Parents are more stressed out than ever. We run around arranging play dates, Suzuki violin lessons, and pre-gymnastics tumbling classes. We stress about how too much screen time for our precious snowflakes is going to warp their oh so fragile neural development and whether the sugary snack we use as an incentive in potty training is going to plunge them into future addiction to simple carbs and doom them to a life of obesity, diabetes, and pants with elastic waistbands.
And though we’re working harder than ever, we’re more and more convinced that we’re fucking it up.
The problem is ubiquity of comparisons. Back in the day you’d compare yourself to the parents on your block and at your kids’ school and the odd news story about a family whose baby fell down a well. There might be some Superparents, but there was also that family with the cars up on bricks in the front yard whose children’s identities were indiscernible under the geologic layers of grime on their faces.
Today we have Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest. We see how our friends are raising kids. And their friends. And those people from college and high school you never really liked but haven’t defriended yet. And while we are all delighted to share our triumphs and successes, we are less likely to post about the time we let the four year old watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High because we needed to get the laundry folded or just zone out and read TMZ for five goddamn minutes without a sticky hand on our leg or a voice saying, “Mommy?”
We see the outliers. We read about the Superparents whose three year olds can decline Latin verbs, whose houses are beautiful and immaculate, and who somehow have time not only for fulfilling professional careers but also an Etsy store selling homemade soaps in the shapes of 19th century French opera singers.
They not only crop up in our newsfeeds on Facebook, but also on HuffPo Parenting, mommy blogs, and on news aggregators. Whenever someone posts a link to the father who creates magnificent tableaus of Maurice Sendek level creativity entirely out of pancakes, or the guy who decorates his two kids’ lunchbags with beautiful, masterful, hand-drawn illustrations EVERY FLIPPING DAY, it’s impossible not to feel schlubby and inadequate for sending your kid off with a Thai takeout container filled with Mac N’ Cheese and a couple Lunchables.
It’s inescapable unless you have an Amish relationship with the modern world of connectivity. Say you’re planning your daughter’s first birthay and jump onto Pinterest for inspiration. Instantly your senses are bombarded by a bewildering array of gourmet croque en bouche birthday cakes, fondant sculptures of YOUR child’s favorite cartoon characters, and organic hors d’oeuvres tailored to amuse and nutritiously nourish the 24 to 36 month old human. These creations are beautiful and flawlessly executed, and your sense of inferiority is only heightened by the fact that they apparently managed to have a professional food photographer on hand to document them.
And you imagine these Superparents weighing your parenting style in the balance and finding you wanting. PITIFULLY wanting. They’re sneering at you, in person or behind your back. They MUST be. And though in real life most parents are quite understanding, there’s plenty of in person momdescension.
Of course, you don’t see the complete picture of any of these parents. The guy who knits his daughter’s jumpers out of organic wool harvested from locally farmed llamas and also coaches his son’s T ball league may be so bad at math that his homework “help” is ensuring that his kids will never grasp Algebra and thus be forced into a college major like “philosophy” or, heaven forefend, “communications.”
At least that’s what you tell yourself through clenched teeth. And maybe it’s true.
Our basis for comparison has expanded almost to infinity. And thus the outliers against which we measure ourselves have become more talented, competent, creative and capable.
And it’s not just that we’re comparing ourselves to these individual Superparents we see online. We’re now comparing ourselves to a construct, a Frankenstein monster stitched together out of all their best attributes. A Voltron Superparent whose flaming sword will get their kid into the Ivy League college of their choice while nurturing their self-esteem and motivating them to succeed without swerving into “Tigermom” territory.
No wonder we feel inadequate.
Of course, this is human. As David McRaney is always pointing out, we’re primates. And that means we’re hierarchical. We’re just not comfortable unless we know where we are on the social ladder. Everything from our actions to our appearance to our consumerism is somehow a signifier to others of our relative rank. It’s almost a biological necessity that we fit our parenting into a slot of “way better than John and Ellen, but not nearly as good as Ethan. That bitch. I don’t know how he does it all and stays so thin also.”
And it’s that aspirational inadequacy that keeps us trying to improve and do better for our kids than we’ve done in the past. Though it’s cold comfort when you see that someone’s kid got a full ride to Phillips Exeter on an oboe scholarship.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go form the head.