The Supermom Phenomenon: Can We Really Do It All?

Dr. Meghan Downey

The Myth of Motherhood

The myth of motherhood is that we can do it all; and that we should do it all happily and by ourselves, all the while being grateful and fulfilled by this role. We are the executive directors of our household. We have demanding careers. We are the default parent.  

As a clinical psychologist, I often hear, “I should…I should be able to handle it…I should be able to do this on my own….I should feel happy.”  Yet what if we live in a culture and time when the demands and expectations of the mother aren’t sustainable or achievable?

Every mother is a working mother. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on mothers who feel the pressure to balance an outside career with the demands of the household and parenting, and I will refer to ‘mother' as anyone who identifies as one. 

What is the Supermom Phenomenon?

As defined by Lisa Selin Davis of the New York Times, the supermom phenomenon is a term used to describe the “archetypal female who is both a career woman and a housewife - and whose to-do list spans cooking, cleaning, parenting, and earning a substantial paycheck.”  The supermom is the mom who tends to her children in the morning, thrives in her career during the day, maintains a tidy home, routinely has dinner on the table each night, and tends to all of the needs of her family around the clock.  She’s the mom who throws Instagram-worthy birthday parties, plans the perfect family getaway, manages her successful career, and still has time to grab coffee with her girlfriends.   

She is the matriarch, even though society doesn’t see her as one. Society judges her and criticizes her for not being enough of this or being too much of that.  She can tell by the stares she gets while trying to multitask at the supermarket: grabbing groceries, tending to a crying baby, and responding to emails. She feels unraveled, but instead of getting the empathetic support and encouragement of her neighbors that she desperately needs, she gets eye rolls and side glances for being distracted, unattuned, and not attending to her crying baby quickly enough. 

There are two versions of her: the woman who she feels she is supposed to be, and the woman who she really is. The expectations society has set for her are the expectations of her baseline, which has now become her new standard. 

It’s the mother we are exposed to through advertisements and social media.  Who she really is is a tired and stressed mama doing her very best to make it work.  So when she performs at anything less than this unachievable ideal or when her authentic self is shown, she is judged.  And then it is only a matter of time until that external judgment manifests itself inward and causes distress.

The idea of the supermom is harmful.  It’s an unrealistic ideal that contributes to the collective suffering shared by so many mothers.

Coping with the Demands of Motherhood

With the great divide of what should be versus what is, it’s no wonder mothers are finding it difficult to keep up.  There are ways to cope with the distressing challenges of motherhood.  There are ways to become a trailblazer in shifting this cultural norm.

Be Vulnerable

Easier said than done, yet try practicing being vulnerable.  When a mom shows her true self, her not-so-perfect self, or even her struggling self, she shows society, other moms, and herself that it’s okay not to be perfect.  It’s okay to be tired. It’s okay not to know exactly what she’s doing.  So moms, share your real story! Share mishaps, share messes, and share “good enough” photos on social media. Because when you give yourself permission to be vulnerable, you also give another mom permission to do the same. 

Practice Saying No

Saying no can be particularly hard for the mother, who by her nature, is often a giver. This act is a learnable skill that will support the mother in creating emotional boundaries to protect herself and affirm her needs. In other words, you don’t have to please everyone, and you are allowed to say no.  

Managing Irrational Thoughts & Beliefs

Mothers are overstimulated with suggestions of the “right way” of doing things. They are flooded with stimuli to believe they must do every activity, visit all the hotspots, and purchase all the right products. So when thoughts come up regarding these pressures and expectations, they aren’t always initially recognized as external or irrational. Challenging one’s thinking patterns can help change that. Popularized by CBT, this may look like exploring substantial evidence to both support and contradict your thinking. It may mean looking at your situation with rose-colored glasses or imaging the same belief or thought with a positive lens that leads t0 a positive outcome. It may look like putting the idea in perspective, such as: will it matter a year from now, or better yet, five years from now? Negative thoughts prevent us from enjoying experiences. They distract us from focusing on what’s important, and they drain our energy. Being able to challenge negative thoughts allows us to feel better, because we can respond to stress in a more helpful way.

Practicing Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is extending compassion to yourself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. Self-compassion can be practiced with the use of meditation, mindfulness, and positive affirmations. Practicing forgiveness, gratitude, and engaging in leisurely activities that you enjoy are ways to practice self-compassion.

Improving Communication

Communication with one’s spouse or support system is an important and critical step for a mother to better meet her own needs. In order to ask for help, a mother must first identify what she needs to feel supported. This ensures she is being helped in the ways she desires to be helped. Many mothers desire empathy, validation, appreciation, and/or acts of service. Try to remember that it’s not only okay to ask for help, it’s encouraged!

Holding the Dialectic 

Dialectics are described as the tensions an individual feels when experiencing paradoxical desires. It is holding the tension of opposites: two different feelings or two different experiences at the same time.  As a psychologist, I often encourage my patients to use “Yes and…” For example:

  • “Yes I am tired and I am enough.”  
  • “Yes I am angry with my children and I love them.”  
  • “Yes I enjoy being a mother, and it’s hard.” 

Mothers can break this cycle by reaching out for support. Working with a trained provider, such as a psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy, can help mothers challenge the supermom phenomenon and regain a healthy relationship with themselves, their families, and the world. 

Dr. Meghan Downey is a Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. For questions or to learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you, please contact us here.

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