Social media and the coronavirus pandemic has led to mums falling victim to 'comparenting', new research has revealed.
But experts have revealed the self-sabotaging habit of comparing yourself to other families can leave parents feeling insecure and isolated.
The research by baby brand Kendamil which involved 1,005 UK mums with children under 5, found that a worrying four in five (80%) mums can't help but judge their parenting in relation to others.
Almost a third (31%) who comparent do so ‘all the time’, with new mums looking after lockdown babies hardest hit (42%).
Other sobering statistics reveal that 81% of mums fear they're being judged by other parents, with over a third (37%) deeming their mother-in-law their biggest critic and nearly a third (31%) fearing judgement from their own mum.
Read more: Parenting tips for blended families
Feeding is one of the biggest issues to concern parents, with over a quarter (29%) worrying about being judged for choosing to feed their children formula and nearly three-quarters (72%) feeling there’s an unfair stigma attached to feeding babies formula milk.
Beyond their personal networks, a third of parents feel external pressure to breastfeed from healthcare professionals and 23% claim they were made to feel like an ‘inadequate parent’ for formula feeding.
It seems friends are also unwittingly fuelling parenting insecurities. Not only do parents compare themselves to their mum mates, but 39% fear their friends with children are their biggest critics.
‘Playground paranoia’ is also rife; with 22% of parents fearing judgement from school or nursery parents — especially those with children aged five (31%).
While comparing yourself to other parents may seem like natural behaviour, family psychologist, Anjula Mutanda, warns that ‘comparenting’ can actually pose a threat to mental health.
“The fact that parents are feeling judged by those closest to them is incredibly concerning," she says. "When a parent senses disapproval, it knocks their confidence in their ability to parent and the choices they might make, therefore getting in the way of savouring their parenting journey.
“Unfortunately, ‘comparenting’ is serious enough to affect mental wellbeing."
Mutanda believes the practice of comparenting has been amplified by modern challenges like social media and the hugely impactful effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
"This potent pairing can leave parents feeling insecure and isolated," she explains. "Until lockdown lifts, interactions with friends, family members or even at the school gates are fragmented; however, in those fleeting moments, mums evidently pay close attention to how other parents are getting on — and equally fear how they come across.
"When the world re-opens, socialising could ignite new insecurities and anxieties and these emotional pressures could have physical ramifications too, like exhaustion and trouble sleeping.”
What is comparenting?
Though experts believe the challenges of modern day motherhood have ramped up the pressure of perfect parenting, the desire to seek validation through comparison can actually be traced back thousands of years.
"Usually when parents compare themselves to other parents, these are what we call ‘up comparisons,’ meaning we judge ourselves in relation to other mums and dads who appear to have it all worked out," psychologist Dr Meg Arroll explains.
"Very rarely in life do we ‘down compare’ or focus on how well we’re doing in relation to others, and there's a hardwired evolutionary reason for this."
Watch: Mum gets real about other parents telling off her kids.
Dr Arroll says our ancestors would have needed to measure themselves against competitors for survival and our neural hard-drives have not changed very much at all.
"So now, even though we don’t need to compare ourselves to our peers in this way, we still do automatically."
And there are several reasons why comparenting is so prevalent right now.
"The research found that new mums looking after lockdown babies had the highest rates of comparenting and this isn’t surprising as social isolation breeds psychologically unhealthy thought patterns," Dr Arroll continues.
"But these days with social media, not only are new mums socially isolated by the demands of babies and young children, but at the same time they can view countless other parents who seem to be sailing through parenthood online."
Thankfully, there are several expert-backed ways to halt this damaging thought pattern and break the comparenting cycle.
How to stop comparenting
See through the parenting filter
"Remember, every seemingly well put-together parent knows the same struggle — even if a filtered photo on Instagram tells a very different picture-perfect story,” explains Mutanda.
Don’t suffer in silence
It is one of the realities of parenting to find coping with a new baby challenging at times and it can sometimes feel difficult to work out exactly how you are feeling if you are overwhelmed.
"Confide in your partner, a trusted friend or close family member about what you have been experiencing," suggests Mutanda.
"Often at times just having another person to talk to can make a positive difference and give you the headspace to reset your thinking."
Embrace the parenting positives
"For example, your child's 'firsts' (a silver lining to lockdown is that you can enjoy many of those) and seeing their personality traits begin to blossom," suggests Mutanda.
"We can create completely unrealistic pictures of other people’s lives, particularly when we all put our best selves on display on socials, but everyone finds child rearing hard – because it is," explains Dr Arroll.
"Opening up and showing your vulnerability to other parents will bring you closer and break the mirage of the perfect yardstick that you’ve been beating yourself with."
Try a social media detox
According to Dr Arroll scrolling through socials activates the rewards centres of our brains and so is a type of behavioural addiction.
"Even though we know posts are curated, insecurities are still triggered by these images," she explains. "Take some time away from your phone every day and try not to use it as a relaxation tool, because even if it feels like phone use reduces stress, it’s actually one of the factors causing anxiety."
Invest in self-care
This can be challenging with little ones but even a few minutes of respite each day can make all the difference, says Dr Arroll.
"Self-care is vital, so treat yourself where you can," Mutanda adds. "Run a lovely bath once the little one is in bed, get a FaceTime call in with your bestie or order a take-away, for example.
Book post-lockdown plans to look forward to."
Celebrate the parenting ‘wins’
No matter how small. "Rewire your brain to see the positives by noting three good things that happen each day," says Arroll.
"It’s nice to write these down in a journal to reflect on down the road, as parenting can feel a bit of a haze, but more importantly, research shows that this type of gratitude practice leads to better emotional health."
Seek professional help
If you’re still struggling or have noticed ongoing feelings of worry and overwhelm, please don’t feel embarrassed.
"Speak to your GP for support and a clear diagnosis if you’re experiencing symptoms of postnatal depression or postnatal anxiety," suggests Mutanda.
"Your GP can also refer you to a therapist. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) could give you the tools to change the thinking and behaviour patterns that lead to anxiety, helping you to conquer negative thought-patterns.
"If you're worried about getting to therapy sessions because you may not have childcare in place, the good news is that many therapists now offer online therapy, so you could do this from home."