanship has always probably been around, albeit, before
Facebook gave us the ability to brag to 500 of our closest friends, less obviously so.

But the new hitch is that parents themselves are staking out the competition,
eyeing their neighbor to the left or class mom to the right, and thinking, "Oh yeah?
You think you can bake a triple-batch of allergy-free peanut butter cupcakes in
30 minutes or less? Wait until I do it in fifteen." Or, alternatively, trying to win the
game of misery: "You think that your night sucked? I was up with triplets, who were
all teething and feverish and had simultaneous exploding diapers, and my damn
husband was snoring though the whole thing, and then the dog puked on our bed."

So there.

All of which leads me to contemplate the question of: Is this level of competition
really doing anyone any good? I suppose that parenting is an endeavor bound to
raise a slew of insecurities. No one really knows if we're doing a good job, and the
end result won't show up for a good fifteen years, when your kid is either happily
well-adjusted or in bi-weekly therapy sessions. And it's these insecurities that likely
give rise to this one-upmanship. The mom who feels guilty that she works too much,
so she overcommits to school volunteer work, or the mom who worries that her
child isn't social enough, so she's hell-bent on lining up ten play dates a week.

But when you step back from all of this competition, when you take it off the field
and consider it, you also have to ask yourself: Who's really winning? And in my
mind, the answer is no one. Making other moms feel lousy about themselves doesn't
do much except make you feel better about yourself for one fleeting moment. And
then it's on to the next battle. And really, do we need to kick our fellow parents
while they're down? I was writing about my terribly crappy day, and I felt terribly
crappy about it i- how I'd spoken to my kids, how I screwed up at work, how I'd
disappointed myself. I was already beating myself up, and anyone else was just
piling on.

I decided to say something to the moms who were posting on Facebook. I quietly
chimed in and said, (and I'm paraphrasing, but this was the gist of it): "I hear
you, and I get it. But I was just sharing a miserable moment. And I'm sorry if you
think I wasn't miserable enough to justify a post about it. But I did, and that's
what matters." And then slowly, because no one likes being called out on their
one-upmanship, the vitriol subsided. And a few people even leapt to my defense.
Which was a little heartwarming because while one-upmanship can bring out the
worst in people, it can also bring out the best: namely, moms who recognized that
competition is fine, but camaraderie -- and kindness -- is better.

That's the thing about competitive parenting: It's all fun and games until you realize
that really, everyone loses. And maybe if we all tried to play nice -- or at the very
least -- nicer, we'd have more energy (and patience) to work on that quadruple
batch of brownies that we promised we'd make for the bake sale (and regretted
committing to, almost immediately).

Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels, including The One That I Want