Constantly comparing yourself to the "Super Mum" 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 already doing.
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, super mum!"
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 and Spencer.
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 universally achievable.
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 point.
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 level."
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 motherhood.
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 you personally.
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 four.
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 both.
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 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 privileges.