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New-Mom Envy

It's not easy being green?

With all due respect to Kermit the Frog, I beg to differ.

I find it as effortless as zipping up my "transitional" pants. The green I mean is that of envy, a deadly sin that loves new moms like gluttony loves an all-you-can-eat breakfast. Not that I, or any mother, invites the dreaded green-eyed monster to set up a pied-á-terre in her heart. It's just that the beast finds exceptionally comfortable living conditions there, says Richard Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. "If you're ever going to be uncertain, it's going to be when everything is new and you don't have any experience to hang your hat on," he notes.

Even women who have logged mommy time, or have at least trolled parenting websites and dog-eared page after page in their baby bibles, can feel rudderless when they see other moms managing to hold what looks like a steady course. "Some women keep the house clean, work, cook dinner every night, and don't ever seem tired," laments Danielle Spears of Indianapolis, who considers herself a relatively competent mom.

Perhaps these übermoms have time and energy to spare because they don't waste either on envy. Or perhaps they're just better at hiding their own green-eyed monsters (say, in the expandable waistbands of their transitional pants). One thing is certain: Whether you feel it or are the object of it, for most moms, envy is inevitable.

Contributing editor Kitty O'Callaghan is Babytalk's "Girl Talk" columnist and a mother of three in White Plains, NY.

Object of envy #1: The Martha mom

It's hard not to notice the Martha mom. She's the one who packs her baby's clothes away according to size and season, and arranges her toys as if they were on display in a museum. She's also able by some manipulation of the time and space continuum to get showered, styled, manicured, and made up daily.

"My girlfriend's house is always neat and tidy...and she is always out and about," says Hainesport, New Jersey, mom Michele Morelli, who feels as if her own home has been in disarray ever since her baby arrived. "There is always laundry to be done, and it seems the mail and every other piece of junk is lying on the kitchen counter." The disparity is so noticeable that she says she can't help but ask herself, "What am I doing wrong?"

Mary Peters of New York City knows the feeling: "I once stopped by a neighbor's apartment to borrow something and was stunned at how immaculate everything was, even though she has two kids. I never dropped in again."

While these moms may be able to win a proverbial "Tidy Bowl," any illusions about their superiority might go down the drain if we got to really know them, says Leslie Morgan Steiner, editor of Mommy Wars (Random House, March 2006). Indeed, the neat mom might be the first to say that envy from other moms is misplaced.

Kelly McElwain of Davidsville, Pennsylvania, used to berate herself every time she visited a particular mom's spotless home, until the woman confided that her husband was Attila the Household Hun who had no tolerance for messy surroundings. "She told me that if he found papers or clutter around, he would throw it away immediately," she says. Later, after McElwain moved out of the neighborhood, she also discovered another fact worthy of Wisteria Lane: This seemingly stress-free neighbor was popping Prozac, along with every other woman in their playgroup, to combat her supermom anxiety. "That cured my envy," says McElwain.

Flo Huffman of Noblesville, Indiana, mom of a 1-year-old, understands the pressure of having a neat house  -- it's one she puts on herself. "I get caught up in trying to be the most organized mom and homemaker," she says. "I envy women who can put laundry on hold or leave dishes in the sink to play with their babies." In other words, is the dirty glass in the sink half-empty or half-full?

Object of envy #2: The gifted child's mom

You wouldn't trade your child for anyone else's, right? Yet wishing your kid could be more like the baby next door is an envy pit that swallows many a new mom. Abby Warmington of Belmont, Michigan, points to her nephew, who was born two days after her daughter. "Just yesterday I was talking with my sister-in-law on the phone and I heard my nephew babbling 'mamama'...I thought, 'Ashlyn's not doing that yet!' "

Even babies you've never met can incite very real envy. Chrissy Perry of Hilliard, Ohio, participates in an online message board with other moms whose babies were born in the same month. "I read all about milestones of other babies all the time," she says. The only way she's found to keep envy from taking over is to "sit back and anticipate" that her daughter will eventually hit them, too.

For Colleen Kelly of Naples, Florida, the only milestone that mattered was when her child slept through the night. "It overrules all other envy issues. I almost couldn't even be around other moms with good sleepers," she recalls.

You don't have to tell that to Garland, Texas, mom Tiffany Lankford: "I envy every mom who has a 'sleeper' baby. My child is 2 and I can count on one hand the number of times he has slept an entire night."

When you love your baby more than yourself, why envy another person's child? Perhaps because in some sense, you view your baby as an extension of yourself, says Smith. And who wants to watch herself "lose" to a little person who isn't even potty trained?

Object of envy #3: The bombshell mom

Perhaps nothing trips the envy wire as surely as seeing another mom who's managed to lose all her baby weight. Of course, comparing your body to someone else's is as idiotic now as it was in seventh grade. It's also just as natural. Like puberty, motherhood transforms a woman's body, which can make her acutely aware of it, says Steiner. Add to that the fact that our culture continually heralds celebrity moms who can fit back into their skinny jeans a few weeks after delivery, and it's easy to understand why many moms feel like they don't measure up.

"I can't wait for the day that I don't examine every woman's belly and compare it with mine," says Carrie Dubiner of San Francisco.

Lindsey Marx in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had the misfortune of having a seriously svelte best friend deliver two months after she did: "My friend had the metabolism of ten male athletes. In two weeks she was back in her size-4 pants; meanwhile, I was still in my stretch pants at almost three months postpartum."

Size-4 envy is part of a larger desire to regain control over your appearance, says Smith. Indeed, seeing another mom out and about in clean clothes and makeup leaves others scratching their heads in disbelief (and because they haven't had time for a shower in two days). "I have a friend who has two children under age 2 and who always manages to have her hair done, be neatly dressed, and most noticeably, never has bags under her eyes," says Michelle White of York, Pennsylvania. "I am the mother of one child under age 2 and I don't manage to brush my hair, or teeth for that matter, before bedtime. I don't get it!"

"My beauty ritual is to wash my face and brush my teeth and hopefully get a brush run through my hair," echoes Fairdale, Kentucky, mom Angela Ferguson. "Even when I get up super early I always manage to find something needing my attention and end up running out the door, late as usual, and still looking a mess."

The truth is, no matter what you think you can surmise from a mom's outward appearance, you still have no way of knowing what's really lurking under her skinny duds, including envy-destroying stretch marks and cellulite. Even size-6 jeans can hide those postpartum tummy rolls that we all know nothing short of liposuction can cure. As for insta-thin celebrity moms, Diane Burdick, a mother of three from Pensacola, Florida, offers this reminder: "They have access to personal trainers and nannies to watch the baby." And if you really want to stop the envy, says Steiner, think about the fact that they have to look good, or risk having their rippled behinds splashed across the tabloids (hardly something to be jealous of).

Object of envy #4: The know-it-all mom

Like those children who are born to be intellectual or athletic whiz kids, some women appear born to be, well, perfect mothers, who've got the immediate answer to every cranky spell, sleepless night, food jag, or earache. They not only know what they "should" do  -- breastfeed for a full year, put their baby down when he's drowsy instead of sleeping  -- they actually manage to do it. Feeling envious?

"I am," admits Kim Aman of Bremerton, Washington. "My friend is still able to breastfeed her son. I had a hard time with it and wish it had worked out better! I stopped breastfeeding at five months and sometimes regret that I didn't keep trying."

Mary Peters realized how green her valley was when she complained to her friend that she couldn't get her baby to stop whining. "She sat with him on the floor and in about two minutes he was laughing. 'Why didn't I think to sit on the floor?' I asked myself. Then I realized that I had  -- I just didn't want to. And I envied her for having that desire."

Even fathers can incite übermom envy, as Marx explains: "To bolster my experience, I devoured every how-to parenting book in print. But when my first child was born, I was a basket case. Positively certifiable. To my great distress, my husband was like Mary Poppins. He seemed to know just what to do in all situations, making me feel even more inadequate. It was a vicious cycle. The better he did, the less confident I felt."

Unfortunately, notes Steiner, moms are rarely told that it's okay to have your own mothering style. "It's always negative messages" that come through, she says. "You never see how important it is to be an imperfect mother, to find your own way." And until women accept that everyone "mothers in a unique fashion," says Steiner, envy will remain a constant companion.

Object of envy #5: You

Before you fall off your chair laughing, consider this: There's bound to be something you have or do that other moms don't. Maybe it's the husband who actually enjoys diaper changes or whipping up a meat loaf on Saturday afternoon. How about that not-so-meddling mother-in-law who babysits at a moment's notice? Not in size-6 jeans? The fact that you've made it to size 12 signals serious progress to onlookers in 16s. Even sagging breasts hoisted up in a push-up bra look good to the woman who promptly deflated back to her A cup. That job that limits your time with your baby may mean the end of hand-me-down strollers to the stay-at-home mom of three down the block.

"The funniest thing is, my friend says how organized she thinks I am," says Susie Lancaster of Glendale, Arizona. "She envies my sewing and baking and other craftiness. What she doesn't realize is that I'm so absolutely disorganized that those hobbies are my escape from the wreckage of the rest of my life!"

Peters agrees: "My neighbor wonders how I have the time to do my own projects. What she doesn't know is that I don't want to sort socks."

Which makes you wonder, "What if she did know?" One soul-baring conversation between Marx and another mom, who seemed to be handling everything perfectly, was all it took to squelch the green-eyed monster in Marx for good. "As we chatted, this mom's problems came tumbling out. Turns out the 'togetherness' was a facade masking a family in turmoil," says Marx. "She told me about struggling with a husband who let the kids run wild and mountains of credit card debt. I had to focus to keep my jaw from hitting the floor."

As Smith explains, envy not only dupes people into believing that others are better off, it distracts them from appreciating their own good fortune. It would be healthier to say, "Wait a minute. Look what I'm doing," he notes.

For her part, Denise Koster, a mother of three in Hugo, Colorado, says that experience has taught her to shut out envy. "I guess being a slightly older mom, I'm comfortable in my own skin. I don't give a tweet how much smarter your baby is, how much cleaner you keep your house, or how wonderful your husband is about picking up his socks. I'm happy for you!" And, she adds, "if you have time to waste worrying about me, please come over and clean my kitchen!"

But if that happens, Denise, please don't tell the rest of us, or we may turn green with envy.