Get real, mama
Constantly comparing yourself to the "Supermum"
next door? Ellie Gwilliam shares strategies for dealing with the
realities of modern motherhood.
She bakes her own bread, and prepares every meal from scratch.
Produce (organic, of course) comes fresh from her own garden. Her
home is immaculate. Her children are charming, her husband adoring.
She volunteers, runs the local playgroup, and hosts a book club.
She is interesting and intellectual, confident and well-balanced.
She has time for everyone, and some spare for herself. She's
up-to-date, and anticipates her family's every need. Oh, and she
runs her own company, and also manages her daughter's netball team.
Yes, she is "Supermum" - but she is also an urban myth.
It is quite sobering to think what
motherhood was like for our ancestors, raising dozens of children
in single-room huts, with no running water, electricity,
appliances, or disposable nappies. In many practical ways life
seems easier today, yet modern mothers are faced with different
pressures. Society continually serves up unhealthy portions of
guilt-inducing pressure, suggesting today's mother should do it all
and do it all perfectly. But is being a Supermum realistic?
In short, the answer is no. The term
"Supermum" is most commonly used to describe a perception of
others, and typically bears no resemblance to reality. A
Google search turned up many a mother using the label to describe
herself, which is positive and, one would assume, a reflection of a
healthy sense of humour and an acknowledgement that being a mother
automatically labels you as "super". The risk of bantering this
term about, however, is that it can further alienate women from the
illusive "others". Our major concern with "Supermum" is the
connotation of pressure and competitiveness it carries. Instead of
inspiring, encouraging, and celebrating, the Supermum facade
perpetuates unobtainable ideals and unhealthy comparisons that set
women up to fail, devaluing the remarkable job they are
And not only is unrealistic, but being a
Supermum is also completely unnecessary. The task of motherhood is
too huge to do perfectly. Besides, perfection is a rather
unpalatable goal compared with health and happiness.
Of course, however, there is a powerful
drive inside us when we become parents to do the very best for our
children. A drive capitalised on by a society which says, "Look at
all the resources, education and experiences you have! Go and be
everything, all at once - super career woman, super social woman,
What we need to be is real. We owe it to
each other - to be honest, practical, humble, both teachable and
teachers. The realities of modern motherhood are often not
glamorous, sexy, or even that appealing. There is a lot of hard
work, exhaustion, frustration, and even boredom to wade through.
But when we are real and honest, and share practical tips and
wisdom with one another, the sisterhood will be stronger and
less vulnerable to the discouraging voices that can too easily be
heard, be it from society, each other, or even ourselves.
Easier said than done, perhaps. Let's put
Supermum on the shelf for a while, and get back to basics. Here are
our tips and strategies for not only surviving the realities of
modern motherhood, but for thriving as a healthy, confident mum,
super in her own right.
Know who you are
Years ago I worked as a nanny in the UK, for a wonderful family
with two small girls. Their mother, and her acceptance of
whom she was as a woman and as a mother, had a profound influence
on me and encourages me still, especially now that I have my own
children. Marie is a successful corporate lawyer for a major
international company. She employs a full-time nanny because
her job is hugely demanding and requires her to travel frequently.
Still, there is no doubt her children are her priority, and she
uses whatever time she has to ensure they are happy and thriving.
But she won't bake cakes. Nor will she pretend to. Cakes, she
declared early on in my employment, are to be purchased from Marks
By all means, spend hours preparing
extravagant birthday cakes for your children, if you enjoy it. But
if not, and if your motivation for doing so is primarily because
you think that that is what you "should" do in order to be a "good
mother", outsource that cake and get stuck into doing something
that is a more accurate reflection of who you are and the skills
you bring to the table.
Self-awareness is important not
only for self-confidence reasons, but also because there is an
absolute barrage of information, advice, and how-to guides
heading your way as a parent. If you don't have a relatively
firm sense of who you are as a mother and as a family unit,
the advice and information can be overwhelming, pushing you from
one direction to the next. Stand your ground and sift through what
is relevant to you, letting your intuition guide your parenting.
Implied ideals, even those with the best intentions, are not
As women, we habitually compare ourselves
to others. We judge another mother's life without seeing the full
picture, and waste precious energy comparing ourselves to something
that may not even exist. It takes a lot of conscious effort to
overcome this default behaviour, but having a healthy perception of
yourself, even if you need daily reminders, can help. Ditch the
negative self-talk and keep in mind the positive attributes you
know you have. Write them down if it helps!
Finally, remember that "working mum" is a
redundant term - we all work; some of us get paid, and some don't.
Various factors will determine your decision to be either a
stay-at-home mother or a mother who also does paid work, but once
that decision is made, don't feel bad about itor take on other
people's judgements about what you are doing.
Simplify your life
The theory goes we use 20% of our possessions 80% of the time, and
wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time. I work hard to change
these statistics in our household because I hate waste and clutter
drives me crazy. We live in a small house, so some of this is out
of necessity, but I believe there is a science involved too.
Physical clutter can be related to emotional clutter, with mess
contributing to stress. Simplicity in one's household is enhanced
by two simple rules, as pedantic and dull as they may sound: "Have
only in your home what you know to be useful or believe to be
beautiful" (William Morris), and "A place for everything and
everything in its place" (Benjamin Franklin).
Without boring you with my passion for
decluttering, logical storage means your kids will be able to find
things themselves and help tidy up, regular maintenance is easier
than a major overhaul, and small children and pets have been known
to go missing for days in piles of plastic toys, most of which came
free with a fast-food dinner marketed directly at children.
Okay, so maybe I made some of that up, but you get my
Our lifestyles and finances can also
benefit from a simplification assessment. Don't just go with the
flow, enrolling your two-year-old in French lessons just because
your friend has. Establish what really matters for your family, and
what doesn't. Avoid over-commitments, think local, and look for
simple family fun. Similarly, simplifying our finances can be
extremely liberating. Work to eliminate debt, and cut unnecessary
spending. Always ask, "Do I really need this?" before making
purchases. Which leads us conveniently back to decluttering!
Have a plan
A common complaint from mothers is the feeling of being completely
overwhelmed. Being strategic about how we manage our
responsibilities is not only practical, but it also helps
emotionally if we can visualise how things are going to get done.
Time management principles that are key to success in the corporate
world are valuable domestically as well. Time is a precious
commodity and we need to make wise decisions as to how we use it.
However, things obviously take much longer with children in the
picture, and completing a task can seem a pipe dream. Create a
system for household chores, where jobs are broken down into
bite-sized pieces. Even with just 10 minutes a day spent on
housework, you'll be amazed at what you can achieve.
Have a to-do list and check it daily,
making note of what needs to be done, and what you hope to get done
- one day! Committing it to paper is the first step towards action.
And the sense of satisfaction gained from giving a completed task a
tick is hugely motivating. Keep things simple and achievable - if
some days you can only get a tick from a task such as "cleaning
teeth" or "changing out of pyjamas", go on and write them on the
to-do list! Essentially, we need to be kind to ourselves. Our time
management plans need to be flexible - it is great to have a goal,
but as a mum, there are so many more variables in the mix. So we
need to be realistic and acknowledge that some days it may feel
like all we achieved was keeping the baby fed, which is an
absolutely acceptable way to spend a day.
Take time for yourself
Jodie Hedley-Ward, author of You Sexy Mother, puts it like this:
"It is vital that we awaken to the significance of our role as a
mother and realise that we are the very foundation of our family's
well-being. Neglect of ourselves is abuse at a very profound
As convenient as it is to put our needs
second to those of everyone else, a happy and fulfilled mother is a
good role model for her children. When we take time for ourselves,
we are more relaxed, more cheerful, more optimistic, and better
able to cope with stress. Scheduling some time for the things we
really enjoy is essential, even if it seems impossible. Start
small - spend 20 minutes in the bath with a book and a
glass of wine, and build up to an afternoon at a day spa or a
few hours spent leisurely wandering around a museum. Whatever
benefits you, will ultimately benefit your family.
Do what you enjoy, and enjoy what you do
It often surprises me how little time I dedicate to the
things my family and I really enjoy doing, instead focusing
time on a seemingly endless list of things I feel we "should" be
doing. Whether it be trips to the library or making cookies, look
for the things you all enjoy doing as a family and be deliberate
about scheduling time for them. Job satisfaction was probably
hugely important to you before you became a mother, but need not be
put on the back burner as you bring up your kids.
Don't take on too much
By identifying your unique capacity, and recognising the pace most
sustainable in your life, you will be empowered to say no,
acknowledging that you can't do it all and nor do you need to. It
is also life-changing to learn when to ask for help, how to accept
help when it is offered, and when to pay for help if required and
possible. Whether it simply ensures the basics get done or allows
you some precious time to yourself, getting help, paid or
otherwise, is a pivotal step towards healthy and sustainable
Keep it in context
Life can be challenging, but we need to keep perspective. Jane
McAllister offered us her best advice for motherhood: "What is a
problem today won't be a problem tomorrow." As the founder and
director of the babywear company Dimples and a mother of 14,
we'll take her word for it!
It helps to keep in mind that babies are not robots, and
toddlers are irrational. And beware of information overload. Modern
information technology, so different from our mother's day, can be
helpful, but can also exasperate our confusion and worry. A Google
search on colic, for example, will provide over 22 million results,
a handful of which you may find helpful. By all means seek
information, but be aware of context, and how things relate to
Be a "good enough" mum
The term "good enough parent" was used in the 1960s by British
paediatrician Donald Winnicott to describe parents who take good
care of their children, but don't race around desperate to meet
their child's every need. Theoretically, good enough parents teach
their children resilience, with researchers discovering that young
children raised by Superparents experience "baby burnout",
exhibiting signs of fear of failure as young as age three or
Much of the pressure we feel as mothers
could be alleviated if we were simply kinder to ourselves. Stop
blaming ourselves for things beyond our control. Learn from our
mistakes, instead of wallowing in "mummy guilt". Remember
perfection is not the goal. Bend the rules once in a while - order
takeaways and have a picnic dinner in front of a DVD without
worrying about the nutritional and educational values of
The beauty of sidelining "super" and
embracing "good enough" is that the whole family, and even your
wider community, will benefit. Being real as parents holds valuable
life lessons for our children, teaching them that all people
make mistakes, smart people learn from them, and whole people can
offer and accept forgiveness.
And the next time your friend pops over
for coffee, be honest! Let them know you burned the muffins, that
at seven o'clock some nights you still have no idea what to cook
for dinner, that your house was an absolute bombsite five minutes
before they arrived, and in the stress of tidying it up, you yelled
at your kids… Her relieve will be almost tangible.
Ellie Gwilliam is OHbaby! Magazine's sub-editor and mum to
three daughters. Some days she feels she deserves a parenting
medal, other days some time on the thinking chair and loss of all
- "100 Ways to take time for yourself." OHbaby! Magazine Issue 1
(Autumn 2008): pages 90-95.
- Coombes, Tina. "Identity Crisis, OHbaby! Magazine Issue 6
(Winter 2009): pages 86-88.
- Granich, Katherine. "Make your job work for you". OHbaby!
Magazine Issue 8 (Summer 2010): pages 12-15.
- Granich, Katherine. "Staying afloat." OHbaby! Magazine Issue 1
(Autumn 2008): pages 12-17.
- Hedley-Ward, Jodie. You Sexy Mother: A Life-Changing
Approach to Motherhood. Exisle, 2008.
- Ogilvie, Rosemary Ann. "The good-enough parent." Parenting
Magazine Issue 27 (Summer 06/07): pages 15-17
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 12: 2011
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