In an era when superheroes pervade more than ever, the concept of ‘Supermum’ taunts many mothers. For every reassuring ‘tell it like it is’ (#instareal) social media mum ‘influencer’, there’s one who is seemingly perfect, or there’s just the one from the playground who seems to be juggling a billion projects effortlessly, not least a stellar career, and the third baby who just ‘slotted in’ with family life.
A refreshing tonic then, is new book The Supermum Myth (Anya Hayes and Dr Rachel Andrew). As much as there’s a place for funny tales of parenthood (The Unmumsy Mum, Hurrah for Gin) – there’s also been a gap in the market for something which provides some therapeutic answers, and addresses the mental health impact of trying to have it all. Hayes and Andrew have deftly filled that gap with The Supermum Myth, which champions and develops the ‘good enough’ mum concept first introduced by D.W. Winnicott.
Hayes is a pilates teacher, specialising in perinatal work, as well as a writer and editor (My Pilates Guru, A Little Course in Pilates, and Pregnancy: The Naked Truth) – and Andrew is a clinical psychologist, who’s been working with children and families for over 14 years. Hayes provides some of the first-hand anecdotal material herself, in a refreshing (and often entertaining) take on parenthood. A skilful and elegant writer, she also provides insight from her position as a pilates teacher who frequently works with pregnant women and new mothers.
We are taken through those key emotions mums tend to encounter as they navigate parenthood, which in itself is a useful acknowledgement exercise: the reader is helped to notice emotions, understand their function, and also encouraged to normalise them. But the book goes further, and the reader is far from passive: a series of easy-to do but effective activities and exercises punctuate the book. Some of these can be undertaken in a matter of minutes, others are longer projects or designed to be revisited (and some involve roping in family members or colleagues). The exercises and activities are rooted in a range of therapies – CBT, narrative therapy, family therapy, mindfulness – and having tried a handful as I read through the book, I’ve already bookmarked several I want to go back to. This is why the book is really a handbook. Exercises will prompt mothers to challenge their assumptions, recognise what they are doing well – or when they are ‘good enough’ – and potentially, as in the “Wheel of Life’ exercise, provide a completely new perspective on the balance (or lack thereof) in your life.
A diverse range of case studies provide anecdotal, honest and very relatable, first-hand accounts. The book is carefully inclusive, addressing issues for adoptive parents and infertility. It tackles sex, sleep and the post-baby body. And on the thorny subject of work, stay at home mums and full-time working mums – and everything in between – get more than a look-in.
The Supermum Myth gives mums a new set of tools to arm themselves for the tricky child-rearing years. Everything from introducing the idea of a thought journal to proffering new perspectives on how your children may be reflecting your own frustrations is in there. But what is possibly unique is that whilst this is a book which is very much ‘on Mum’s side’, it doesn’t just let us off the hook. The section on anger, for example, is unflinching in its analysis (and many mums will relate) – and does provide some checks – exploring the danger of anger that turns venomous, for example. Manageable things to try, like breathing exercises and visualisation – and practical steps like taking yourself out of a potentially explosive situation – are suggested. The message, while normalising many of these emotions – anxiety, anger, guilt – is that they can hurt (ourselves and others), but we do have the power to do something about them.
Guilt is a big theme - familiar territory for any mother. Negotiating changing friendships and relationships as a result of having children is also covered in depth, as well as how to manage the omnipresent envy – one tip being to make a gratitude list. This idea is expanded to a gratitude journal in a useful section on dealing with older/teenage children (the thought of the latter is already prompting the ghost of future parenthood to visit me in my dreams). There are some clever ideas for encouraging your children to notice when they are feeling happiness, and improving communication with them. Yes, that does involve less reliance on the iPad, but the good news is it’s about what is do-able. Playing a board-game once a week or even flicking through a catalogue together, the key is making it a constant.
And in a context of increasingly widespread mental health problems, starting with positive and proactive steps at a young age seems like a smart move. The Supermum Myth is a roadmap to dealing with what motherhood throws at us. But it is also a guide to improving our relationships with our children at the same time. Read it, but most importantly – use it.