We often compare ourselves to others when we’re not certain in our own choices. If you suffer from low-self esteem, you may experience less certainty around your decisions. Parenting requires dozens of decisions each day, sometimes before 8AM. From before our children are born, we’re asked and we ask ourselves, “Natural birth or medicated? Breastfeeding or bottom? Cloth diapers or disposable? Work or stay home? Crib or cosleep? Each purchase has implicates for our child and our family, from safety to cost to the “brand” we project as a mother.
When we’re not confident, we tend to be less certain in our choices. This makes us more likely to compare ourselves to others, and that comparison can make us feel defensive before we even meet someone. This makes the difficult process of making new friends as an adult even more challenging when we become mothers. We view other’s choices as an implicit judgment of our own. If another mom is breastfeeding in the park, wearing a baby in a carrier, or, the big Mommy War, staying at home or working, we get offended just by seeing the opposite decision of what we’ve done.
Our identity undergoes a massive shift when we become mothers. This shift can be unsettling. Little prepares us for the huge change in how we are perceived once we are pregnant and then have a couple of kids in tow. At workshops I’ve done with women who are pregnant or have young children, many resent the fact that many in society no longer sees them as individual. At work, many lament that colleagues no longer want to talk with them about work or career-related topics. Research shows that many women delay revealing their pregnancy to preserve their pre-pregnant professional identity.
Hannah Curtis, a social worker in Portland Maine and the founder of New Approaches, paints the moment when she experienced a crisis of identity. She was pregnant, and took a quick break from work to get a snack at a nearby grocery store. While there, she saw a group of mothers “singing and wrangling their children with seeming ease.” She panicked. What had she signed up for? She didn’t sing in public, or herd sticky children. As she put it, “It turns out this moment of panic hits every new mom at some point. It happens in the moments where you feel the profound impact of how your identity is changing. Going from non-parent to parent is arguable the most significant shift in identity that any person can go through.” Heather Havrilesky, in the New York Times, uses the metaphor of a tornado hitting a small town, stating that “becoming a mother doesn’t change you so much as violently refurbish you, even though you’re still the same underneath it all.”
The ever-present mommy wars depict different types of stereotypes – earth nature mothers with beatific smiles vs. harried and harridan working mothers on cell phones. Choices that may seem pragmatic, like purchasing a minivan, suddenly get cast with different meaning and come to define our identity in ways that we may not truly desire.
What can we do to cope? Research on personality can help us find a way to define ourselves, and since personality is remarkably stable over time, it’s the same “self” we’ve always been.
1. Take a personality test, and reconnect with who you are.
There are many personality tests out there, from well-researched ones like the Big Five personality dimensions to MBTI to the popular (and sometimes vapid) viral quizzes that pop up on Facebook. Most people that I know benefit from a well-researched personality test, and my personal favorite for self-discovery is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It’s not as well-researched as the Big Five for parenting and work outcomes, but it tells you a lot about yourself – where you get your energy from, how you process information, how you make decisions, and how you interact with the world. It’s quite complicated, so if you have a friend who is trained in it, it might be worth it to sit down for a session.
Other favorites include the Big Five, for which you can find a relatively accurate version of for free here. More expensive and newer assessments that you might be able to access include the DiSC assessment, various Hogan instruments, and the Enneagram. Some of these might be available through work or school.
You can extend the results of your personality test to learn more about why you might be good or bad at certain aspects of parenting. Perhaps you love playing with your children, but you need your alone time to recharge. This could mean you’re more introverted. If you love the logistical aspects of being a parent – organizing craft supplies, taking trips with your children – this could mean you score high in conscientiousness. If you score lower in this area, it might mean that spontaneity is more your style. Whatever your personality, it has implications for how you will parent.
2. Take a class or read a parenting book.
We know from research that a “sense of competence” makes people better parents. Even if you have a quick temper with your children, learning more about how to be a good parent can help. If you learn more about infant behavior, for example, you’ll feel more confident in taking care of a newborn.
The same holds true for older children. Toddlers often present challenging behavior that perplexes parents, and responding with rationality doesn’t always make sense to a small child. Learning how to have empathy and provide limited choices can be one way to get through the toddler stage. At any stage of parenting, a good workshop or parenting book can help us develop confidence in our choices.
My local library is full of great parenting books, and at my pediatrician’s office, they often hold parenting workshops on different topics. Community centers and churches are often great places to start. Parenting is a skill like anything else – you can learn behaviors that can help you perform better “on the job.”
3. As hard as it is, remember that “comparison is the thief of joy.”
With Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook bombarding us with pictures of perfect parenting, it’s hard to remember that our modest efforts are really all our children need. In a study of 7,000 moms, 42% reported feeling stressed out by the “perfection” they saw on Pinterest of crafts and recipes made by other moms. Research tells us, though, that it’s the quality of time we spend with our children, not the quantity (or amount of art projects). Ideas about how we should raise our children are primarily socially constructed, and now social media is playing a huge role in our feelings about what we “should” be doing.
The social construct of parenting means we often compare what we’re doing to what we see. Now, we don’t just see it in the schoolyard at pickup and at the playground, but from across the globe and from people of all different socio-economic means. We compare our own efforts and they often come up wanting.
We must tend our own garden first for it to grow. In our garden plot, at the beginning of the season I always compare our plot to others. And then, once we plant our vegetables, I start focusing on our own little garden. To keep it going, we have to weed, water, and harvest. It serves as a metaphor for our life. What we plant in our garden wouldn’t suit others. We love radishes; others grow corn. We tried strawberries and they didn’t work, but we share our lettuce with friends and family every year.
No one knows your children like you do, and so it’s difficult for others to judge what works best for them. You know, and while you can be open to thoughts from outside our little garden, keeping to our own gardens allows us to tend to our children in the way that’s best for them.
 Woike, B A , & Baumgardner, A H (1988, August) Evidence for a link between self-esteem and certainty Poster presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, Washington,
 Little, L., Major, V., Hinojosa, A., & Nelson, D. (2014). Professional image maintenance: How women navigate pregnancy in the workplace. Academy of Management Journal, amj-2013.
 Curtis, H. (2013). “5 Tips to Get You Through the Inevitable New Mom Identity Crisis.” What to Expect, October 8, 2013. http://www.whattoexpect.com/wom/pregnancy/5-tips-to-get-you-through-the-inevitable-new-mom-identity-crisis.aspx
 Havrilesky, H. (2014). Our ‘Mommy’ problem. The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/opinion/sunday/our-mommy-problem.html?_r=1
 Annemiek Karreman, Cathy van Tuijl, Marcel A.G. van Aken, Maja Deković, The relation between parental personality and observed parenting: The moderating role of preschoolers’ effortful control, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 44, Issue 3, February 2008, Pages 723-734
 Theodore Roosevelt. https://ryanbattles.com/post/comparison-is-the-thief-of-joy
 Riley, N. (2015). How Pinterest is driving moms crazy. The New York Post, May 31, 2015. http://nypost.com/2015/05/31/how-pinterest-is-driving-moms-crazy/
 Milkie, M. A., Nomaguchi, K. M., & Denny, K. E. (2015). Does the Amount of Time Mothers Spend With Children or Adolescents Matter?. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(2), 355-372.