Moms shoulder way more than their fair share of the mental and emotional load of motherhood, just to be told, once a year, that they are “supermom.”
I was going through my drawer one morning, and I came across an old Mother’s Day card decorated in bright colors and written in obnoxiously bold font, that screamed: “YOU ARE SUPERMOM!” Surely the card was written with the intent of making moms feel loved and appreciated, but I felt neither of those things. Instead, I felt a wave of anger. At first the emotion surprised me. Why was I angry about something that was “supposed” to be nice? The sound of my kids fighting downstairs snapped me back into the moment, and the day was off to the races.
Later that day, the image of the words “supermom” scrolled across my mind, and I felt it again — a flash of anger. After some analyzing (as we therapist types tend do), I recognized that I was processing what I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge back then — the truth that moms shoulder way more than their fair share of the mental and emotional load of motherhood, just to be told, once a year, that they are “supermom.” But that title is empty. It’s all talk with no walk.
Four years ago, when my husband handed me that card, back when I was knee deep in milk, diapers, piles of laundry, and a third child that didn’t care much for sleep, I imagine I smiled and said thanks. I also imagine I felt a sense of emptiness. I wouldn’t dare speak about the emptiness though, because I still subscribed to the narrative that there was no room for anything other than #gratitude. I don’t doubt that my husband bought the card with the intention of making me feel loved and appreciated. Now he knows this, but I don’t want cards, gifts — I just want time, and for him to keep showing up as the loving, dedicated, and oftentimes MORE capable partner he truly is.
What I’ve come to recognize, both from my own experience as a mom to three and from my thousands of hours doing therapy with moms, is that the work of motherhood is often quite simply invisible.
Sure, people see the Instagram pictures of the kids’ milestones and the smile on your face at the pickup line. But not the million little steps it takes to get from point A to point B. The planning, the organizing, the phone calls, the expectation setting, the missed doctor appointments, the unscheduled self-care, the sleepless nights, and the fear for our children in a world that seems to get more relentless by the minute. This work stays invisible because we live in a society that greatly benefits from the unpaid labor of women. On top of that, what women know all too well is that if we dare let others see what it truly takes to be “supermom” we will be seen as weak, incapable (or worst of all) ungrateful for the gift of motherhood.
The irony of playing supermom is that after a while, if we are unable to magically do all of the things, and we can’t find the time for “self-care,” it becomes supermom’s fault. We’re called lazy, or told to outsource (often then underpaying already exploited domestic workers), and asked to magically find the time to pay more attention to ourselves so we don’t lose our youth or sexual appeal. But isn’t that what they wanted from us, to give it all away in the first place, to be invisible? Here’s the truth, the truth so many don’t want to hear: all time is created equal, and we can’t give all of ourselves away and keep the parts of ourselves that make us whole humans. Because, that’s what we are…human, and there’s nothing supernatural about it.
But it’s not just men who subscribe to the notion of the “supermom,” it’s women too. I know this because I frequently hear women shouldering more than their fair share of the blame for their burnout, struggling relationships and feelings of unhappiness — and I used to do it too, until I started getting curious about my feelings of anger and resentment and listened to the voice that I could no longer ignore, the one that told me I didn’t have to play a role in a narrative I didn’t write.
When I started giving myself permission to ask questions about “why” things are the way they are and digging into the work of women trailblazing a better way forward, I was wide awake. I started changing the way I talked to my clients about motherhood; I wrote a book, “A Little Less of a Hot Mess,” as a way to invite women into their own imperfect personal growth work — and through that writing process did so much of my own.
Through reading articles, looking at the research, talking to women in and out of the therapy room, and taking a wide lens view of the social and cultural systems that led us to see mothers as superhuman, I came to question so much of what we are trained to pathologize in the field of psychology. I’ve learned stark facts like: 85% of fathers indicate they want to be involved in the newborn stage, but many do not have access to any paid time off or if they do, the majority do not use their full time. This means that women are left doing the majority, or all of the initial newborn care, and then quickly become the default parent, even when they planned or expected for parenting to be more equal. And since this never-ending list of to-dos almost always defaults to the women or primary caregiver in a relationship, she becomes the one to do it all. She then remains the one to do it all, even if she has a full, grown, capable adult partner.
These days, I often get told how “lucky” I am to have a partner who does so much. He plans dinners AND cooks them, he does drop off and pickups, he wipes away tears, and loses his s*** from time to time (just like me). But it’s called co-parenting. I’m not lucky, I’m intentional. I made a choice to make my work as a mom seen, so that my husband could help carry the load of parenting and so that we could have the opportunity to pursue our version of fulfilling and balanced (ish) life.
So let’s change the narrative around motherhood, starting with simple but powerful things, like the language we use, the cards we do or don’t buy, and the way we choose to let our work as mothers AND fathers be seen and celebrated.
Kaitlin Soule is a therapist specializing in women’s mental health, motherhood, and anxiety. Her mission as the author of the new book A Little Less of a Hot Mess, speaker and podcaster is to provide practical mental health guidance to women so they can step into their power as mothers — and so much more. You can join Kaitlin’s community @wellnotesforher on instagram.