Two months ago, I got yet another reminder that I’m not a supermom. My 8-year-old daughter decided she wanted to try pasta with pesto sauce for a special menu her school was serving. I told her she’d likely love it and should give it a try. The next day, just after lunch, I received a call from her school’s nurse. They were racing my daughter to the emergency room. My baby girl had had an allergic reaction to something she ate. It came to me in a flash: She has a severe allergy to all tree nuts. I’d told her to pig out on pesto sauce, in which ground pine nuts is a primary ingredient. How on earth could I have forgotten that? I raced to the school in time to ride in the ambulance with her. While she struggled for breath between vomiting, I tried hard not to do the same. I couldn’t believe I’d made such a grave error.
My daughter recovered. I didn’t. It’s been months, but the cycle of negative self-talk still swirls around in my head. You are the worst mother ever. Your child could have died. How could you be so stupid? I checked in with a few women and learned we’ve all had our face-to-palm mommy moments. And we share a similar warning sign: feeling pressured to satisfy the demands of multiple sectors of our lives, with our chins lifted and tear ducts dry. Career. Home. Children. Partner. Girlfriends. Family. Worst of all, we typically leave ourselves off the list. We have learned to live with exhaustion, depression or in a constant state of stress.
“It’s a common feeling,” says Latham Thomas, founder of Mama Glow, a lifestyle website for new moms and the author of Mama Glow: A Hip Guide to Your Fabulous Abundant Pregnancy. “There isn’t a single mom on the planet who doesn’t feel like she’s underperforming at times. We’re mothers. But we’re also human. And we need to start giving ourselves permission to be imperfect.”
As with most societal issues, economics plays a major part in how we parent. The number of African-American women working as stay-at-home moms fell by half between 1969 and 2009, according to a U.S. census study. Due to historic economic disparities between Whites and African-Americans, staying at home just hasn’t been feasible for Black women. Of course, taking an extended leave-of-absence or departing from the workforce altogether to raise children might sound grand—until you do it. While staying home may lighten the load, it doesn’t dissolve the pressures and self-doubt.
La Tonyia Dodger-Cameron, 41, a stay-at-home New Jersey mom, has two children, ages 8 and 4. I see families like hers every day, always dressed in clean and pressed coordinated outfits with neat hair. She feeds them a hot breakfast before school and prepares them a hot lunch each day. She’s also the class parent, organizing school trips, serves on the school board and is a Girl Scouts troop leader. I sometimes watch her from the distance and wonder if she has an extra supermom cape I could borrow.
“It’s true. I do a lot,” Dodger-Cameron says with a laugh. “I had such a wonderful childhood, and I want my children to have the same. But it does take a very heavy toll on me. I’m a perfectionist, and know I need to rein that in.” The megamom still wrangles with balancing expectations of maintaining the perfect home, a pleased partner, well-adjusted little ones and her own needs.
“Black women have always been expected to be high achievers,” says Karen Waugh, a psychotherapist in private practice in Columbus, Ohio. “We often feel intense pressure from our families and society as a whole to go to the right school, find the right career, find the right partner and be the right mother. We’re hard on ourselves and if we feel like we drop the ball anywhere, we often look at it as a failure rather than a learning lesson.”
So where does this pressure come from? For most, our measuring sticks are our own mothers, whom we often see as supermoms. And, sadly, we often focus on their feats, not their feelings.
Connie Tucker, 42, a Baltimore mom of two teenage sons, reflects on her own mother who sewed all her clothes and made home-cooked meals every night. “In hindsight, she was drained and exhausted all the time,” says Tucker. “She would be up with my younger brother into the wee hours and still made sure she was awake before my dad to make his breakfast and lunch. She completely traded her sanity for the sake of our family. I laud her for her selflessness. But I realize, in my own experience parenting, selflessness would have to be replaced with self-care.”
According to Waugh, a quintessential facet of good parenting means taking care of your own needs. “In the past, selflessness was how mothers showed love,” she says, emphasizing that more mothers must release the notion that everyone’s happiness comes first and aim for a more balanced approach. “Women often confuse the notion of self-care with selfishness. I instruct my clients during therapy sessions to write down what they consider to be self-care. They often cite things such as getting pedicures or taking long baths, which are great. But they often forget what’s even more important: setting firm boundaries. Mothers can’t be everywhere and do everything,” she adds. “You may have to miss a game. You may have to skip a concert. The world will not end and it’s not a measure of your motherhood.”
Waugh urges all mothers to burn the cape and parent with intention, purpose and balance. It’s not just for the woman; it’s also for the children. As Mom, you are a role model for your daughter and set the standard for what your sons will expect. It’s a gift. It’s a life skill. It’s a cycle breaker. Ultimately, Waugh believes mothers must realize that what makes effective parenting is rather simple. “Young children really just need two things: their basic needs—food, shelter and clothing—met, and they also need happy and healthy parents. If the parents are well-adjusted and balanced, the children will also be,” she explains. Becoming emotionally healthy means giving ourselves permission to go to that yoga class, even if it conflicts with the school bake sale. It means letting our children play with the iPad a bit longer so we can squeeze in a quick nap. It means doing all we can to be not just physically present for our children but mentally there as well. And that’s super, Mom.
Cutting the Cape: 5 Guilt-free Musts for the Reformed Supermom
- Just Say No. Don’t overextend yourself or feel like you “should” do everything. You are permitted to say, “I can’t swing that.” Be honest with yourself and others.
- Ask for Help. Don’t turn down assistance because of pride. Accept support when it is offered, and be grateful.
- Delegate the Chores. Don’t take on all the household duties. Delegate a few responsibilities to your partner, and entrust age-appropriate tasks to the little ones.
- Barter with Friends. Don’t try to be great at everything; trade instead. If you have a friend who bakes, put her or him on cookie duty and swap for something you love doing.
- Treat Yourself. Don’t forget to model self-care for your children. Make time for naps, manis/pedis and getaways with your partner.
— S. Tia Brown