Protective Lioness Roars and Prances: Thoughts on Competitive Mothering

Mother and daughter in car

Humor me for a moment while I paint a picture of this insidious affliction: I call her the Prancing Lioness. She is the woman who wears the skin-tight spandex exercise attire, fully made up with cosmetics and hairdo, Starbucks decaf latte with nonfat soy milk in recently French-manicured hands. Every highlighted hair in place, fully liposuctioned curves, Botoxed forehead and lips, and don’t forget the Coach bag gently draped over the other arm, which also clutches beloved Junior (her fully decked-out son in head-to-toe labels, not a stain on his clothes nor a smudge on his face). Protective, yes she is, marching her son to the best school in town. After Junior is sufficiently transitioned into his class, she will gather with her clan of sashaying, posturing, gossiping, and competitive mamas. They will compare which advanced music class their child enrolled in, brag of international travel planned over spring break, contrast siblings’ developmental milestones. This banter occurs in mommy-and-me groups, at school with the prancing clan, in the grocery store when the woman in line lectures a new mother to breastfeed ’til her child is 3 and shames her for bottle-feeding, at the park where Suzie only eats organic/homemade baby food grown in the backyard garden, on Facebook, and it goes on and on and on …

I am both appalled and a witness to the phenomenon called “competitive mothering.” This uniquely Western cultural trait afflicts specifically suburban/urban women (and sometimes men) in largely middle/upper-middle class/affluent neighborhoods. A largely bourgeois manifestation announces itself through the facade of “perfect mothering.”

I have a unique angle from which to observe and participate in the travails and wonders that comprise motherhood. You see, I am a therapist specializing in maternal mental health, and I am a mother of two boys, one of which has special needs. I am also no stranger to the subtle and not-so-covert jockeying for position as Alpha Mom—in the schoolyard, in the grocery store, at the park, and among friends and neighbors. This vibe of destructive competition permeates nearly every aspect of suburbia.

Cringe you may, as such a topic oozes through the hush-hush of barely-below-the-surface taboo in white-picket central. But this idea of motherhood needing to be something remotely approaching perfection is a falsehood. And I am here today, along with my colleagues in the field, to bust that myth to smithereens.

Nearly all experts in the maternal mental health field teach their clients about “good enough mothering,” a concept coined by the late British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott. This phrase refers to taking the pressure off oneself as a mother and giving oneself credit where it is due—that more than likely you are doing a fabulous job of raising your child, even when you feel at your wit’s end. We live in a culture in which nothing but perfect will do, and so often it is essential to remind oneself that children thrive when their basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, safety) are provided for, along with a dash of discipline, belonging, nurturance, and love. All mothers (and fathers) need to remind themselves of this reality (therapists included), as the myth of perfection is so intrinsically ingrained in the collective parenting psyche.

In my work as a therapist, I also have the task of simultaneously reminding myself, as I do my clients, of the essential nature of self-care. This concept encompasses living life authentically from the standpoint of prioritizing, letting go of perfectionism and competition, befriending authentic friends and social supports, positively affirming progress and “good enough” mothering/parenting, and activities for stress reduction (exercise, yoga, good nutrition, good sleep hygiene, etc.). Psychotherapy may address maternal guilt, a woman’s relationship with her mother/caregivers, grief aspects of motherhood (identity/role change), balancing work/family, transitioning to parenthood, and perinatal mood/anxiety issues if present. I also do a lot of myth busting with women/caregivers to address deeply held fears and insecurities stemming from cultural myths and expectations imposed upon parents by society as a whole. From my standpoint as a licensed clinical social worker, I am tasked with lending my wisdom from a biopsychosocial perspective, which I find to be deeply fascinating, as my work blends psychology, social work, medicine, anthropology, sociology, and political advocacy.

In terms of my own life wisdom, I am far from perfect in this practice of mothering, and yet I am OK with that now that I am a seasoned mother. It is essential to have compassion for the struggle to be a “good enough” parent and to be proud of what one has accomplished any given day. For I, too, have weathered a storm or two (or 500) and survived, and most importantly, my children are alive and well, although they may have a few stains on their shirt from breakfast, and I think my son went to school with mismatched socks this morning. Pass that Starbucks over here, will you?

Some wonderful works that assist moms with mindful, authentic parenting:

  • Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting by Ann Dunnewold, PhD
  • Life Will Never Be the Same: The Real Mom’s Postpartum Survival Guideby Ann Dunnewold, PhD, and Diane Sanford, PhD
  • Mindful Woman by Sue Patton Thoele
  • The Courage to Be Yourself by Sue Patton Thoele
  • The Journey to Parenthood: Myths, Reality, and What Really Matters by Diana Lynn Barnes and Leigh Balber
  • Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively as You Care for Everyone Else by Alice Domar

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nicholas

    November 6th, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    Sounds like just an easy way to excuse bad parenting to me. What is so wrong with the pursuit of perfection? Why can’t we always strive to do our very best, especially when it comes to parenting? I am so sick of a culture that deliberately lowers standards so lazy people won’t feel bad about themselves.

  • Beckette

    November 6th, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    I am going to have to show this article to my sister. She thinks she has to be everything to everyone in her family and runs herself ragged. Hopefully this article will give her permission to slow down and take some time for herself. She only sleeps three hours a night because she is so busy trying to take care of everyone else!

  • Amy h

    November 6th, 2012 at 10:11 AM

    I am rotfl because this is exactly the moms I see at my daughter’s school every day, even at 7:30 am, and we call them the Stepfords! Apparently all they have to do all day is drop off the kids and then go play tennis or head to Starbucks or whatever. But because they are always there at pick up and drop off times looking so perfect it makes the rest of us working moms feel terrible.

  • Erika

    November 6th, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    Thank you for this piece. I’d like to take your point a step further and talk about what competitive parenting does to the kids who witness it. In my years as a teacher, a therapist, and a mom, I’ve always tried to share the message that our character is not defined by our successes or failures, but by how we respond to them. What competitive parenting can do is focus so much on results that even the chance or perception of failure (on the part of parents or kids) can be a cause for tremendous anxiety.

    In working with anxious parents, I “reassure” them by telling them they are going to mess up. It’s guaranteed. They probably already have. Multiple times. They will not be perfect. So, now that we can accept that there will be mistakes, let’s look at how to handle them. Let’s look at how to grow and improve. Let’s look at how to strive for goals without being terrified of not reaching them. Isn’t that what we want our kids to do?

  • Andrea

    November 6th, 2012 at 4:29 PM

    @Erika–right on! I absolutely agree…insecurities from parents can create a dynamic of competition that children pick up as well, in which case that dynamic plays out on the schoolyard…and the cycle continues…great that you address “good enough” parenting in your practice as well ;)

  • Christine

    December 13th, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    As an art therapist and mom volunteer I have observed the deep confusion and real housewife misguided bitter viciousness that defined the only self diminishing definitions self wounding moms are given in the west. Brought up multi culturally I have never seen this vicious competitive gossip and ingrained maliciousness in moms of East Indian culture who live to gather together, laugh and support each other in a light hearted way, even in Italy, Puerto Rico. It is truly an American hard boiled inner terror and backbiting because we don’t know who we are other than our stature and we are not brought up to respect kindness. You are right, the opposite danger is thinking lowering our standards of possibility in keeping ourselves at our best is the answer, hating and snarking the women you speak of is as bad as being them. My friend a former model just keeps up her best self in a relaxed, super friendly woman supportive manner teaching her kids kindness is the most impotant.

  • elle

    December 15th, 2012 at 10:36 PM

    Hunh. I’m no therapist, but this seems more like child-as-extension-of-ego than actual parenting. In which case, it can’t really be given the title Competitive Parenting, but rather Non-Mothering.

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