Supermum myth just doesn’t fly

Why do mothers feel pressure to aim for perfection? Instead of striving for an impossible ideal, how about we cut ourselves some slack? writes Jen Hogan.

“I don’t know how you do it” – it’s a phrase I hear regularly, particularly once people get over the shock of hearing how many children I have. My family size might be more in keeping with 1950’s expectations, but my life and commitments are very much those of a woman in 2018.

Jen Hogan and her family.

My grandad had some pretty old-fashioned and outdated views on a woman’s role in society. I was the first in our family to go to university and he had a copy of my graduation photo hanging on his wall.

“That’s our Jennifer being canonised,” he’d say to everyone who came into the house whether they enquired or not, much to our amusement. Yet proud as he was of his eldest granddaughter’s achievement, (even if it wasn’t quite saintly), he couldn’t help but wonder why my mother bothered.

“Sure they’ll just get married and have babies, there’s no point in girls being educated,” he said, much to my mum’s disgust.

Thankfully she held very different views and so on we went believing the world was our oyster and that we could achieve anything we set our minds to.

And like many women of my generation, I went out into the workforce filled with enthusiasm, high hopes and ambitions for career progression and personal fulfilment and believing I could ultimately have it all.

In due course those gorgeous babies my grandad predicted began to arrive. With every fibre of my being I was in love, exhausted, overwhelmed, ecstatic and busy – so very busy.

As my first maternity leave drew to an end I wondered how I could best juggle work with being a mum to my daughter.

To a certain degree I looked forward to my return to the workforce - some adult company and the opportunity to be Jen again – but the guilt of leaving her in someone else’s care was crippling.

Societal expectations of motherhood have changed. Our own expectations of ourselves have changed with them. Feminism has brought us to a place that generations before could only dream of – but sometimes it feels as though it has come at a price.

Now as mothers, we are expected to be all things to all people. We should excel in the workforce, maintain the home and be a nursemaid, teacher, taxi-driver, psychologist, cook, cleaner, personal assistant, homework supervisor, project creator, and pitch- side supporter to our children – all while looking fabulously chic of course and on little or no sleep.

The flip side of this is that we seem to have less support than ever before.

A little while back, while at work, a radio station phoned me to ask my opinion on an issue relating to stay-at- home mums. I explained that while I would be more than delighted to comment, I needed to flag that I wasn’t actually a stay-at-home mum at that present time.

“You mean you have seven children and a job!” came the reply. “You are Supermum!”

I bumbled through my usual default response of just “being a glutton for punishment” because it was intended as a compliment – and us Irish of course, are not known for our ability to take a compliment.

I don’t think Supermum fits who I am. I feel the pressure to do everything right and get everything right, especially when it comes to my children.

I worry about devoting enough time to each of them. I worry I’ll miss something important because my mind can never fully be on the one job.

I worry about the upset I cause when a little one clings to me and asks why I can’t stay with him that morning. I worry about calling in to work to take an unplanned days leave when one of the children falls ill, in spite of having a very sympathetic employer.

I worry that my house is never as tidy as my sister-in-laws. And I worry that someone will judge my perceived failings on my decision to have a large family.

I recently took a career break from my day job and started working from home. It has enabled me to spend more time with my children and has removed a degree of craziness from our lives.

It was the right decision to make – but it was still a wrench. Even though there are still seven children to look after and work of a different kind to be done, I felt I was failing. I couldn’t manage it all, I wasn’t “Supermum” after all.

And I realised that I, like many mothers, had become my biggest critic. I had taken the affirmations of others and felt a fraud into the bargain.

Supermum doesn’t exist. She’s an unattainable ideal, probably fuelled by insecurities and sleep deprivation – and a fear that we’ll get the most important of all jobs wrong.

As Alexander Pope famously pointed out “to err is human”. Maybe that’s something us mums need to remind ourselves of in the pursuit of this impossible perfection.

A little slack, especially when cut to ourselves, goes a long way.

Feminism has brought us to a place that generations before could only dream of – but sometime it feels as though it has come at a price.

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