Think you are a horrible parent?
Before I started training foster parents, I worked for the Fostering Together program, supporting and recruiting foster parents in our area. One day, a local foster parent contacted me with some struggles she was having with a particular child. During the conversation she brought up another foster parent that both of us knew.
“How does she seem to have it all together and I suck so badly at this parenting thing?” she asked me.
I laughed to myself and let her know that the foster parent she was referring to had just called me the week prior, telling me that she was at the end of her rope!
It’s easy to look at someone else and think they’ve got it all together. When we compare ourselves to others, however, we set ourselves up for feeling like a failure, which makes comparison a dangerous game to play. Here are several reasons why:
1. We don’t know the whole story.
Much like this parent I spoke to, we don’t always know everything that’s going on. Many people don’t share the painful or challenging situations with others because they’re dealing with issues that aren’t appropriate for them to share or they fear the judgement of others. I didn’t share the ugliest parts of our adoption journey for those very reasons. I didn’t want to share things with others that would injure my children in any way. Other times, I’d experienced such harsh judgement or criticism from others that I kept the pain to myself.
Steve Furtick, author of Unqualified, says, “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Facebook, Pinterest, and other social media make it easy to compare the nitty-gritty of our lives to the “highlight reel” of others. When we don’t have the full picture of other people’s situations, we can easily assume our lives don’t seem to measure up and become discouraged.
2. Every child and situation is different.
The fact is, our children will not be like other children. Each child is unique, with unique gifts and challenges. Children who have been through trauma and loss will naturally have additional challenges than children who have had a more typical situation. Comparing these to other children their age sets them up for failure and, quite honestly, is unfair. It also can cause us to feel like we are failing as parents when, in fact, we are doing a fantastic job. Comparison causes us to overlook the incredible strides that our kids are actually making, simply because their progress doesn’t currently match the children around them.
Looking back, much of my own struggle as a parent came from comparing my children to other children their age. In my mind they “should” have been able to handle more because I saw what other children their age could handle. It prevented me from recognizing that they weren’t actually capable of handling many of the things I was asking of them. While they looked exactly the same age, my children’s brains hadn’t had the opportunity to develop in certain areas. My children functioned at a much younger age emotionally, so expecting them to behave like those around them set us all up for frustration and for a sense of failure, and that didn’t help anyone.
3. It steals our joy.
There were many times that I looked at the more typical families around me and felt jealous of what they had. While jealousy is a normal emotion to feel in challenging circumstances, at times I comparing myself and my situation to others created unnecessary pain for myself.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
Comparing our lives to others’ creates an unattainable ideal in our minds that rarely fits our reality. It saps us of the emotional energy we need to get through each day. Peace and joy come when we accept our reality as it is and let go of how we think it should be.
Part of accepting our reality as it actually is, however, may include the need to grieve. While comparing our lives and parenting journey to others can be an unhealthy practice, at times we do need to acknowledge how parenting a special-needs child has not matched up to our own dreams and expectations. Parenting an a-typical child involves many losses, so accepting our reality involves being aware the ways our unique parenting journey has affected our lives. Coming to grips with how our reality doesn’t match up to the dreams we had and grieving those losses can help us avoid the trap of comparing ourselves to others.