The pressure to be a ‘good mum’ – navigating the complexities of modern motherhood during the holiday period

The pressure to be a ‘supermum’ is often perpetuated by narrow portrayals of motherhood in the media.

By Dr Danielle Wagstaff

With only a week to go until Christmas, schools shutting down for the summer, and the first year since COVID-19 started that hasn’t been riddled with lockdowns, what is meant to be the most wonderful time of the year might be feeling a bit stressful.

While the pressure certainly is felt by parents (and grandparents and aunts and uncles) across the board, mums are often the ones responsible for organising family events, creating the Christmas magic, and keeping the kids suitably entertained.

Modern women have so many more freedoms than our grandmothers and great-grandmothers did. There have been huge changes in employment for women outside the home, increases in female executives, and increasing numbers of women in politics. But with these changes in women’s financial and social positions, there is an expectation that if we are going to keep a family, work, and have our own personal interests, we should be amazing at all of it. Women are expected to be the ‘supermum, superwife, supereverything’.

The pressure to be a ‘supermum’ is perpetuated by narrow portrayals of motherhood in the media. One of the most famous recent examples is former world number one Serena Williams who returned to world tennis dominance just 10 months after giving birth (and later scathed the uneven playing field between men and women when she announced her retirement). And we know from past research that being confronted with these idealised images of supermums on Instagram can have negative effects on women’s wellbeing.

But the pressure to be a perfect mother doesn’t just affect how mums feel about themselves – it can also affect how they parent their children and interact with their romantic partners. This was the topic of investigation in a recent study (currently in press at the journal Sex Roles) conducted by researchers at Federation University.

In this study, our participants (Australian mothers) described how the pressure to be perfect makes them feel a sense of guilt at not being able to ‘get it right’, while dads have a much lower threshold for being perceived as a good parent. As one participant stated, “fathers are just given a medal for pushing a pram, basically, whereas mothers… one little slip-up and they're demonised by everyone”.

These feelings were complicated by a system that often reinforces gender roles, whereby mums stay home with the kids while dads return to work, with 88 per cent of primary parental leave taken by women. Unfortunately, the feeling that men can continue living their lives like they were pre-children can create a sense of resentment.

The good news is when couples are open and communicative, and dads are willing to be involved in childrearing and household tasks, everyone benefits.

So, how can mums ensure they don’t buckle under the pressure of creating the perfect Christmas this coming holiday season? Here are a few tips.

Firstly, engaging in a bit of self-compassion can help to create some inner peace. Self-compassion is being kind to yourself, recognising that making mistakes is part of being human. Parents who are more self-compassionate are less distressed and even engage in healthier child behaviour management strategies. A part of this self-compassion is understanding that you’re probably not the only one feeling this way – parental self-criticism is really normal. This doesn’t mean that we should accept it, but instead work to be forgiving of ourselves.

Second, limit or change the social media you engage with. There are so many unrealistic, perfect portrayals of parenthood on social media, especially around the holidays. If you feel like your social media feed is making you feel a bit anxious, schedule some time away, or find some new people to follow. There are some fantastic accounts out there that challenge modern portrayals of motherhood, including, sketchymuma, and comedians like Celeste Barber.

Thirdly, take time out. Spending a lot of time with family can be tough. Chill out by going for a walk, engaging in some self-care, or put on a Christmas movie and turn down the lights.

Finally, encourage your husband or partner to get enthusiastically involved in creating some of the Christmas magic. Creating special family traditions can set the tone for magical memories, and there are plenty of magical Christmas moments that dads can be in charge of. Here’s a great list to get you started.

Overcoming the immense and unrealistic pressures that women and mothers face to be perfect in everything they do isn’t an easy fix. We need to change social structures, change the way we portray women and mothers in the media, and change the way we talk about women and mothers in everyday discourse. In the meantime, remember to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others. Some more Christmas stress-coping tips can be found here.

Interested in contributing to better understanding of motherhood? If you’re a mum, you can participate this 20 minute survey.

Dr Danielle Wagstaff is a Psychology Lecturer in the Institute of Health and Wellbeing

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Instagram, isolation and the motherhood experience

Why shaming mums won't solve modern parenting problems

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