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Mom Envy

When I first became a mother, my main source of information and advice was a supremely competent friend who did everything right. Her three deliveries had been textbook-perfect (no drugs, of course) and she was a breastfeeding champ  -- none of her babies were ever given so much as one relief bottle. Armed with her food mill, she hand-ground every molecule of puree that passed her children's lips.

When the holidays rolled around, I was happy if I managed to wrap some presents and get a turkey on the table; she roasted a goose and baked several different kinds of cookies. While my two children were parked in front of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for the umpteenth time, hers were reading A Christmas Carol out loud.

She seemed to be living an ideal life. And I idolized her, of course. Comparing myself to her, I always felt inadequate.

Even if your friends don't appear quite as superhuman as mine, few of us manage to escape some form of mom envy. You may be doing a fine job handling your responsibilities, but there always seems to be somebody who's doing better  -- or doing more. "A woman I know works full-time and has five children and no help, and her kids are perfect in every way," says Linda, of Glencoe, Illinois. (Like other moms quoted here, she didn't want her last name used.) "She's a nurse who works the night shift, but somehow she still gets the Halloween costumes, the birthday parties, and the dentist appointments all taken care of. I have two kids and don't work, and it's all I can do to get my children to do their chores and bring them to the orthodontist on time!"

Leslie Bennetts is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair. She lives in New York City with her husband, son, and daughter.

Competitive Parenting

Why do we moms measure ourselves against others  -- and end up feeling inadequate? "We live in a competitive society that's hard on mothers," says Jane Swigart, Ph.D., author of The Myth of the Perfect Mother. "The myth is that you can  -- and should  -- do everything: cook fabulous meals and have a law practice and fulfill all of your children's needs. These are impossible expectations."

Even when mothers are ostensibly trying to help one another out, the anxiety caused by their insecurities can interfere with their magnanimity. "I've listened to support groups for new moms, and the first thing the women do is compete," reports Swigart. "My colleagues and I call it the 'Baby Sweepstakes.' It starts with the delivery and the baby's Apgar score and goes on from there."

If a woman doesn't have a perfect experience in childbirth, for instance, she may feel that she's flunked in some way: "I felt a sense of failure about winding up having a cesarean," admits Ann, of Westport, Connecticut, a mom of two boys. "It was almost as if I was somehow less of a woman because I hadn't managed a vaginal delivery." On top of that, when she compared herself to friends who'd had uncomplicated childbirths, she struggled with pangs of envy and guilt that clouded her initial joy at having delivered a healthy baby. The pro-breastfeeding movement can also exert a form of tyranny over women who don't succeed. Kate, of New York City, a stay-at-home mother of two boys, suffered postpartum depression after giving birth, which forced her to give up breastfeeding and use bottles. "All my life I've seen women doing it in such a comfortable and routine way, and when it didn't work for me, it was shocking," she says. "It made me feel so inferior."

Other People's Kids

When we're not comparing ourselves to other moms, we're often comparing our children. No matter how perfect and intelligent your child is, sooner or later a kid comes along who outshines her in one way or another. When your little angel is barely cruising at 11 months, can you keep your cool when the big bruiser hurtling around the playground turns out to be just 10 months old? If you were proud of your baby for talking at 13 months, didn't you feel even a teensy-weensy spasm of jealousy that your friend's little one started jabbering away a month sooner?

And when your child misbehaves, it's natural to feel somewhat responsible  -- and to envy moms whose kids always seem to toe the line. "One day, when a friend started talking about how much her kids loved school, I burst into tears," says Anne, a doctor and a mother of one in Portland, Maine. "At the time, my husband and I were being called to the principal's office almost every day because our daughter was talking back to her teachers, refusing to do her work, and running out of the classroom. You don't want to feel envious," she says, "but when your friend starts talking about how wonderful everything in her child's life is and you know it's not the same with your own kid, it can be tough."

Judging Mommy

Most experts agree that mothers are harder on themselves than fathers are. "Women tend to be more self-critical, in part because child rearing is still seen as primarily their responsibility," says Steven Tobias, psychologist and director of the Center for Child and Family Development, in Morristown, New Jersey. "Mothers usually compare themselves to other moms, but dads tend to compare their children to other kids  -- and to blame the child if he falls short."

Working women can be especially vulnerable to mom envy. "I worry that I'm neglecting my duties because I'm not at home," says Patti, of Poplar Grove, Illinois, a marketing manager and a mother of twins. "The other moms in my neighborhood stay home, know every kid in school, and get involved in school activities. I'm lucky if I can participate in one activity a year, so I worry that my kids think I'm a total slacker."

Anne admires a stay-at-home mom of three named Susan: "She's slim, chic, and always calm. She's thrown herself into being a wife and mother in ways I can only fantasize about. My work is very important to me, but that doesn't keep me from envying her. Susan always has time to make cookies with her kids."

It's surprising how often baking comes up when discussing envy with other mothers. "My kids are always saying, 'Johnny's mother bakes,'" reports Judy, a writer who lives in Washington, DC, with her husband and two sons. "They even gave me a baking cookbook for my birthday."

As if that weren't galling enough, she was stunned when she learned that her younger son had gone sledding with his friend  -- and the friend's mother. "She's a surgeon, but she makes time to go sledding with my kid," she says. "I thought, 'There goes my last excuse!'"

Nobody's Perfect

Such comparisons, of course, are inherently unfair. "We tend to see other moms through rose-colored glasses," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of Perfect Parenting and a mother of four in Seattle. "It's human nature to be on our best behavior when we have an audience, so when we compare ourselves to moms we only see in public, we're comparing their best moments with our own worst ones." That said, feeling inadequate next to other moms can sometimes serve as a much-needed wake-up call. "Maybe you need more loving help from your husband, perhaps some new like-minded friends, or even a support group," says Swigart. But ultimately, peace of mind can only come from accepting the reality of your own life. "We generally use other people's kids as a benchmark," says Pantley. "But we really need to focus on our own children  -- to see their strengths as well as accept their faults."

In doing so, you'll relieve some pressure on yourself. "Letting go of the illusion that you can mold the ideal child is very freeing," says Steven Tobias. "You realize that your kid is not going to be perfect, and that's okay; that he's going to make mistakes, and that's okay too." And that will lead you to understand that the same is true for you as a parent. I still haven't roasted a goose for Christmas. Turns out my kids like turkey better anyway.