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Parenting Comparisons: Are They Helpful or Harmful?

Our kids are playing together in my son’s bedroom while we sit downstairs in the living room making small talk. The news is on in the background to fill the stretches of silence. They’ve been up there building with legos and playing with action figures for an hour now and I’m glad that the play date is going so well even if we are struggling to keep the conversation going after the standard ‘how are things’ and the weather have been exhausted.

That’s when a shriek from above us pierces the quiet room and I jump up, alarmed and ready to run upstairs to render aid. I relax when I realize it is a sound of excitement, not pain.

“Which one was that?” I ask.

“Well, it must be yours. Our girls know better than to scream like that.”

The words were like bricks tumbling from her mouth, one on top of the other, building a wall between us that I didn’t bother to tear down for the remainder of the evening. I let the television take over and quietly seethed.

This is just one in dozens of encounters like it I’ve had with other parents. Sometimes I am the plaintiff and others I am the defendant, but judgement is passed all the same. Only, in the end, no one wins.

For a short time, we feel superior. We glimpse the mother next to us in a restaurant helping her child unwrap a straw to place in their glass of coke and we express our outrage. “I can’t believe she’s giving a toddler soda!” But what we’re really thinking is “maybe the fact that my kid had too many juice boxes and not enough milk today doesn’t make me such a bad parent after all. Juice is better than a caffeinated drink, right?”

Reassurance that we’re not making a mess of this whole parenting thing, it’s what we’re all seeking and too often we find that in comparisons. Breastfed versus bottle-fed, circumcised versus uncircumcised, stay at home versus working — these battles have raged on for decades with no clear winner, but if in the debating we compromise the confidence we have in our ability to parent and discern the best path for our children, don’t we all lose?

It’s an issue I’ve struggled with since my son was a newborn when I spent the first few months of his life feeling unbearable shame that I had failed at breastfeeding. I vividly remember a time I sat down on a couch in a bathroom at the mall next to another mother to feed my son. She was nursing what I judged to be a child of around 18 months and I thought to myself “A little old to be breastfeeding, isn’t he?” I looked down at my 2-month-old, happily guzzling his bottle of formula, and felt relief that he would never be one of those “weird” kids that nursed until kindergarten. In hindsight, what I was really seeking was respite from my own feelings of guilt.

There is no universal measure of success for parenting. It is something we must all define for ourselves and it is this not knowing for sure that breeds the uneasiness that leads to “mommy wars” when, at the end of the day, we all lay our heads down and silently wonder “Could I have done more? Could I have been a better parent to my child today?”

Isn’t it about time we spent those hours in the daylight united instead of divided?

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