When an acquaintance gave birth to twins recently, she was quick, in her diaper-drowning misery, to make one thing clear: "I'm sorry, but people with one kid have no clue about what hard is. This," she said, "is hard."
As the mother of an only child, my reaction was twofold: First, guilt. Wow, I thought, she's right. I can't believe I ever had the nerve to whine about sleep deprivation or sore nipples! But then came the resentment. Really? I have no clue? None at all?
Anyway, I didn't dwell on it. But the latest mommy-war kerfuffle reminded me of my annoyance: This time, it's Hunger Games star Elizabeth Banks telling People magazine, essentially, that moms of only children aren't really moms at all.
"You don't realize how easy one is until you have two," she said. "Now I'm really a mom. Oh, I am a mom now! This is for serious—I am responsible for two people now."
Predictably, her comment set off the mommy-blogger alarm bells.
"It's so rude and so insulting to parents of only children," wrote a mom on the Stir. "Whether she meant it that way or not, it's incredibly insensitive."
Mommyish wrote: "Looking down and realizing that you've just doubled the amount of lives you need to protect is quite the wake up call. But using that experience by which to quantify 'real motherhood' is sketchy terrain." And, weighed in Babycenter: "Although I can relate to Elizabeth Banks' feeling that two kids are shockingly more work than one is (my two sons are the same 20-months apart that hers are, as a matter of fact), I'm cringing over the 'really a mom' comment."
Anyway, whatever. It's debatable whether Banks was slighting moms or just being awkwardly honest about two kids feeling more difficult than one (they are 2-months and 22-months-old, which sounds like a total nightmare). The larger question is, to quote Mommie Dearest, "Why must everything be a contest?"
It's a very particular subset of the endless Mommy Wars—the I-haven't-slept-in-a-year, haven't-made-my-yoga-class-in-weeks, can't-even-poop-in-peace martyrdom that's on endless loops in playgrounds everywhere. Seriously, why is this interesting? And why are moms so obsessed with one-upmanship when it comes to who has it hardest?
"What it's really saying, is, 'I do more for my kids than you do for yours,'" Barbara Risman, senior scholar for the Council on Contemporary Families, told Yahoo! Shine. "It's ironic because it's macho, like 'My life is tougher than yours.' It's a competition of self-sacrifice."
A mother getting into a pissing match about how she's got it toughest, adds Risman, a professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is actually a response to a powerful societal message. "It's a way to justify one's mothering activities, and a way of pushing back against the cultural devaluation of motherhood," she says.
So maybe let's try the empathy approach toward Banks, since the need to justify, whether we've got one child or five, is probably something all moms can relate to?
Alternately, jump into the self-sacrifice competition with an unexpected barb, as a Facebook friend did so beautifully today in response to the "really mom" actress: "Personally, I think it's plenty hard with one. My daughter has no playmates in the house except me and her dad, so we end up in endless games of Polly Pocket or whatever. We have friends who have more than one, and in this particular regard, they seem to have it easier!"
Yes! Score one for moms of "onlies" having it tougher.