The Supermom Myth: Its okay to not be the perfect mother

Clinical psychologist Michelle Nortje tackles the myth of the Supermom and provides an alternative perspective on mothering – one in which your child still turns out well-adjusted even though you’re not perfect.

There are often constant societal expectations that pressurise mothers to fulfil certain impossible criteria. Being able to juggle the multiple roles of parent, spouse, friend, and employee or employer is overwhelming and exhausting. In addition, the media is constantly feeding anxious mothers with the latest trends of what they should or shouldn’t do: how much screen time is allowed, the benefits of certain supplements, organic meal preparations, sleep training… and the list continues!

The additions of Facebook and Instagram now make it easier for mothers to compare themselves to the often false reflections of other mothers’ seemingly perfect lives. This kind of competition can leave mothers feeling guilty and useless. Mothers may therefore feel torn to complete each task to perfection. However, being a perfect supermom is not just impossible, it is also (perhaps surprisingly) unhelpful for your children.

Good enough mothering
Seminal psychologist Donald Winnicott coined the term ‘good-enough mothering’ in the 1950s, to describe the ideal kind of mother. This was not a perfect, flawless mother who never failed her child. Instead, a good-enough mother is one who tries her best, but at times fails the child, but then tries again to restore and repair the relationship. It is this process of ‘rupture and repair’ that is so valuable psychologically and developmentally for babies to develop a secure attachment, and to learn about managing separation, feeling empathy and forgiveness, and how to maintain connections with others despite miscommunications or difficulties in the relationship.

On the other hand, the ‘too-good mother’, the supermom, actually takes away a child’s opportunities to learn these important real-world skills. A too-good mother may overprotect her child by preventing him or her from experiencing any downfalls or obstacles. For example, a mother who doesn’t let her child learn to ride a bicycle in case the child could fall and hurt himself or feel frustrated is not allowing the child to learn about the process of perseverance and his own internal strengths. Secure parenting is instead about learning from our mistakes rather than always having to get it right. Children learn how to learn from their mistakes by watching their parents model this process.

According to the Circle of Security Parenting (COS-P) programme you actually only need to get it right about 30% of the time in order to develop a secure attachment with your child! Children also give us repeated chances to keep trying to understand them better.

The need to feel in control
It is such an anxiety-provoking task to have the responsibility of caring for a baby and child. This anxiety sometimes shows itself in a tendency to try to control too many things because one actually feels quite out of control internally! Most mothers feel overwhelmed and confused at times. Our babies’ communications, for instance, are not always clear cut and we may not always know what their cries mean. Mothers may think that if they have the latest and greatest child care equipment and cell phone apps they are more in control. However, the most important ‘equipment’ is your own instinct as a mother and the feedback you will receive from your child. A simple rule of thumb is merely to follow your child’s lead for what they need. For example, your child may throw a tantrum at the shops because he didn’t get the newest toy he eyed on the shelves. This is a wonderful opportunity to understand that your child is actually communicating that he needs some help to learn patience and how to communicate his anger in a more socially acceptable way.

Managing the guilt
How to manage feelings of guilt and anxiety when you feel you are not doing the best job as a mother:

Get support
Remember the African proverb that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Even superheroes have a sidekick and mothers also need assistance and guidance. Starting your own support group with mothers in your neighbourhood can be a helpful way to get support and share about the real frustrations and difficulties of raising children in the modern world.

Have fun with your child

Attempting to be a supermom, you may feel the need to focus on the tasks of super-nutritional meals, bath time routines and excelling at homework. Although these may be important, having fun, making a mess, laughter and time to connect and play are vital for your child’s development.

Remember to care for yourself
If you keep on giving and supporting others without taking the time to fill up your own emotional cup, you will soon begin to feel burnt out and fatigued. Taking time to care for yourself by eating healthily, getting enough rest and having the occasional pamper are important to maintain your energy levels for the hard task of parenting.

Be kinder to yourself
Being a mother is a difficult job!

In conclusion, it is so important to remember to strive to be a good-enough mother and not a supermom. As a mother, you already have the most important superpowers at your fingertips anyway; ears to listen to your child’s big feelings, arms to hold your child when they need comforting, and lips to encourage your child and tell them you love them each day.

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