I have a particular interest in how women navigate the transition of becoming a mum – both as a psychologist who sees postnatal women in my practice, and also as a mother of two young children myself.
For many women, the role of mother is one they come to with high hopes and expectations. Being ‘a good mum’ might be the most important thing they hope to achieve in life. But how exactly do you measure whether you are ‘a good mum’? While this is a wonderful goal, one of the dangers that comes with it is the niggling fear that you are, in fact, not a good enough mum, and indeed that others are better at this whole mothering thing than you.
Women have a tendency to compare themselves to others, and often do so in relational arenas. For example: “Why does she have a partner when I don’t?”; “I wish my family was as close as hers”; “why are her children better behaved than mine?”. Such thoughts are quite common, and for some women they are fleeting and easily shaken off. For other women, however, such thoughts can really ‘stick’ and create a competitive mindset. When we think competitively, we are attempting to assess and rank people as to who is better, and who is worse. This can be very unhelpful as it sets us up with one of two options: we judge ourselves as better than another, which creates superiority, distancing us from others rather than connecting; or we judge ourselves as worse than another, which is also distancing but comes with the unfortunate added bonus of triggering feelings like shame, guilt and anxiety. The “I’m not a good enough mum” thoughts can cause a mum to hide herself away, not befriending other mothers, and feeling alone in her sense of failure.
Not only is competitive thinking unhelpful in these ways, but I also think it’s an inaccurate way to approach motherhood, for the following reasons…
Each child is unique
This sounds so simple as to be blatantly obvious, and yet we often treat young children as though they should all follow the same trajectory – from weight gain as babies, to ‘sleeping through’ by a certain age, to school readiness and academic milestones. It is incredibly difficult not to compare children. I think we do this because we are looking for evidence that our child is ‘doing ok’, because the assumption therefore follows that ‘I AM DOING OK’ as a mum! However, every child develops according to his or her own path. Parents have some influence over that path, but there will also be many aspects that are simply due to that particular child’s temperament, intellect, natural gifts and inclinations. Furthermore, every child’s path is going to have some bumps and some very difficult sections, regardless of how well we are parenting. During these times, it will be important that we have not attached our self-worth as mothers to our child’s behaviour, academic success or other outcomes.
Each mother is unique
Not only do we need to remember our child’s uniqueness, but I think that we tend to overlook our own uniqueness as mothers. The way that you mother will not be identical to anyone else. We all have incredible strengths in caring for our children, and of course we all have our faults and challenges in parenting too. All the mothers I know focus more on their faults and how they should be doing better. I wish that more of us would learn to celebrate our strengths as mums and enjoy bringing our own particular ‘style’ to the role of mothering.
Motherhood is first and foremost a relationship
In our desire to be ‘good mums’, we can also get caught up in all the activities that we think this entails – teaching our kids to read, eat vegetables, have good manners, be physically active, limit screen time, build resilience … and on it goes! (It is just me, or is there a never ending supply of articles online now about the ‘next thing’ we need to be doing to raise happy and healthy kids?!!!) In the midst of all these tasks we are trying to achieve, are our children, who are actually people, not projects. Our key role is to simply love our children and be in relationship with them.
(If you want to ponder this idea further, I highly recommend this thought provoking article: A Manifesto Against Parenting)
And yet again, each mother-child relationship is also unique! It will have its own special ‘in jokes’, quirks, joys, and dramas. So why compare? Motherhood is not a competitive sport! It is a special bond that you have with one or more little people, entrusted to your care.
So then – what to do when you find yourself feeling competitive?
It will inevitably happen. You see someone else seemingly having a ‘super-mum’ moment and you immediately feel inadequate.
I’d like to suggest a helpful response that is based on the work of Kristen Neff, who researches and writes on the topic of self-compassion. Neff argues that just as we respond to our loved ones with compassion when they are upset, we can do the same for ourselves. She suggests that there are three steps to a self-compassionate response, and here I’ve applied them specifically to the ‘not a good enough mum’ scenario:
- Practice mindfulness – this is essentially the practice of being present in the moment, not swept away into our past or future (if you’re not familiar with mindfulness, click here for a good introduction). In this case, I would suggest focusing your awareness on the present situation and the feeling it is bringing up. Notice if your mind wants to start judging and telling you long stories about how you’re not good enough. Also check whether your mind starts to veer into jealous or nasty thoughts about the other mum. These aren’t helpful, and can be a way to avoid the pain that we are actually feeling. Instead, try to stay in the moment. Acknowledge that you are just feeling a bit vulnerable or anxious that you are not a good enough mum. Don’t be scared of that feeling. The second step helps with this.
- Connect with wider humanity – the second aspect of self-compassion is actually to recognize that feeling insecurity or emotional pain of any kind is common to every human on the planet. In fact what increases our suffering greatly, is when we feel alone in our experience of painful feelings. For example, thinking that “Every other mum knows what they are doing but I have no idea … what is wrong with me?”. It is incredible helpful to acknowledge to ourselves something like the following – “I am having a painful emotion … this is not because there is something ‘wrong’ with me, it’s because I am a human being, and all human beings experience hurt and insecurity”. For mothers in particular, it helps when we realize that every mother worries she is not doing a good enough job and will even feel like a failure at times. Notice that this aspect of self-compassion is exactly the opposite of a competitive mindset! It connects us rather than distancing.
- Practice kindness to yourself – just as we would comfort a friend who is hurting, we can learn to comfort ourselves. There is no need to judge or beat ourselves up, it doesn’t achieve anything or help us be better people. Self-kindness might include a simple action of comfort, such as making yourself a cup of tea, going for a short walk somewhere nice, or calling a trusted love one. Just as we would soothe a distressed child, sometimes we need some soothing when emotions flare up! We can take a few deep breaths and ‘hold’ ourselves kindly in the moment. Self-kindness can also include working on more positive self-talk, including affirming the strengths that you do have and acknowledging all the hard work you put into being a mum.
I hope these steps give you some ideas about how to respond differently the next time your brain fires off the “I’m not a good enough mum” thoughts. Why not let go of the competitive thinking and instead channel that energy into enjoying your unique strengths as a mum, and the way that these enrich the bond you have with your child.
Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.