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My mother was a supermom — but I didn't get it until having kids of my own

The author, left, and her mom. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Selin Davis)

For Mother’s Day 2018, Yahoo Lifestyle asked women to share stories about something they understood about their moms only after becoming mothers themselves. This is the second in series; you can read the first here

The cake was a metaphor. I’d forgotten to grease the pans, and when I tried to slip the round sheets of red velvet — courtesy of my dear friends Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines — from the pan, more than half of them clung. I plopped them atop a platter, where they sagged, potholed, and overcooked, about as perfect as my parenting.

My just-turned-6-year-old daughter spread frosting in great uneven heaps over the disfigured cake, then sprinkled leftover Halloween candy and random decorating supplies all around it, creating something unworthy in every way of Pinterest, unless there is a Pinterest board called “failures in modern motherhood.” (There is not. I checked.)

Each year, as Mother’s Day comes around, I am struck by how much I feel I fail at the institution of motherhood. “It’s too much for me,” I often complain to my husband, wondering how women are expected to work full-time, keep really clean houses, raise high-achieving children, dominate in traditional homemaking skills, and be in charge of the money and the schedule. We must master the domestic and vocational spheres equally, despite the fact that the distribution of labor is so remarkably unequal, not just in my home but for women all over America, regardless or race and class. We must be supermoms.

I think of my own mother: divorced, parentless, poor, raising two children solo in a small Southern city where she knew no one, because that was the place she got a job. She sewed our clothes. She knitted our sweaters. She made delicious meals. She baked our cakes — from scratch. And they looked great. And they were delicious. She was a supermom in the 1970s and ’80s, before the word had been integrated into our vernacular. How did she do it?

“I had no choice,” she told me. It was cheaper, in pre-Amazon Prime days, to make sweaters than to buy them. It was cheaper to bake things from scratch than buy cake mixes.

And that’s when I realized: What was once a role only for the poorest of women, a worst-case-scenario situation in which a mother had to tend to the flock and earn money to support it, has become the standard to which most American women hold themselves, the ideal we believe we are supposed to achieve.

Ever since WWII, when women funneled into the workplace in great numbers, we have been grappling with the question of whether or not it’s possible to have it all, but rarely have we stopped to question whether or not we should try, or what forces drove us to think we should.

How, I wondered, did it get this way? Perhaps in order to forgive myself for not being one, I needed to trace the evolution of the supermom.

What happened when women went to work

If you want a shock, look at women-in-the-workforce statistics for the past 60 years. There are more women, and more educated women, in the workplace, and the number is expected to grow by almost 6 percent by 2024. But women made only  81.9 percent of men’s earnings in 2016 — up from 60.7 percent in 1960, but still totally unequal.

Meanwhile, women between ages 15 and 54 these days spend more time assisting household members —especially children — than men. Those 25 and older spend more time doing laundry, cooking, and doing household activities than men. “At all ages,” the Department of Labor reports, “men spent more time than women in leisure and sports activities.”

(Once again, I’m kicking myself for not taking up sports. What a great excuse to leave the house, even if it’s just Ping-Pong!)

So what happened?

For most of human history, we divvied up our responsibilities by natal sex. Employment and family were, as a 1993 paper on “Work-family role strain among employed mothers of preschoolers” puts it, “distinct domains operating independently of one another.” Women — who could afford to — stayed home, and men not only worked outside the home but were expected to “‘act as though’ they did not have any other commitments or interests such as family responsibilities.”

For men, family was out of sight, out of mind. For women, family was never out of sight. Only 19 percent of women worked in 1900. But once we left the home, whether for the voting booths in the 1920s or at the factory floor during WWII, when more than a third of women worked, we were still expected to keep family in our thoughts.

In the 1950s, with the rise of suburbia, the middle class, and domestic technology, some women suddenly had less to do. They were educated, relegated, and isolated, giving birth to the “problem that had no name,” articulated by Betty Friedan in her classic The Feminine Mystique. We now look back on this as the birth of “white feminism” — if you were poor or a woman of color, the problem likely had a name — and a problem that affected women in heterosexual relationships.

But those privileged women were oppressed too. “Women’s lib” allowed them to work again, to strive for and achieve more than motherhood. It was the dawn of the “women can have it all” zeitgeist. The percentage of women managers increased sharply between 1970 and 1990, though it largely plateaued after. By 1999, 60 percent of women worked; that number has largely held steady. But our domestic pressures never relented. We had to perform our traditional roles inside the home, even as our lives expanded outside it.

While not a uniquely American phenomenon, it is certainly more acute in the United States. As one paper notes, “American mothers, compared with French mothers, are expected to feel more societal pressure related to motherhood, practice more intensive mothering, feel more ‘supermom’ pressure, feel more role strain related to work-family balance, feel more maternal guilt, place motherhood higher on their identity salience hierarchy, and feel more of a loss of individuated self.”

The problem is policy

Here’s why: American family policies, which rank last among developed countries, have not evolved along with the cultural zeitgeist of the supermom.

We expect women to be supermoms without infrastructure supporting that role. How can women exclusively breastfeed, which they experience a lot of pressure to do, when they can’t afford to take time off? Even Sheryl Sandberg admitted that “leaning in” depended on the counterbalancing weight of her husband, before he died; without him, she would have toppled right over.

A few years ago, my mother edited an encyclopedia called Childbirth Across Cultures, from which I learned about countries with “lying in” periods — often a monthlong postpartum period in which women do little other than breastfeed and tend to the baby. If they aren’t allowed to do anything else, then it feels like an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. But if that is an option — if the society supports it — it’s one ingredient in true supermotherhood.

As Tekoa L. King noted in a paper called “The Mismatch Between Postpartum Services and Women’s Needs: Supermom Versus Lying‐In,” “the majority of the 4 million women who give birth in the United States each year are expected to work 5 days per week while also working all night to care for an infant. For those who need their work income, this marathon starts 6 weeks after birth.” Even those with better leave policies, she notes, still have to wade through a “bureaucratic marathon.”

The policies that would make supermothering possible, from paid maternity leave to having future doctors learn about breastfeeding in medical school, have not kept pace with the pressure to be a supermom. And without them, the ideal of the supermom just makes women feel inadequate. (Well, except for those women who seem to be able to work full-time, make great meals, keep their homes clean, have healthy marriages, and tend to their children. If you are one of those, please send tips.)

The secret, until the policies catch up, is to release ourselves from the pressure to be a supermom.

Back to the cake: It looked truly terrible. And I was happy about it. Happy because my daughter was happy, but also happy because I had, by way of complete failure, been forced to suspend my desire to be supermom.

What can we do for ourselves, on behalf of the day that celebrates us? Give ourselves permission to do less and for fewer people. Maybe that means a supermarket sheet cake. Maybe that means more childcare. Or maybe it means having a moment of gratitude for the imperfection of your own parenting.

“Your children are wonderful,” my mom said to me at the end of her last visit here, a few days ago.

They are. They truly are.

“I hope you’re proud of them,” she said. “And yourself.”

I am. And I’m proud of my mother too.

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