Is MilLife a Box of Chocolates or a Basket of Crabs?

piece of chocolate
(Nicholas J. De La Pena/DVIDS)

There was an essay titled “Why Women Compete With Each Other” in the New York Times recently. You should read it -- and be sure to read the comments, too.

I don’t typically think of comments sections as venues for enlightening discussions, but sometimes humanity proves me wrong.

The writer, Emily V. Gordon, focused on mean-girl type adolescent tendencies, citing a few illustrative moments to explain a couple of prevailing theories. The theories in a nutshell? We compete so that we can “win” the best guy and get the best genetics for our offspring.

I’m not really sure that I buy that reasoning.

Any woman who has ever attended high school will recognize the catty, isolating experiences Gordon writes about. But the biology/genetics explanation doesn’t seem to really apply to us now that we’re grown-ups. I mean, how often do we really find ourselves in those Mean Girls moments anymore? The competition is still there, to be sure, but it becomes much more subtle after we cross that second-decade threshold.

As Must-Have Parents we often find ourselves having to explain, defend and justify our family’s choices. There are some who say we are not Leaning In or that, by facilitating a less than equal parenting partnership, we’re depriving our children of the other parent’s presence. They may even say that we are selfishly hogging all the joys of parenthood for ourselves.

Then, on the other hand, there are those of us and our supporters who insist that we’re nothing short of martyred saints. The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

Is this criticism (also known as the “Mommy Wars”) an example of what Gordon means by competition? And if it is, why is it that we’re competing?

We (meaning mothers) already have kids, and many of us are not at all interested in having more. Our offsprings’ genetics have already been decided.

Also, married women, single women and same sex-oriented women all compete, regardless of whether we have children, want children or are even attracted to men.

Indeed, my cousin is a geriatric nurse and she tells me the craziest stories about her retirement home patients, often involving competition between women who are long past reproducing.

Gordon seems to recognize these holes in the genetic-quest argument and so she proposes an alternate theory for women’s competitiveness, saying: “We aren’t competing with other women, ultimately, but with ourselves -- with how we think of ourselves. For many of us, we look at other women and see, instead, a version of ourselves that is better, prettier, smarter, something more.”

Gordon’s explanation seems more on the mark than the other theories but it doesn’t seem to fully explain female competition.

Many of the commenters weren’t convinced, either. My favorite comment came from a guy named Richard:

“A woman friend of mine knows all too well about this phenomenon. She even has a name for it - the ‘Basket of Crabs Syndrome.’ Freshly-caught crabs rarely escape from an open basket. Why? Because as soon as one begins to crawl out the others pull it back down.”

A Basket of Crabs. How perfect is that metaphor?

As it turns out, Richard’s friend didn’t coin the concept. There’s already a Wikipedia page for “Crab Mentality” a.k.a., “Crabs in a Bucket” which explains the phenomenon this way:

“Individually, the crabs could easily escape from the pot, but instead they grab at each other in a useless ‘king of the hill’ competition which prevents any from escaping and ensures their collective demise. The analogy in human behavior is sometimes claimed to be that members of a group will attempt to negate or diminish the importance of any member who achieves success beyond the others, out of envy, conspiracy or competitive feelings.”

I have definitely seen this theory in action, and with people who are decades past high school.

But Richard also noted that men can be just as crabby as women, an experience to which the male Must-Have Parents reading this can likely attest. I’d even argue that not only is male competitiveness just as common as female, male competitiveness is often much more obvious.

A reader named Lex must have thought the same thing “Oh goodness,” she wrote. “Men compete with each other too. Why when women do it is it a talking point?”

And that may be the wisest point of all.

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