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The Mommy Wars Are All in Your Head

Photograph by Twenty20

I remember my first school bake sale. It was for a fundraiser for my daughter's kindergarten class, and I was excited about my first volunteer activity as the parent of a school-aged child.

Maybe I was a little too excited. I must have asked at least four other parents, my daughter's teacher and the school janitor about what was expected of us, as if I was waiting for them to hand me the instruction manual devoted to the selling of cookies and muffins to 5-year-olds.

I'm a terrible baker, so I decided to keep it simple with a couple dozen cupcakes that I covered with frosting and way too many sprinkles and sparkly sugar, sort of like bedazzling a plain T-shirt that you got from Target. I made them from a boxed mix; after all, our main customers would be kindergartners and I figured anyone who was prone to eating their own boogers wouldn't be looking for gourmet fare.

On the morning of the bake sale, a few other parents and I arrived at the school and were unloading our trays when a mom charged through the doors carrying a huge box filled with supplies, her husband behind her with massive trays of cupcakes. What she did next will forever be etched in my mind. Yelling, "Who wants fresh cupcakes?" she pulled out of the box what looked like a gigantic hypodermic needle, filled it with whipped cream and proceeded to inject her chocolate cupcakes with filling, right there on the spot.

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We were all mesmerized at this magnificent confectionary surgical procedure, and of course all of the kids gathered around and deliriously gorged themselves on her spectacular creations. For the other moms and me, it was like we'd been humming off-key in the dressing room when suddenly Cher burst through the curtains.

It's not really a competition, is it? We're all kind of screwed.

None of us said anything out loud, but we all felt it: We'd been upstaged. My tray of sparkly cupcakes, completely absent of any homemade, injected cream filling, suddenly seemed so ordinary. It was the moment I first realized the competition that was ahead of me, and I had better get myself a giant whipped cream hypodermic needle if I had any hopes of keeping up.

Of course, this was all being seen through the lens of my own insecurities and my feelings of inadequacy at being a mom of young children. Everyone else was doing it better, quicker and more lovingly and was looking way hotter in the process. The "Mommy Wars" manufactured by the media and shoved down our throats didn't help. According to them, making a mediocre tray of cupcakes meant you were a failure at life and had possibly just destroyed your kid's chances of getting into a good college.

Fast forward a year, and the whipped-cream mom and I had become sort-of friends, although the other parents and I remained leery of her and her slightly over-the-top school shenanigans. Was it really necessary to hand-make 90 light-up name tags for the entire kindergarten class when they "graduated"? And the sound chip in each one playing "Pomp and Circumstance" just seemed like overkill.

One Halloween, we all decided at the last minute to do a group trick-or-treating in my neighborhood, and I volunteered to host a party at my house before we all set out. I stopped at the grocery store on the way home to pick up some food, and at the last minute put a couple of trays of gaudy Halloween cupcakes on top of the pile. Whipped-cream mom would not approve, but I didn't have time to care.

After I got back to the house I frantically set out all the things I had bought, and as an afterthought I threw a couple bottles of apple cider in a pan with an orange and some cloves and set it on the stove. I dug out an old bottle of rum from the back of the cabinet and set it on the counter, since I knew roaming the neighborhood with 15 5-year-olds in the dark was going to require strong booze at some point.

Our little party was a success, and as we were getting ready to leave the house whipped-cream mom approached me in the kitchen. "These spiced cocktails were such a great idea," she said. "I just don't know how you do it all," she continued, gesturing to the little gathering I'd hosted inside my chaotic house. "Sometimes I feel like I just can't compete."

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Wait, was whipped-cream mom actually saying she felt intimidated by … me? I brushed the sweat away from my greasy, not-washed-in-three-days hair and looked back at her. "Well," I said, "it's not really a competition, is it? We're all kind of screwed."

It was a turning point for me, since I realized that—cliché as it might sound—we can be our own worst enemy and often the war can be all in our heads. I stopped being so hard on myself that day and stopped comparing myself so much to others. I tried to remember that we all have our own insecurities we're dealing with and battles we're fighting. You know what they say: The grass is always greener—and the cupcakes always cream-filled—on the other side of the fence.

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