The Supermom Phenomenon
The role of being a mom has changed significantly over the past few generations. How could it not? Not only are far more female parents in the workforce (70 percent according to the U.S. Department of Labor), but so much of how we spend our days and structure our family lives is radically different than it was 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
From the way we shop, prepare meals and enjoy leisure time to where we turn for childcare and how often, the image of what it means to be a mom continues to transform. Yet, however much our ideas have evolved over which parent needs to be the primary breadwinner, or even who cooks dinner, changes diapers or tucks the kids in at night, the expectations of what it means to be mom seem no less lofty.
Instead of the images from the 1980s and ’90s of women trading-in aprons for briefcases, today’s portrait of mom is often of this unflappable hero who can sort of magically do it all. We see the “Supermom” image everywhere, from commercials for automobiles and cleaning products to TV and social media, gracefully swooping in wherever she’s needed to save the day. Mom not only brings home the bacon and fries it up in the pan, she also has time to squeeze in an hour of hot yoga every day and meet the girls out for some laughs a few times a week. And while it’s proper to hold mom in such high esteem, these images can place unnecessary pressure on women leading modern lives that are already challenging enough.
Kate Roberts, parenting coach and mother of two active boys, says a lot of women do feel the pressure to be Supermom. And it continues to intensify in a society she sees as more materialistic and image conscious than ever before. “I think moms really need to keep perspective and look at how they can get their own basic needs met. Really try to stay grounded and not be concerned with the image that’s coming across,” she advises.
Successful entrepreneur coach and mother of young twins Ali Brown also agrees there’s a lot of imagery out there that sets an unrealistic expectation. “It’s mostly pressure we put on ourselves,” she says. “I think we have these visions for success. We have a vision for what a successful mom is, we have a vision for what a successful CEO is, we have a vision of a successful wife. And what it took me a while to discover is that you get to choose what success looks like for you.” Brown says it’s important to figure things out for yourself and not to compare your life to someone else’s.
Michelle Donohue, a vice president of human resources in the Boston area and mother of two girls, embraces the ability to sort of “sneak peek” into what other moms are doing through the Internet, news, media and even celebrities. She feels the image of mom is probably more accessible now than it might have been 40 years ago. Yet the role of being a mother is still the same. “We all want what’s best for our kids – those are just images. At the end of the day we’re all working toward the same goals. To raise good, successful children who are contributors to society,” she says.
When Donohue became a mom, she felt it was crucial to hang onto the sense of self she had already created, and to use that to show her children they’re always most important. “I think that alleviates the pressure of worrying about whatever everybody else is doing,” she says.
Realizing becoming a mom still meant change, she traded in her longer commute to the city and late nights for a job that was closer to home. She uses the time saved to be with the family, and the 20 minutes heading to and from work as a respite to think through the day and focus on what she needs to accomplish.
Being the owner of her own successful business, Brown thought her best option would be to work from home, but she also arranged for childcare during the week. “I had visions of me drifting through the house in a nursing gown, doing conference calls … and very quickly I realized, Wow, I need to create separation,” she says. She now leases a small office down the road that she doesn’t go to every day, but has available for times when she really needs to focus.
According to Roberts, figuring out your priorities for self-care and for what kind of parent you want to be is critical. She advises on making a list of what’s important, pointing to some basic items typically associated with successful families, such as staying physically healthy, having a strong support system and remaining organized. “You have to focus on what the goal is. So priorities have to be well-defined and realistic. And just remind yourself, ‘I’ve met those priorities. I’m satisfied with how I’m doing,’” she says.
Roberts says family dinners are something else research shows to be valuable to prioritize. “They don’t have to be fancy meals. It’s more the time to actually spend together and using that to connect with your family and your kids,” Roberts says. She also emphasizes the importance of maintaining regular touch points throughout the day, typically before school, at some point during the afternoon and before bed. “I think that’s realistic for a working mom. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, but it has to be consistent where you are 100% devoted to that child.”
Brown, who uses the organizational abilities that made her a successful entrepreneur in her role as mom, says dinnertime, bath time and bedtime are a priority. “It’s always crazy, and bath time’s crazy, but having that time with the kids is important,” she says. “I needed systems. It’s something I’ve always done for my business, but never for my home.” So she keeps things like a shopping checklist and log of the kid’s activities and even hired a local college girl to run some basic errands to help manage.
“I don’t want to be dropping off dry cleaning. I want that time with my kids,” she says. Brown admits having a partner that’s completely onboard is a major advantage. “Not all moms have that support, so it’s even more important for them to get help, to get creative.” Brown frequently advises her clients to take a step back and unbiasedly assess everything they’re taking on and ask for help. “Not just the business, everything,” she emphasizes. “What can you outsource? What can you get delivered? I mean, what would we do without Amazon Prime?”
Relying on Your Network
If keys to overcoming the external pressures of being a mom revolve around setting priorities and organizing your life the best you can for you and your family, having a system of support provides a major advantage. Says Brown, “As a civilization, we weren’t meant to raise children alone. If you look back, the only really successful unit that ever made it work was the village, right?”
“I think of everybody as my support team,” says Donohue. “The daycare, my work, my family, even neighbors. I rely on all of them for different components. It gives me a sense it isn’t always just on me.”
In a culture in which many are increasingly isolated and separated from extended family by distance, it’s in these groups, formal or otherwise, moms can find the support they need from people going through similar experiences.
Being Your Best
When it comes down to it, the pursuit of perfect parenting inevitably ends in vain. As for Donohue, she’s never really gotten too caught up in the hype. She admits she loves reading mommy blogs and looking up activities like fun crafts to do with the kids. But at the end of the day, she and her girls are going to do them their way. “It’s the fact you’re taking the time to do something special with the kids and not overthinking that.”
Roberts also has advice for moms searching for mutually rewarding ways to connect with their children. “It’s really about getting to know your kid. So adjusting … being flexible, that’s what a really skilled parent is. And I’m not using the word ‘best,’ I’m using the word ‘skilled,’” she adds.
In addition to meeting your kids on a level that’s directly fulfilling to them, which might mean silly dance party time at the Donohue house, or for Roberts having a catch with her son every morning, it’s also important to convey your personal interests. Says Roberts, “It’s a good idea to have one or two family things you do that are kind of a staple.” In her family, they enjoy activities that include playing doubles tennis, skiing and visiting museums. She also shares her family history and interest in community service with her boys. “I’m really interested in having them become compassionate, giving adults,” she says.
Donohue and her husband are both avid runners and triathletes, and race days have become a family ritual. “We get the kids involved, so they can cheer everybody on and that’s always really fun,” she says. They even wear T-shirts that read “Team Donohue” for such occasions.
With twin toddlers at home, Brown jokes family time pretty much consists of making sure they stay alive. But she sees a future where they enjoy traveling together, and of course she would like to teach them about entrepreneurship and financial responsibility.
All three moms agree it’s all about family time and the little things that make the experience special. Says Donohue, “I think if we simplify it, it’s day-to-day moments that make your children who they are. Those are the experiences that build character. I don’t think it’s any magic formula, but just embracing those everyday moments and letting your children know they’re important.”
In the end, enjoying being a mom and accepting all the responsibilities that come with it seems to be more than half the battle. When you resist the pressures of trying to be super, stay true to yourself and do your best for your children, odds are your family will see you as the world’s greatest. And maybe things really haven’t changed so much after all. As Donohue succinctly adds, “My mom tells me every day, ‘You’re doing a good job,’ and it’s nice to hear it. Whether or not you need to, it’s nice to hear it from your mom.” Love and support from your mom … what can be more perfect?
Brian Spero is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.
• Kate Roberts, Ph.D., psychologist and parenting coach in Hamilton and Salem. drkateroberts.com
• Ali Brown, entrepreneur coach and consultant. alibrown.com