“So how many of you have a long to-do list that seemingly never gets shorter?”
I recently posed this question to a group of 50 women during a talk on managing maternal stress.
In response, maybe a quarter of the women in the room raised their hands.
I didn’t know any of these women personally, but I doubted that three quarters of them had mastered their to-do lists. After all, this was a group of women living in a notoriously pressure-filled area of the country, where expectations of mothers are exceedingly high.
It struck me that maybe these women didn’t want to be outed as stressed to the other women in the group. Perhaps they were trying to send a message to each of the women with their hands raised: “Sorry that you’re a mess, sister, but I’ve got in made in the shade, thank you very much.”
As a clinical psychologist who specializes in maternal stress, I often talk with patients about moms who try to “out-mom” each other.
Much has been written about how moms can become “Mean Girls,” deliberately trying to take each other down. This certainly does happen, but what I see more frequently is moms working hard to cultivate their image as the world’s greatest parent. This out-momming can come in many forms: moms may brag about anything from how much they’re volunteering for the PTO to how accomplished their children are.
Unfortunately, social media is a breeding ground for out-momming. What happens is this: a mom posts about the amazing things that she or her kids are doing. Then other moms see this post and regard it as an invitation to retaliate: I’ll see your lavish carnival-themed one year-old birthday party and raise you a 9 year-old chess champion. Some moms feel the need to tout their successes—the more publicly, the better.
Here’s what gets lost in all of this public out-momming: the moms themselves. Moms who spend all of their time and energy trying to appear totally together don’t cultivate a support network for those times when they (inevitably) fall apart.
Motherhood is stressful. We all know this. I’m constantly recommending that my patients find a support community, several people to whom they can turn in times of stress. One of the most valuable sources of support is fellow mothers. Who better to understand what it feels like to drag a tantrumming toddler out of Target than a mother who’s been through it many times herself?
But mothers cannot possibly find each other if they are constantly working to project an artificial image of success and happiness. In fact, moms who appear to have it all together all the time are often lonely, as other moms don’t often think to reach out to them. A mom who, for instance, constantly posts on Facebook about how grateful she is for her wonderful life is unlikely to be invited out to that girls’ night vent session with other neighborhood moms. What would the World’s Happiest Mom ever need to vent about?
To truly connect with others and get support, moms have to be willing to make themselves vulnerable, to out themselves as the sometime messes that they are.
It isn’t necessary (or even advisable) for moms to post about their parenting woes for their hundreds of social media followers to see. It’s instead important for moms to identify like-minded women and reach out to them. If it’s too difficult to do this in person, moms can do it online, in one of the many online communities targeted towards mothers. What’s critical is that moms support each other, in whatever forum they’re most comfortable with.
So go ahead and reach out, Moms. Why not try telling that mom you see at drop-off about your unfortunate misadventures at the Cub Scouts store?
Or post on that parenting site about that time your teenager caught you looking at her phone?
Or send a sleep-deprived selfie to a group of other moms of infants?
Moms, let your stress flag fly. Because once you do, other moms will see your flag, and start waving theirs, too. Eventually, you’ll find a community of like-minded, stressed-out moms, who admit to not ever completing their to-do list. And you’ll start to see these moms not as threats, but as allies, comrades-in-arms in the enduring battle to get this parenting thing right.
Let’s all be messes together. Fly your flag, and find your community.