This Mother’s Day made me wonder about how much virtue we culturally place on “motherhood,” and the “super mom” meme.
Supermoms…is it a tired cultural trope? Or just the most recent way of describing the status quo for women throughout all human history?
Popular culture is cluttered with seminars, books, websites, and blogs focused on the over-functioning contemporary American mom.
Some of the material is remarkably dense; offering planning and managerial tools to run the household efficiently…so that supermoms can always do…more?
The remaining advice is typically more Zen. Focus on scheduling me time, and break up the day with moments to reflect and just enjoy life.
What is a super mom?
A supermom is a consummate mother, spouse, and employee. The ability to seamlessly juggle kids, home, and career in a nearly perfect work-life balance is the essential skill-set of a supermom.
How Supermom suffers
I have worked with clients who wore the mantle of a “supermom” as a family badge of honor.
While others complain about flowing like a river to the point of exhaustion. This leaves them unable to harbor even the fleeting shadow of a selfish thought.
If you’re a woman who does too much, a supermom, does this also translate into “over-achieving” in managing your mental health?
Katrina Leupp is a University of Washington sociology graduate student. She conducted a follow-up study with 1600 women who were study subjects in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth.
This study began tracking children and young adults between the ages of 14 and 22. Because the NLSY began collecting data way back in 1979, the oldest subjects are around 50 today.
Women who do too much; Super moms, 1979 style
Through the cultural lens of 1979, the researchers presented these women with several statements to react to that would (hopefully) not be top of mind for researchers in 2021. They honestly make me cringe a bit.
Yes, those are the actual questions curious researchers wanted reactions to in 1979.
Leupp was then able to correlate their original 1979 answers with their reported level of depression when the study subjects turned 40.
Leupp’s research was in line with many earlier studies showing that women who are employed have better overall mental health than women who chose to be stay-at-home mothers.
It also suggested that the women who were skeptical of the “Supermom” mindset had far less depression than their Super mom-embracing counterparts.
Even when adjusted for marital satisfaction and the number of work-hours, the results were the same; more depression for the women who do too much.
You can happily combine child-rearing and a career…if you’re willing to let some things slide. Katrina Leupp.
Leupp’s takeaway finding was that every accommodation has a repercussion.
Two factors offer protection for Supermom’s mental health
The research also uncovered 2 specific protective factors; career satisfaction was an important mitigating variable for women who do too much, as was a lack of perfectionism.
One of the ideas that occurred to me was that these women were describing an experiential arc of their early parental, partner, and professional life.
The women who derived satisfaction from their work were more resilient against depression, highlighting the importance of that mindset.
On the other hand, these women back in the 70s and 80s did not work from home. Leupp’s study subjects in 1979 were mostly traditional employees; juggling careers, and kids (without smartphones or laptops).
Women who do too much; super moms, 2021 style
New research from Mendoza College of Business professors Dean Shepherd and Brittany Solomon completely contradicts our cultural understanding of the relationship between education and job satisfaction.
This research emerged from Business and Labor Studies, (not from mental health research), which, to my mind, makes it all the more compelling.
This new research explores the relationship between job satisfaction and educational level and uncovered a startling shift among the supermoms.
Dr. Brittany Solomon conducted a huge meta-study review of 74 separate studies with a population sample of over 100,000 employees.
The results were as shocking as the questions working women were asked in 1979.
According to Dr. Solomon, in 2021 there is no longer a positive association between more formal education and career satisfaction.
The literature suggests that more than a few people feel that higher paying jobs with more responsibility are not necessarily worth the extra stress-management they require.
But what stood out for me was that in 2021, it was women in particular who were experiencing a correlation between higher education and less job satisfaction. This flatly contradicted research from a decade earlier (Gurbuz, 2011).
Super moms who were self-employed were different from their wage-earning counterparts…the reason?A greater sense of agency and control.
We found that, compared to their wage-employed counterparts, those in self-employment seem to be more insulated from the adverse effects of education on job stress and satisfaction. We believe illuminating this boundary condition is notable for the educated and organizations that value and want to retain their educated employees. One of the reasons for the higher job satisfaction of self-employed people may be that they are freer to organize their schedules and have more control over how they respond to job demands. Dr. Brittany Solomon
In other words, Dr. Solomon is pointing out that while education is a well-tread pathway to economic security, the American way of work has never been particularly marriage and family friendly.
The bitter side of better jobs for the Super moms
Over the past 40 years, since women have become a growing presence in corporate America, work has been organized in such a way that these “better” jobs require longer hours away from home, exposure to “attractive others”, more responsibility, and greater stress.
Dr. Solomon, the study’s lead author, summarized her findings:
“Our study shows people who have invested in formal education do not tend to be more satisfied in their jobs. We found that better-educated individuals do enjoy greater job-related resources including income, job autonomy and variety. But they also endure longer work hours and increased job pressure, intensity and urgency.
On average, these demands are associated with increased stress and decreased job satisfaction, largely offsetting the positive gains associated with greater resources.
“Many people pursue higher education to get a better job on paper, not realizing that this ‘better job’ isn’t actually better due to the unanticipated effects of demands and stress over time. It’s good for people to be realistic about the career paths they pursue and what they ultimately value.” Dr. Brittany Solomon.
Super moms need a new model of self-care
I mentioned working with a client who told me that she “flowed like a river.” Part of the issue is how we glorify supermoms as they erode their physical and mental health.
We need a new model that acknowledges that burnout is to be avoided, and sometimes human endurance does have its limits. Society and tradition tells us that the health and happiness of the home/family rests with the mother often disproportionately heaping on to that pressure.
Many super moms are rethinking their priorities and here is how I advise my clients (and you) to do just that.
- 1Observe your thoughts. Stop. Breathe. Chill. Take a deep breath. What comes up? Learn to notice your thoughts instead of acting on them automatically.
- 2Check your sense of fair play. Are you a supermom by natural inclination, or are you picking up the slack for a too-absent partner or an abusive employer? Are you losing the chore war? Has your sense of fair play been violated, but you’re afraid to speak up? A State of the Union assessment will help identify what needs to be done. Tell us about it in your BIG BIG Book. We can help with that.
Explore your motives. There are a few moms who habitually lavish attention on their children and “flow like a river,” but they also manage to extract a somewhat heavy toll of guilt in the process. Nobody likes to feel guilty. If you’re doing too much-do less and notice what happens (see step one).
As Dear Abby once quipped, “If you want kids with their feet on the ground, put some responsibility on their shoulders.” Ask your kids to step up. Perhaps they need some advice on how.
- 4Orient yourself to your supermom situation. Get a notebook, and review your commitments for the next month. What are your family and friend obligations? Community commitments? Personal growth activities? Volunteer or charitable work? What are your project deadlines at work? Now comes the hard part. Breathe deeply, and rest your mind on each commitment and ask yourself; is this a wise, or a necessary allocation of my time right now?
Consult with your spouse and kids. You’ll probably be the last person to notice how spread thin you are. Discuss what you’re thinking about giving up, moving away from or dialing back on.
Be jealous of your time together as a couple, and as a family. We can help you here with really good tools during your couples therapy intensive.
Decide. Accept the limitations of time and space by not wasting either. One of my struggling supermom clients once told me, “I thought I had my sh*t together...but then I realized I couldn’t lift it anymore.”
- 7Subtract. Happiness is sometimes obtained by subtraction. Is there anything you can subtract, and still be content?
If you aren’t ready to terminate an activity, play hooky. Call in sick. Just this once, toy with letting this obligation go and notice how the experience of skipping this particular event or meeting lands with you.
Plant your feet. Learn to embrace a beautiful, empowering word...NO. We both know you exude confidence. Expect to either be asked to do more, or to be attracted to new challenges.
Be skeptical, and jealous of any hours of new free time you may have seized for yourself by ending low-value commitments.
Remember, when you clawback time for yourself, it’s a zero sum game. An hour here or there no longer wasted on low-value commitments is now available for your personal time, time with your family, or other more worthy activities. Embrace the beauty of saying “no.” to new time commitments.
- 9Experiment with new boundaries. Have you ever longed for, however briefly, digital-free days? Does the idea of a little quiet time away from screens to reflect and meditate sound good to you? Or you might want to have a fun activity with your family outside and “forget” to bring your phone. Play with your preferences by indulging them every once in a while. Rest, relax, and renew.
Supermoms and the idea of “good enough”
One of the reasons we live in such anxious times is that anxiety is now a commodity retailed to us through social media. We’re told that if we can just outrun our expectations we just might achieve excellence.
Whatever happened to “good enough?”
Does it strike supermoms as lazy, uninspired, lacking imagination or passion?
Only you can decide what aspects of your life should be “good enough” and which appropriately reveal your highest ambitions and aspirations.
Why does being a super mom require you to subordinate to the interests of your children?
The cultural messages are powerful and relentless. For some, it’s comfortable to live for, and sometimes through children.
For others, there is a nagging sense of collapsed meaning, and then “staying together for the children”.
Gottman tells us that the real “super parents” model a vibrant marriage for their children to notice and aspire to.
One of the important lessons we’ve learned from this Super mom research is that our subjective sense of control is critical.
The Supermoms in the research who managed to elude anxiety and depression had a “say in their day.”
They had agency and control.
As much as you try, Super mom, if you can’t change your external reality, relax and acknowledge what is beyond your grasp.
You may not always have the degree of agency and control you desire, but you can focus on what you believe is most essential for you and your family.
There are many things we still do not know. Embracing the new normal will require all of us, including supermoms to make peace with this not knowing, as well as grappling with our residue of loss and grief from this pandemic.
Twilight of the Supermoms and the meaning of work
Something important right now is happening in American culture. Are we in the twilight of the Supermoms because of COVID?
The famous economist, Maynard Keynes has something to do with this too.
He explicitly predicted that American workers would one day become so productive that we would finally reach what other pundits have described wistfully as “bread and roses.”
Maynard promised us an eventual 15-hour work week. That never happened.
We got consumerism instead. And as other gravitational centers of identity fell away (church, fraternal organizations, etc.), work became the singular emblem of class and rank.
What we do explains so much about ourselves, to ourselves.
Are the Supermoms revolting?
Work outside the home already sucked for supermoms before COVID (Jebb, 2018). The pandemic put too fine a point on it. It was a descent into the unmanageable.
In a year of pandemic shutdowns and unprecedented government intervention we are seeing a re-imagining of the role of work for Super moms, and others as well.
The just-released jobs report was way off; with well over 7 million job openings, only 266K new jobs were filled instead of the well over a million that was comfortably predicted as a minimum.
And they are also going to downwardly adjust employment figures for earlier months. I think something big is going on right now.
Here’s another hint.
A year without child care and online school has severely nudged supermoms into the unmanageable zone. Research from the Peoples Policy Project indicates that women are leaving the workforce in droves.
The powers that be don’t like this. And nobody does a better job expressing the concerns of our corporate elite than business consulting firms like McKinsey.
In “Don’t Let the Pandemic Set Back Gender Equality,” a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, no less than three partners, and a senior fellow at McKinsey complained:
“Progress towards greater gender equality has been hesitant and halting over the past five years and the COVID-19 pandemic now risks sending it into reverse.”
Another concern? Knowledge-worker supermoms aren’t the only source of concern for corporate America.
“Essential” workers are fleeing the front lines of supermarkets, fast food venues, and nursing homes. These beleaguered workers are leaving for jobs that will pay them more and ask them to risk less.
Pew research says that a whopping 66% of all unemployed workers are completely rethinking their career paths. And more than half of those either want to freelance or start their own businesses. This is far more than even the great recession of 2009.
There are a lot of unhappy super moms out there, both employed and unemployed.
The cult of the super mom, up to this point, has been subsumed into the larger American cult of work, a cult that really hasn’t served most of us well during COVID. Nobody paid more attention to that fact than supermom.
Others are also paying attention; industry leaders, the media, and even the President have taken note:
Supermoms are used to deciding, not sliding their way through important family transitions.
Supermoms and a renewed zeal for a better quality of life?
Super moms who have agency and control will exercise their preferences and they just might prefer to simplify their relationship to the American cult of work.
I predict that Supermoms will find a renewed zeal for a better quality of life.
Whether it was the uncertainty of living in a major city, or the absurd juxtaposition of working from a cramped home and having no child care, supermoms are reevaluating what they do and where they do it as they never have before.
Quality of life is essential now that COVID ripped the Band-Aid off of our work wound.
The super mom epiphany has become: The pandemic changed my priorities, and I realized I didn’t have to live like this or in this place, for that matter.”
Here's to a greater sense of agency and control!
Adams, G. A., King, L. A., & King, D. W. (1996). Relationships of job and family involvement, family social support, and work–family conflict with job and life satisfaction. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(4), 411.
Jebb, A. T., Tay, L., Diener, E., & Oishi, S. (2018). Happiness, income satiation and turning points around the world. Nature Human Behavior, 2, 33-38.
Gürbüz, Ahmet. (2011). An Assessment on the Effect of Education Level on the Job Satisfaction From the Tourism Sector Point of View. Doğuş Üniversitesi Dergisi. 8. 10.31671/dogus.2019.240.
University of Notre Dame. (2021, March 30). Degrees of happiness? Formal education does not lead to greater job satisfaction. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 12, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210330121213.htm