Home » Guest Post: Empathy for the Mompetitor

Guest Post: Empathy for the Mompetitor

By: Janine Kovac

Step Five in Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness book—and the online class “Spring Cleaning for the Soul” that is in progress right now—teaches emotional literacy and techniques for coping with negative emotions. In the early months of our risky twin pregnancy I sometimes felt angry, resentful, bitter or fearful. Usually all I had to do was simply acknowledge these negative emotions and they would drift away. (It also helped that they were balanced by the positive emotions and actions of our friends and family.) But there was one negative emotion that I just couldn’t shake—a strong dislike for a hospital mom I called “The Mompetitor.”

The competitor of all competitors, the “Mompetitor” is that mother who engages you through a series of questions about your child. And then she one-ups you with the stories of her child’s precocious development. If your baby said his first word at eleven months, hers spoke at nine months. If your daughter was potty-trained by twenty months, hers trained herself at fifteen. If your kid performed at Lincoln Center at age twelve, her kid played Carnegie Hall at age ten.

I’ve met Mompetitors at the park and at the grocery store, but I didn’t expect to meet one in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit during the twins’ hospital stay. However, rather than brag about how her baby was bigger, better, and stronger than mine, this Mompetitor made it a point to emphasize how her baby was sicker and weaker. How many days were we in the hospital? (Ninety.) Her baby was in the hospital longer. How many surgeries did my babies have? (One each.) Hers had more. How many infections? How many blood transfusions? And so on. As if her situation were more serious than mine and therefore warranted more attention.

I found the Mompetitor to be irritating and annoying. Worst of all, I couldn’t shake the notion that really my babies were sicker and weaker. All of a sudden I was sucked into the “mompetition” and the only way I knew how to handle the situation was to walk the other way when I saw her. I could label and validate my feelings of irritation and annoyance, but it didn’t make them go away. And labeling and validating the Mompetitor’s feelings of superiority just made me more irritated and annoyed.

Meanwhile, I experienced an opposite phenomenon with my family and close friends. Many had been through scary medical situations with their children, too, ranging from a toddler’s tooth knocked out from a dangerous fall to a toddler’s bout with cancer. Each mother was careful to emphasize her empathy with my boys so tiny and so fragile. Sharing our stories was not a competition.

And yet, even though we weren’t trying to one-up each other, we never got out of the competition or comparison paradigm. We were still ranking our misfortunes relative to each other. My friends would end their stories with qualifiers such as “Of course what I went through was nothing compared to what you’re going through.” Sometimes I would say that to them.

Subtle “life is a game” metaphors would creep into our conversations, such as “the hand we were dealt” or cases in which “the stakes were higher.” Sometimes I’d remind myself “life isn’t fair.” But what I needed to remember is that life isn’t a competition and to remember how life is a garden.

When my life was a competition, the Mompetitor was a rival and there was only room for one mom on the fictitious “Great Martyred Mommy” podium. And even though my friends and I weren’t elbowing each other out of the way, we still had the pedestal. But in the garden, there are no relative rankings.

The Mompetitor didn’t need me to validate her negative emotions. She wasn’t scared or bitter (at least not anymore.) She was proud. And she should be! Her baby defied amazing odds. So did mine! And that’s where I can empathize with her. Not (just) because I know what it’s like to have a tiny newborn hooked up to a host of machines. But rather, because I know what it’s like to be a mother and I know what it’s like to be proud of your children. The world is a big garden. And there’s always room for another proud gardener.

Interested in metaphors used in public policy? Check out this article by the Frameworks Institute in Washington, D.C. regarding competition and cooperation metaphors in child advocacy policy.

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  • Life-learner

    Such a simple phrase, “Life is a garden,” to get one through anything.  Someone cut you off on the Interstate?  It’s his/her garden, too.  Someone telling you how their sons or daughters excel so much more than yours?  It’s a garden.  Flowers mature at different rates.  Someone hints that he/she is a better worker than you?  Life is a garden.  Just as flowers have different qualities, so do we as workers.  Character qualities are not the same and can’t be compared.  Really great post.  Keep them coming!

  • It is so tricky to figure out how to say “I see your pain.  I know from the pain I’ve had that your pain really hurts.  I care about your pain,” without coming off sounding like there is a mompetition.  It really does require the speaker to speak with compassion and the hearer to hear with compassion.  But you have to think of the garden to have compassion, at any time, and especially when you are in a situation as demanding as a NICU. 

    • It is tricky, isn’t it? Because as soon as one talks about the pain she knows (in an effort just to express compassion, not to compare), she automatically pulls the focus to her situation. 

      I think that if I saw this mom today, I would just validate her proud feelings by acknowledging how she lights up when she talks about how healthy her baby is.

    • Sue LeBreton

      Nicely put Cindy. As caring beings we may try but not always get it right.

  • It’s amazing how often we rank-order all experience as a means to cope. Kudos to you for gaining perspective, then and now, and for sharing it with us.

  • Sue LeBreton

    I liked Lorrie’s comment that we rank-order experiences to cope.It is likely more helpful when we do that within our own experiences and not look to others but I know that can be difficult to avoid. You are right it is a bi garden and I think the beauty comes from the variety.