The Hierarchy. The Lowerarchy. Schadenfreude.

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Before I begin the post, I’d like to credit a post I read two years ago that validated many of the suspicions I had and made me laugh long and hard. I haven’t figured out how to create links yet, so here is the URL:

In parent-tot music group the parents coo over each other’s babies while maintaining an audible/internal dialogue that runs something like this: Your baby is so adorable! (But not as adorable as mine.) Look at your baby sitting up! How old is she? (Let’s just establish right now that she’s older than my baby, which explains why she can sit up while my baby can’t.) How sweet that your baby crawled over to pick up the tambourine. He sure can move! (But I notice he can’t clap. My baby claps.) The comparisons do not stop as we become more confident in our parenting. At preschool we look to see who glued their snowman’s three body circles in the right sequence (My kid did!) and who failed to perform the hand motions at the end-of-year assembly (Mine refused, but at least she stayed on stage, unlike that other kid.).

I used to feel ashamed of myself for living this dual life. Then over time I learned that everyone (read: moms) I know, friend and foe, does the same thing. Maybe other parents don’t engage in such insidious competition, but they must live somewhere else. Maybe other parents believe that they are simply sharing the joys and travails of motherhood without judgment, but I don’t believe it. Maybe they (truthfully) point out that parents need some reassurance that other children too are imperfect. I believe them. But I also believe that childrearing is, at some level, a competitive sport. I’m not proud of that fact, but it seems that envy and one-upmanship are too pervasive for me to waste more time dwelling on feeling ashamed. As I wrote in last week’s post, our children’s accomplishments, particularly relative to their peers, validate our own exceptionality. They  either attest to our stellar genetic material (My kid is a better basketball player.), or they attest to our stellar parenting (your kid may be a better athlete, but mine exhibits far superior sportsmanship. Sportsmanship counts far more in character development than do middle-school basketball skills. So there.).

A problem arises, though, when you know your child will never win the contest. Standing at the playground, watching the other children surge ahead of your own, forces you to abandon the competitive drive and focus on honoring the gift of life each child possesses. You become freed from the poison of competitive parenting and discover a more mature, purer perspective. Kudos to us with the special children!

But not really. One of my biggest surprises in talking to parents of kids with special needs over the years is that we look more humble, but in fact the game did not end. We merely moved to a new playing field. Our kids cannot compete against the “normal” kids, so we find ways to compete among ourselves. Instead of using the rhetoric of “better than,” however, we shift to “not as bad-off as,” as in “my kid is not as bad-off as yours,” or “at least my kid is capable of . . . .” We’ve created a lowerarchy.

The most explicit example of this competition that I’ve lived through came last fall at a workshop for autistic teenagers that my daughter Sam was attending. Several of us mothers were introducing ourselves to each other, and one of the mothers said, “My son Owen (name changed) is very high functioning. He’s memorized the Best Picture winner of the Academy Awards for every year going back to 1928!” (I’m assuming that any readers out there who know autism are laughing hysterically at the idea that memorizing a list illustrates. . . well, illustrates anything other than the fact that the boy has autism.)  Then she continued, “He usually doesn’t do well in groups like these because he’s so much higher functioning than the other kids. How high functioning are your kids?” The rest of us stared at each other, aghast. When the class ended, Owen marched over to us, stared at a wall, and demanded from a particular mother to know if she was so-and-so’s mother. She nodded. Still talking to the wall, he told her that her son made him “very uncomfortable” because he couldn’t participate in everything, and he probably should not return. Owen’s mother pinched her lips and shrugged, half gloating and half intimating a fake apology with her face: “What can I say? He’s just being honest.” Then Owen said, “All the other kids were fine.”

I despised that mom. I ached for the other mom (whose son, it turned out, was not a good fit for the group). But I would not spend time writing about the experience if it weren’t for my other reaction. Despite my anger, I also thought “Whew! My kid made the cut. My kid was ‘fine.’ My kid was not as bad-off as that child.” And even better: Sam told me later that she felt bad for the other boy because he was having such a difficult time. Sam may or may not be as high functioning (more on that in another post) as Owen, but her compassion level is stellar! As we left I patted myself on the back. I am so much a better mother than that horrible woman!

Most of the expressions of the lowerarchy are more oblique. Most are silent or shared only with friends. It’s thoughts such as: At least my child has a friend. My child does not have a friend, but at least my child excels academically. My child may be socially isolated and cognitively average, but at least he is verbal. My child may not be verbal, but at least she is toilet-trained. Your child may be brilliant, but he’s still not toilet-trained.

Why? Why such eagerness to sympathize but ambivalence about allowing ourselves to empathize? We share so much of our experience in common. In my community we do support each other, give each other strength, and empathize with each other. I am so thankful that we do. But I think there’s still that niggling impulse to resort to the lowerarchy. It’s our basest form of reassurance. I do not offer a way to stop it, even within myself. But I do believe that acknowledging the reality as well as its destructive effect on our children can help us fight this instinct. I will continue writing about the topic of hierarchy next week, but I invite you to comment and further the discussion now. Thanks!