I found Supermom—that elusive goddess, the doer of all the things. But she wasn’t where I thought she”d be. Before I became a mom, I thought I would find her on Pinterest, crafting with her children each day after serving an organic, homemade lunch. I thought I would find her using one hand to smash glass ceilings while signing birthday cards and permission slips with the other. I thought I would find her working out at 5 a.m. and cheerily cooking breakfast in a spotless kitchen. And then I had my first child.
It didn’t take long until I crumbled under the weight of my own expectations. I remember the moment so clearly: I was a new mom recently launched back into the working world. We were entertaining visitors in a house I couldn’t keep clean. My body still felt foreign, and my mind—clouded by hormones and exhaustion—was at odds with itself. I was nowhere near finding a routine, and with no prior experience to assure me this was all normal, I felt lost, and a little bit pissed. I had naively thought I would be able to handle anything that motherhood could throw at me. I was sure that I could field every curveball with grace and a smile and perfect hair. But nothing had prepared me for this reality. No one warned me about the complete sense of overwhelm, the short temper, the worry, or the guilt. No one told me I would be here, in the shower, sobbing under the sound of the water, losing clumps of hair as I shampooed, mumbling “death to Supermom” with a vengeance. It was the first moment I realized I must choose between, one: being happy, sane, and messy; or two: a perfectly coifed gerbil running nowhere fast on the wheel of perfection.
As a person who has always been driven, prepared, and put together (well, minus that time I went all dirty hippie in college), realizing this was nothing short of monumental. I needed to let some things go, and the first thing on that list must be my own expectations of faultlessness.
There’s lots of noise about the right way to parent, and a lot of people weighing in on what makes a mom super, or not. The traditional notion of Supermom is equated with perfection: perfect children, perfect house, perfect job, perfect diet, perfect hair. We have misinterpreted the message of “we can have it all” to mean “we must do it allperfectly.” And when we fall short, by standards that are either inflicted or self-imposed, that evil little troll named Mom Guilt is waiting for us to wallow under her bridge.
But what if we changed the script? What if Supermom is perfect because she is imperfect? What if she is the picture of overcoming challenge, beating the odds, thriving after loss, laughing through the messes and tantrums and grief
Supermom is not a hero because she knows how to respond perfectly to every situation, nor because she can multitask to the point of exhaustion. She is a hero because every day when she wakes up, she pulls on her stretchy pants and braves the humbling journey of raising messy little humans. She understands that her choices don’t define her, but her resiliency does. She recognizes the beauty and humor in the imperfect moments, and she is fully present in the experiences that are emotional and scary and heartbreaking.
Every day as a mother offers some degree of unpredictability—from hiccup to utter chaos—within the construct of a routine we can perform in our sleep. We remain fully invested in this messy job despite the mental, emotional, and physical toll.
The real heroism of motherhood is that every day we fail, and yet we get back up and do it again. Even as we struggle, the love we feel grows deeper and our will grows stronger. And if we are lucky, we discover our own strength and potential along the way. We discover our superpower lies not in our capacity to do everything, but in our ability to handle anything.
I found Supermom. She was scrubbing paint off the couch, taking a deep breath and counting to 10. She watched her kids eat only goldfish crackers and ketchup for dinner, and rather than fight it, she poured a glass of wine and ate a handful herself. She told her four-year-old she was sorry for yelling—sometimes Mommy makes mistakes too. She sent the birthday cards a week late but they still got in the mail, and somehow remembered snack duty for the field trip, even though she was late to work after running through the grocery store. I saw her wake up at 2 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. with a baby who just kept puking. I found her ordering takeout, skipping the dishes and laundry, and playing with her kids because if you must choose happy or clean, happy wins every time. And yes, I found her crying in the shower, pulling it together and walking out with a smile, ready for whatever might come next. I found Supermom—she was here inside me all along.
Saralyn Ward is a writer and mother in Denver.