She drops the kids off at school with their fruit-filled lunchboxes and heads off for a bit of mummy and baby yoga, before going home to hang out the washing (which she’d cleverly put in before the school run). She breastfeeds the baby, who then sleeps for two hours while she puts a healthy casserole in the oven and works on her successful online business. She’s a Supermum – and guess what, ladies? She doesn’t exist. But that doesn’t stop us from wanting to be just like her.
So where does Supermum Syndrome – the idea that we can and should be able to have it all – come from? And once we find out, as we inevitably do, that we can’t achieve perfection both at home and at work, why do we feel so guilty and deflated?
According to the Office for National Statistics, more than 13.6 million jobs are filled by women in the UK, a figure that’s been rising for the past few decades. “Once upon a time motherhood was the given and work was the choice,” says NCT postnatal leader Juliet Pollard. “Now it’s the other way round. And whether that’s because of economic or personal reasons, it all adds to the pressure mums place on themselves.”
Juliet believes that once your baby is born you develop a mummy chip – a device that programmes you to believe that nothing you do will be good enough. “For some reason, once we’re mums we start to judge ourselves by the targets we’ve missed – for example, if you don’t breastfeed, or your child doesn’t crawl as quickly as others. We see that as our failure. We don’t see that our baby can maybe do something others can’t and that anyway it doesn’t matter.”
Damned if you do…
Is there a solution? A recent US study found that of the 1,600 married mums questioned, the ones who went out to work were less likely to suffer from depression than those who stayed at home. And of those working mums, the ones employed part-time had a relaxed attitude to both work and family life and were deemed to be the happiest.
But returning to work is not without its problems. Paula Nicolson, psychology professor and author of Having It All? Choices for Today’s Superwoman, explains: “Going back before you want to can be a cause of anxiety. At work, you’re expected to ‘revert to self’, even though your body’s been through what equates to a major operation, and you may be suffering from sleep-deprivation.”
And then, of course, there’s the guilt. In 2008 a Unicef study claimed that mums who went back to work before their baby was 1 year old were “gambling” with their child’s development. But there are plenty more studies that say leaving your little one makes no difference to them – it may even be beneficial, making them more sociable and independent.
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Of course, this assumes you’re in a position to choose whether you go back to work or not. In this tough economic climate, many women don’t have that luxury. “If you have to leave your child, make sure you’ve developed a relationship with them,” says Paula. A mother who gives her full attention when she isn’t at work is sometimes better than a stay-at-home mum who feels “isolated or frustrated”, she adds.
Mums who are forced back to work for financial reasons are often wracked with guilt. But staying at home can be hard, too – some psychologists say full-time mothers are more likely to suffer from depression. For some, being judged by working mums who think they have an easier time at home can be annoying, while for others, the loss of their old life and sense of identity is very difficult. Paula warns: “When you’re at home, there’s no sense of an ending – serving the baby just goes on and on. It’s easy to become isolated and feel you’re becoming uninteresting to others.”
Isolation is something that many mums experience, but if you can get out there and talk to people, things will be easier. There are plenty of groups for mums just like you, whatever your situation. Juliet says: “It’s always better to go out and get nothing done than to stay in and still get nothing done. Don’t worry about the chores – get out and talk.”
Back to reality
It’s time to realise you can’t do everything. Psychotherapist Marni Eisenberg (themaxigroup.com) says: “Every mother knows there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done, and that’s without adding a career. Since when did women stop viewing motherhood as a full-time job in its own right?”
The superhuman mums we read about or see on TV are a fiction. The ‘perfect’ work/life balance of celebs like Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow is achieved by a team of nannies, drivers, cleaners and hairdressers. “The message that mums should be able to balance work and family life – and be successful in both roles – is dangerous,” says Marni. “More and more women brand themselves failures for not achieving this label, which is incredibly value-laden.”
All we can do is our best and we should learn to accept that, while there’ll certainly be occasions when we mess up, there’ll still be plenty of times when we achieve the seemingly impossible. And as Juliet says: “You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be a mum.”
- In 1986, just 10 per cent of working mums had little ones under the age of 4. By 2008, the figure had jumped to 28 per cent
- Teenage mothers are three times more likely than older mothers to develop postnatal depression (PND)
- 38 per cent of women with dependent children work part-time compared with just 4 per cent of men
“After Mia was born I felt low for 18 months. The GP offered to give me anti-depressants, but I didn’t want them. I felt so guilty because I had a gorgeous little girl and didn’t want people to think I was ungrateful. I started chatting to mums online and realised it was OK to want to do something that was just for me – so I’ve set up an online business and am starting an Open University course.”
Symone Darvell, 29, from East Yorkshire, mum to Mia, 3, and Ava, 1
“I felt overwhelmed and tearful for the first three months with Kayleigh. I gave up breastfeeding early but the reaction I got made me feel I’d failed as a mum. I had to go back to work after nine months and I felt awful and cried a lot. But I concentrate on making the most of the time I do have with the kids rather than thinking about what I might miss out on.”
Paula Fazekas, 26, from Bedfordshire, mum to Kayleigh, 3, and Ethan, 14 months
Stressed – or depressed?
As many as 1 in 5 women suffers from postnatal depression. It usually develops between 4 and 6 weeks after the birth – although it may not occur for several months. Symptoms include feeling low or helpless, inability to sleep or eat and mood swings. If you spot any of these symptoms in yourself, or a friend, get help as soon as you can. Talk to a health visitor or GP, or check out groups like Meet A Mum Association (mama.co.uk) and the NCT (nctpregnancyandbabycare.com).