On Christmas Eve day I stood in a busy supermarket with my giant pushchair, waiting for my husband to get his free coffee. An older woman approached and asked if she could have a peek at my twins. She said hello to them; they smiled back. We talked about their recent first birthday, and I commented on how different this Christmas holiday was in comparison to last year’s, when sleepless nights, feeding challenges and the general life-shaking immensity of new motherhood had left me a bit of a mess.
And then she said it.
This perfectly lovely woman, who seemed delighted by my children, turned to me and said, ‘I had two babies who were eleven months apart. I think that’s even harder than having twins. Can you imagine?’
Can I imagine what? Can I imagine trying to balance the needs and demands of two irrational little people at the same time? Can I imagine the endless sleepless nights, no sooner settling one before the other wakes? Can I imagine the constant cycle of feeding, nappy changes, playing, soothing to sleep? Funnily enough, I can.
But that isn’t what I said to her. I smiled and made a few non-committal murmurs, wished her a merry Christmas and went on my way. Because actually, I don’t know what her circumstances were. Her experience may have been harder than mine. I long ago decided that having twins doesn’t give me the monopoly on challenging parenting situations.
But I do wonder why we do this. Why do we feel the need to compare ourselves to others, assess their life circumstances, and then size ourselves up against them?
Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than the bizarre feud that seems to have popped up between mothers and disabled people, not that the groups are mutually exclusive, of course. The recent court ruling that bus drivers must pressure passengers to accommodate wheelchair users has incited a rash of comparisons, with everyone desperate to explain why their particular number of children, or their baby’s personality, or their unwieldy pushchair means that they should be exempt from making space for a wheelchair user.
I’m almost as tired of this argument as I am about the parent and child versus disabled parking space argument. Guess what? They aren’t the same.
I made the decision to have children and, although twins occasionally throw up additional challenges that I may not have anticipated, they are not remotely comparable to the challenges faced – every single day – by a person with a disability. Is it so unfathomable to think that I might be able to cope with a bit of extra inconvenience for the sake of someone else having a slightly easier time?
And when it comes to other mothers there are an infinite number of variables that mean, on any given day, someone might be struggling more than me. Some women have more children, some don’t have supportive husbands, some have children with additional needs, some have disabilities. We’re all just doing our best, and no one is getting a medal.
Perhaps, when someone eagerly insists that their life is harder, it’s simply because they don’t feel appreciated or acknowledged. So, fine. If it makes them feel a bit better, I’m happy to give them that gift. But it’s worth remembering that competitive parenting – either to prove your superiority or to earn your martyr merit badge – is a zero sum game.
Rebecca is an American living in England. A mother of twin boys, she used to enjoy baking and gigs but now spends most of her time singing nursery rhymes and answering the same damn questions from strangers over and over again. She is a part-time secondary school English teacher. You can also follow her on Twitter