The other day I watched a mother make crackers from scratch in an Instagram story. I had already had it up to here with surprisingly unharried parents spending days making perfectly plated, elaborate meals, but the crackers were some next-level nonsense. These crackers took days to make, and are a foodstuff found in delicious abundance at every grocery store! It broke my brain.
I had previously felt decent about the amount of home cooking we had accomplished, but those 30-minute sheet-pan dinners were never cooked joyfully or consumed mindfully. They were hastily thrown in an oven and later, inhaled. They were not lovingly prepared over many hours and presented on a gingham tablecloth.
That’s not the only time social media has made me feel both insecure and ashamed of the ways in which I am doing quarantine. Masks are another sore spot. I see images of toddlers and preschoolers happily complying with their face coverings, scooting down a city street like tiny bandits. I can barely get my 3-year-old to wear pants in public. She hides under a couch every time I try to get a mask on her*, which means we don’t take our kids anywhere you can’t guarantee social distance.
I am usually fairly immune to the social media performance of parenthood. I know that behind the curtain there is someone else watching the children as the crackers are being made, or that the compliant toddler ripped her mask off moments after the photo was taken.
But now, two months into staying at home, I find myself engaging in painful comparisons with other moms. I’m particularly disgusted with myself for the pettiness, considering how much death, fear and disruption I read about and report on every day.
And yet, I can’t help myself from getting sucked into the scroll and compare. I asked Amanda Hess, the host of The Times’s video series “Internetting with Amanda Hess” and an incisive cultural critic, about why it is so irresistible. “I have also been thinking about the insane explosion of low-level gossip,” Hess said. “We don’t have these in-person bonds, where if I saw you at a bar, we might gossip a little bit about a friend, and that might release something in us.” Because we’re deprived of those bonds right now, when you see some cracker-making jerk on your timeline, “it looms in your mind.”
Kathryn Jezer-Morton, a sociology Ph.D. candidate at Concordia University who researches the internet and motherhood and has written for NYT Parenting, said that part of the reason that comparing ourselves to others may feel irresistible right now is that we’re all under lockdown orders, and so our lives are superficially similar. “It flattens the playing field in a disturbing way,” she said.
Before, you could explain to yourself that some woman on Instagram looked so good because she got professional blowouts every day and could afford a trainer. But now, there is the illusion that we’re all living the same life, even if there are others helping whom we don’t see on the screen.
At its core, comparison is an essential part of being human (or of being an animal, for there’s evidence that monkeys compare themselves to one another, too). There’s a body of research about what psychologists call “social comparison,” or the comparison of one’s self to others. Researchers have described social comparison as “a fundamental psychological mechanism influencing people’s judgments, experiences and behavior.” During health scares, the need for social comparison increases, because the future isn’t clear and there are “no objective standards of how to cope,” researchers have found. In other words, we look to our peers even more intensely to figure out how we’re supposed to behave and what we’re supposed to feel.
It is mildly comforting to know that I can’t resist the social media comparisons because it’s human nature, not because it’s some specific failing in myself. And I can also be secure in the knowledge that my own social media postings are probably deeply and horrifically irritating to at least some of my friends during this isolated and anxious time we’re all living through.
Perhaps instead of beating myself up, the answer is just to accept social comparison as a way to blow off steam. It doesn’t have to be that serious. As Jezer-Morton put it: “It’s part of the way people deal with everyday repetitive stress. We get emotional about things that are maybe a bit dumb.” That might be the most human experience of all.
*After I wrote this, I finally got my 3-year-old to wear a mask by letting her decorate it with fabric markers. She wore it for 10 entire minutes (inside).