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The BS of Balance: Comparison Shopping

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times.

“Be your own person,” I tell my kids.  “It doesn’t matter what someone else is doing.  Just focus on being the best YOU can be.”

My son feels he’s not as good a soccer player as other boys who tried out for the travel team.  My daughter envies the sparkly sandals of a classmate.  Even at their young age, they’ve already learned to look over their shoulders to check out what everybody else has and to evaluate the goods.

The ice-cream truck stopped in the neighborhood recently.  My daughter was at the head of the line and in her excitement, ordered the first thing she saw – Spiderman on a stick.  It was unwrapped and enjoyed for all of about 30 seconds before she noticed two blonde girls with identical and appropriately girlie rainbow Sno-Cones.  Suddenly, Spiderman lost his appeal in an apparent case of ice-cream buyer’s remorse.

“Spiderman’s great!” I cheered, as she begged for a do-over of her order.  “He can climb buildings!”

She cried and let him melt into a puddle of artificial red and blue.

“Have Good Humor!” I tried, but she didn’t get it.

I can’t really blame her.  It was two on one after all.  She wanted what those girls had.  Not just a rainbow Sno-Cone but a friend to eat it with.  And maybe blonde hair.

“Stop comparing yourselves to others,” I remind my kids.

And then I wonder… have I ever really heeded my own advice?

I play this game when we go to the beach.  I arrive in typical Mommy Sherpa style, beach chairs slung over shoulder, overstuffed bag of towels and SPF 70 sunscreen in hand, dragging a packed cooler while trying to keep worn flip-flops on my feet.

No sooner do I drop the gear in an acceptable plot of sand that I launch into my favorite way to torture myself while in a bathing suit.   It’s called “That Woman Who Stole My Body.”

I find her pretty quickly.  She’s in a two-piece, of course, and doesn’t require a skirted bottom. She’s thin but not skinny, toned but not overly muscular.   Her skin is a perfect caramel-color, nary a freckle, nor hair to be found.  She’s playing paddle-ball with young children I’d assume are her own if her stomach weren’t so darn flat.

“Hey!” I want to call out.  “Give it back!  That’s mine!”  (But I don’t, obviously, because that would be weird.)

I wonder if she sees me and knows that she stole my body.  I wonder if she might just give it back, if I ask really nicely, or agree to a swap.  Just for a few hours, I’d like to know what it feels like to be her, to not be shy about shedding the sundress.

I occasionally log on to a money management chat site that makes me feel bad.  I post mundane topics like “How much have you saved in your child’s 529 college fund?”  Or, “I’m 40, how much should I have in my 401k?”  I feel better when anonymous responders admit “Nothing!”… “Haven’t started yet!”… or “Can’t afford to pay the mortgage this month, the kid is on his own!” And I feel worse when they boast, “Hoping for early retirement with $300k in a Roth IRA.” And,“I’m 32 and have $65k already accrued for my baby in utero.”  Who are these people?  And why do I care?  Who sets the benchmark? And why do I care (again)?

I have a theory about why shows like Hoarders are so popular.  We all have a little clutter in our lives.  So when we see houses that are filled floor-to-ceiling with junk, our own little piles seem small in comparison.   Did you see the one about the woman who unearthed her DEAD CAT when they cleared out her house?  She just thought he was outside.  I am clearly not as much of a mess as I thought I was.

I’ve made some positive changes in my life recently and one of them involves getting up at the crack of dawn and exercising in a godforsaken place that CrossFitters refer to as a “Box” where participants do awful sweat-inducing things called “WODs.”

There’s a range of participants but one in particular smokes me on the WOD every time.  Five sets of lunges and burpees?  He’s done before I hit round three.  I chat him up one day, curious about his exercise regime.  Turns out he is a 21 year-old marine.  I am a 40 year-old mom.

I tell my husband about the marine who beats me on every WOD.

“But he’s a 21 year-old marine,” my husband reminds me.

“So?” I reply.

“And you’re… not a 21 year-old marine,” he points out the obvious.

What good can possibly come from comparing my fitness level to someone two decades my junior, someone who isn’t a full-time working parent to two young kids?

And then I get it… he’s the rainbow Sno-Cone to my Spiderman on a stick.  That Woman Who Stole My Body is the sparkly shoes to my worn flip-flops.  And maybe coveting what they have – just a little bit – is not such a bad thing.

After all, if I didn’t want to be as fast and as strong as the 21 year-old marine… if I didn’t desire to look like That Woman Who Stole My Body… would I really get up at the crack of dawn to WOD at the Box?  If I didn’t inquire of the other money management chatters, maybe I wouldn’t think about my 401k or my 529 and I’d let those piles of clutter continue to stack up until they reach the ceiling and then I’d be featured on an episode of Hoarders.  And that would be bad, because I’d really miss my cat.

Maybe comparisons can be useful, even healthy, if they give us something to strive for, issues to address and force us focus on ourselves, on being the best we can be.  Which, if you read back to the beginning, you’ll find was my advice all along.

Valerie Gordon has been navigating the wilds of central Connecticut since relocating to suburbia from New York City four years ago. The 40-year-old mother of two is also a coordinating producer at ESPN where she oversees feature production. Her hobbies include writing, reading, and bemoaning her To Do list. She would like to be the kind of woman who has a kayak bungee-corded to the roof of  her car.

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