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Parenthood: The Supermum Myth

24 November 2017 | by Guest

Today's guest blog comes from Dr Rachel Andrew, Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Time Psychology Ltd.

“I just worry all the time that I’m not a good enough mum to her, that she is bored at home, that I’m not setting a good enough example, not making her happy. I want her to feel safe and happy and loved and wanted, but I don’t know if I’m achieving that. I don’t want her to be damaged by my inability to cope or respond appropriately to the more challenging bits of motherhood. I feel I am failing."
- Sally, mum of one.

Sally’s comments about parenthood echo those of so many mums and dads. I have heard mums make these comments regularly in clinical psychology services over the years, and I now also regularly hear them at softplay, parties and the schoolgates.

There are a plethora of parenting models, techniques and strategies out there, some tweaked slightly for different populations. Many use a solid psychological evidence base about what works, and use these theories to engage parents to develop more positive relationships with their children. All emphasise attunement and relationship building as key. Leading the way are The Incredible Years, The Parent-Child game, The triple P Positive Parenting Programme, The Solihull Approach, and Strengthening Families to name but a handful.

As clinical psychologists using these models, we are thoughtful about individual differences between children and parents. We take into account how the complex interaction of historical and current factors also make a difference in how parents and children respond to each other. Used thoughtfully, all of these parenting approaches have room for individual formulations and can be tailormade for different families, even when used in a group.

These approaches are really helpful and yet so often misunderstood. As the use of parenting approaches (both evidence based and not) have become more mainstream, many parents have become more anxious. Often parents make the assumption that there is a ‘right way’ to parent, that others are doing it better and that it is their individual responsibility to get it right.

“All my life I struggled with the feeling that my mum just didn’t understand me. Now that I’m a mother, I realise that I never understood HER. It never occurred to me that my mother was a person, a woman. She navigated the tricky waters of raising two children, trying to teach me to be independent, responsible, confident, while also grappling with how to be a good wife, a good mother, a good friend herself.”
- Emily, mum of two

Of course, this message isn’t coming only from the assumptions made about parenting approaches. New parents, often already emotionally depleted, can feel overwhelmed by advice. There are advice givers everywhere. From family members and friends to celebrity parents, instagrammers and vloggers - everyone likes to tell you how you should be doing it.

The dictionary definition of a supermum is: “An exemplary or exceptional mother, especially one who successfully manages a home and brings up children while also having a full-time job.” We can all get caught up in trying to be an impossible ideal when there are unattainable stories and filtered images everywhere.

There has been a recent rise in popularity of ‘real mums’ - instagrammers and vloggers like Hurrah For Gin, The Slummy Mummies and The Unmumsy Mum who provide an antidote to the supermum contruct. These are parents who are telling their stories, which are far more realistic about how relentless and exhausting parenthood can be.

As a mum who specialises in working with children and families I too have often thought that others are doing it far better (anyone got Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s number?) and have felt the pressure that I should really have motherhood nailed by now. In spite of all that training, my children have never properly slept through the night. And there are still days when their behaviour has been described by some as practically feral.

"The good-enough mother… starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure."
- D.W.Winnicott

Winnicott’s words can be hugely comforting for parents. They capture that complex and unique parent-child dance that we all do. Winnicott’s work offers an explanation about how important it is that our children see us as fallible. Good enough is absolutely good enough.

My co-author, Anya Hayes, and I wanted to write a book for parents like us. We wanted to help them unpack and rebalance the high expectations created by society’s (and our own internal) supermum myth. We resisted a solely CBT approach and used a broader psychological base incorporating EMDR, Narrative Therapy, Solution Focused approaches and Systems Theory. Most importantly, we also packed it full of other mums talking about their experiences.

This is a book for parents who don’t always get it right and are learning this is OK. We all need to make some time for a good cry, a glass of wine and as much chocolate as we can plough through (even if this is whilst locked in a toilet for 5 minutes just to get some peace.)

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