the supermom myth + follow up on breadwinners

July 13, 2011 |  Category:   life me parenting the biz

I never thought there would be this kind of response to the “breadwinner” post, but it’s gotten the most comments of any other post on the blog so far (aside from the ones where we’re giving away free cookies) and I’ve enjoyed reading through them all. Your comments and emails have also helped me to sort through some tough rollercoaster feelings I’ve been having as I float through this summer with a lighter work schedule, though Mark reminded me yesterday that I am still working all the time because I still have to tend to matters of our W&S business on a daily basis (I don’t often think of that as “working”, why is that?). As I’ve mentioned before, my schedule this summer is partly by choice and partly because some projects have fallen through. It isn’t easy for me to stay calm and just enjoy some time off though. I have to fight every day to keep from being consumed by worry, depression and guilt that I’m not earning money right now for my family. As freelancers, we often can’t help but measure our self esteem and worth according to how busy we are. I’m trying to break out of that way of thinking.

So what does it say that so many have responded to that post? Many of you feel same way. It’s not easy admitting something that seems so selfish, so petty, but I wanted to validate those feelings because they’re real, even if we do feel guilty for having them. But what I’m also hearing from you and others is that even as breadwinners we often find ourselves taking on more than our fair share of parenting and household duties, just because we’re women.

I need to tell you that I never aspired to be a “supermom”. I may have been called that by others, but I wouldn’t use that term to refer to myself. I fully acknowledge that I can’t do it all, but I don’t have to because Mark and I are equals as parents. I know some women who are real supermoms though. My mom was a supermom. She worked as a nurse full time while finishing her college degree at night, shutting herself in a tiny bedroom in the attic, writing papers in a language that wasn’t her first. Then she switched careers and started making real money, but she did all of this while doing the cooking, the dish washing, the grocery shopping, the cleaning, the bill paying, the financial planning, the laundry and the child rearing. All of it, by herself. She wasn’t a single mom, no, but all of the household and parenting duties fell on her because that’s what our culture dictated. It was her “job”.

I’m not sure how much of our childhood perceptions of our parents comes into play as we become adults and parents ourselves, but perhaps I saw how much my mom struggled as soon as I was old enough to understand and subconsciously wanted something different for myself. I remember feeling annoyed as well, that my brother was never expected to do any chores around the house because he was a boy, while I was expected to wash the dishes and help my mother out in the kitchen because I was a girl. This would even happen, as adults, when my brother would come visit from out of town. We would just fall into those stereotypical gender roles because in our culture, the boys were doted on. Maybe Mark saw something in his childhood too, a kid coming from divorced parents, which made him a lot more open to naturally sharing equal duties (if not more) of parenting and household chores because he sensed something missing in his life. I don’t know if any of that is true, but I would think that it’s impossible to ignore how our childhood factors into our views on marriage and parenting.

I’m becoming more and more aware that we are building these impressions on our young daughters. I believe it’s our responsibility to teach and lead them by example so that their generation can continue closing the gender gap in the workplace, even if they do decide to become stay-ay-home moms. But I also believe that it’s our responsibility to raise sons who become equals in the household so that if they do find themselves as stay-at-home dads either part time or full time, they do so without shame, feeling emasculated or secretly (or not so secretly) looked down upon by their spouses or other parents at the playground (this happens!). Gender equality is complicated because emotions can get involved and it’s so steeped in tradition, history, social, legal and economic systems. It’s also complicated because as mothers, we naturally feel the pull to stay at home with our kids and that’s where the internal struggle begins. I read that in this country, our women are among the most educated in the world, but we’re not as successful in keeping our women in the workforce when they become mothers presumably because our current work culture doesn’t give the support that women need in order to keep working. What do I say when Mia keeps asking me why there hasn’t been a woman president yet? I don’t know how to answer that question myself.

If my girls decide to become stay-at-home moms because it made them happy I would fully support it, but only if it made them happy and not because they felt like they didn’t have a choice. Being a breadwinner or a primary care giver shouldn’t be so stuck in gender stereotypes, but it takes a long time to change those perceptions. I hope my girls have more choices in the future. I hope all parents, both men and women have more choices.

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  • Eve July 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Love the bottom photo 🙂

  • Jane W July 13, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Amen to that.

  • sarah July 13, 2011 at 2:02 pm

    oh jenna, i absolutely love your open and honest posts. I have so much I want to say, but I’m at work and don’t have much time to type. I do want to take a moment to comment on one of the lighter things in this post… that final picture. What a beautiful photograph of you and your girls. Lovely 🙂

  • Christine July 13, 2011 at 2:39 pm

    Yes, double amen!

  • unha July 13, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    triple amen!

  • Ana July 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    another amazing post. There’s so much wisdom in you, it would be a treat to meet you in person.

  • jen July 13, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    wow, another great post! again, took the words right out of my mouth. thank you! by the way your girls are adorable 🙂

  • Linn Maria July 13, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    These days I find myself aimlessly going through your blog, reading, reading, reading, and finding so much comfort in your words — regardless of the fact that we’re not in the exact same situation, I feel like I can relate somehow. I just wanted to let you know that, that your posts help me find perspective in a time where everything seems to be shaken up in my own life. Thank you.

  • wendy July 13, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Thank you for this post. I grew up in a similar household where my mom did everything around the house, and as such I often feel the need to do that myself. More and more I’m learning that I don’t have to do something just because I feel like I should, and that it’s so freeing to do something because I want to. Even though I’m at home full time now (something I really wanted), I find that I can’t spend all my time being a mom and homemaker — I absolutely need time to pursue my own dreams and ambitions, and doing that keeps me sane and makes me a better mother and wife.

  • Hayley July 13, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    Amen indeed! And a note on the perceptions of stay-at-home-dads: my husband and I were talking the other day about the whole perception thing. I thought that stay-at-home dads had a good perception because in my female-dominated circles, a stay-at-home dad = a dad who’s being actively there and who wants to parent etc etc etc. My husband however said that on his side of things, it would be sneered at and he would be viewed as not being a proper provider for his family if he were to stay home. I personally grew up in a household with two working parents, and in our religious community, I realize looking back that my mom and dad’s more equal parenting relationship was not the norm.

  • Mefi July 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    thank you for sharing. and do share some posts on photography please. your pictures are amazing.

  • gia July 13, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    At 30, I have just realized that for the past 10 years I’ve been depending on boyfriends for security, money, fun, excitement, purpose.. I just realized that I need to give that to myself. I don’t know how I got it stuck in my head to depend on others for it. Maybe because I was the baby girl in my family with two older brothers, so it felt like everyone was taking care of me. Great to stress the importance of women making enough money to support themselves. Crucial to one’s well being.

  • Sarah July 13, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Hi there – long time reader, first time poster…I am not married and do not have children (yet and yet), but I can speak to growing up in a household where both parents are “breadwinners”. I basically grew up in daycare, my mom worked retail (saturdays too) and my dad in sales. For me and for most of my friends, two working parents was the norm (then again, all my friends were made in daycare!). While some obviously had parents who made more than their spouses, my parents always seemed equal and they certainly made a wonderful life for my brother and I. They shared in all responsibilities – dentist appointments, soccer games, play dates, etc. Around the house was no different and although my Dad (nicknamed “McGyver”) picked up most of the repair work and my Mom did most of the cooking, it never seemed (and still doesn’t) that traditional gender roles dictated these contributions. In that regard, I believe I have a wonderful perspective for my own future family. I think that, with the ecomomy and the diversity of family structures these days, there is no “norm”. I fully intend on working while raising a family because I, like you have outlined, think it is important to lead by example. It can be done! My parents did it with our family because it’s what had to be done. There was no question and no challenge of societal expectations, just doing…and I us kids turned out ok. Be proud that you are raising beautiful children in the best way you can, that’s only what I can hope for myself.

  • yukot July 13, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    i love your blog for your photos, text, and comments! i am going through a bit of dilemma myself. my sister and i were raised by traditional japanese parents – a stay-at-home mom that devoted herself to her family, and a working dad that brought home the bacon. my mom cooked 3 healthy meals a day, took us to different lessons every day, cleaned, shopped, did laundry, everything, while never complaining. my dad was always working and we rarely saw him but was always supportive. i was raised thinking that i could do well in school, choose a career i liked, earn as much as men, and i never doubted any of that. after grad school, i made more than my partner of 10 years, paid for my own things, and felt very independent… until i had a baby almost 2 years ago. before deciding to have a baby, i actually wanted to take a year off to be a stay-at-home because i believed i could do a better job than paying a nanny to take care of him. in japan, they believe that the first 3 years of life is crucial, and that has always stuck with me. what i didn’t realize was that because i never depended on my partner to help me (because i never needed help), i ended up paying for my time off myself (paying for 50% of everything) while taking on most of the household chores and most of the child rearing. while i love being with my baby and watching him grow so much every day, i do resent the fact that my partner is able to keep earning money and go out whenever and continue his pre-baby life and expect me to pay for my half out of my savings and do all of the chores because i am home.

    also i think because my parents made sure that i didn’t have to do anything but study and play sports and take my lessons, there is a part of me that wants someone to take care of me so i can do my own thing. but at the same time, i did not want to be a traditional house wife, i never imagined i would be one, so i chose a life-style that is very different from my own parents. i did not look for a partner who could support me, i chose to go into a creative field, and found a partner who shared my artistic interests. now i find myself in a very unfamiliar territory and have very mixed feelings about my current situation. i am not sure if our partnership will last much longer, and i am scared of finding out what it means to be a single mom.

    on a very different note – i love the pictures you post of you and your daughters, but i always notice that you have claudine on your lap with your arms around her, and mia is by your side, leaning in. i am sure it’s because claudine is the baby and mia is much older. but it makes me a little sad for mia. i’m only projecting because i am older than my baby sister by 1.5 years and i remember being jealous that she was babied so much more – despite them telling us that we were equals. it seems that they have a wonderful relationship, so i’m sure mia is not hurt by it, but i can’t help remembering what that used to feel like!!

    anyways, keep on keeping on, love your blog

  • Jenna July 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    @yukot I hope you do find your way and that you figure out a way to make it work with your partner. Your baby is still very young, please remember that. I think it does take time to figure it out and sort your feelings. It’s still a new situation for you. And i wouldn’t read too much on the fact that Claudine is always on my lap. It IS because she is younger. Mia’s almost 3 yrs older and bigger and heavier. I have a bad back and I really can’t have her sitting on my lap so much anymore.

  • finley {mommy chic} July 13, 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Great follow up. My mom was also a supermom. She worked full-time, went to school for her masters part-time, and always had a sparkling clean house and hot meal on the table every night. I remember her driving me to school and she would read over her notes at stop lights. I don’t know how she did it all, but she did. And I am forever amazed and appreciative. Maybe I should post that on my blog. 😉

  • Jess July 14, 2011 at 2:41 am

    It is all so complicated!
    I grew up in a family where my parents taught us that ‘girls can do anything’ and have choices. I went to university and got a career and then when I had children I decided I wanted to be a SAHM! It was totally my choice (I have never had expectations put on me by my husband). But sometimes the choices we make at one point in our lives may change the course of our life further down the track in a way we have not anticipated. I loved being a SAHM and have done it for 20 years. It has only been in the past few years now that the girls are almost adults that I have realised that I have been so long out of my career that I don’t feel confident to return to it. I may like to be the ‘breadwinner’ now but I have left it too late. I’m not saying I could not get into something now and make a career for myself but I would have to totally reinvent myself, which is pretty daunting. I never thought of the long term consequences for me of choosing the SAHM route. As a mother of daughters I think I want to encourage them to at least keep there foot in the door with their careers. So it is not all about having choices, but also being aware of the long term consequences of these choices.

  • Clara July 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Oh Jenna, you’re so wise. You could seriously be a life coach! Not that you’re thinking of a second career or anything…

    These last few weeks I’ve had my first taste at freelancing. I left my previous job but as I was preparing to leave they asked me to work on a specific project remotely. The project sounded cool and I wanted the money, so I went for it. For the past 3 weeks I’ve been working from home. I really enjoy the work I’m doing but at the end of each day, no matter how much I’ve done, it never feels like enough! I have to work so so hard not to stress or feel guilty about not doing enough, or taking time for myself each day. And I don’t even have children or have to worry about supporting anyone else! It’s so ironic because when I was physically working in an office I could have a day where I was hardly productive but still feel no guilt when I went home that night. Working for a company can be somewhat of a crutch I think, and going to the same place every day doesn’t allow you to evaluate your own life as much and figure out what you really want. This whole experience had made me realize how strong you have to be to do free-lance work. Add in motherhood, and well, it may not be a super power but it’s quite an accomplishment!

  • Clara July 14, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Oh btw- loved your post over on cup of jo!

  • Caitlin July 14, 2011 at 10:56 am

    I loved the breadwinner post, I nodded and said yes throughout the entire post, but so many of the comments summed of my feelings that I didn’t comment on my own. But I wanted to write now. (and I loved your post this morning on Cup of Jo.) My husband hasn’t worked in two years and is now temping making an hourly wage just a little higher than I made at a lifeguarding gig in high school. I’m not sure when he’ll find a teaching job (who knew when he decided to go back to school and switch careers that we’d find ourselves in this economic state?) but I want to start having children soon. Being the bread winner but not knowing how we’d afford child care and feeling that burden is something I don’t talk about much. Or being jealous of women who don’t have to make that choice or being a little resentful that my husband got to go back to school while I felt trapped at the desk. So thank you for sharing and for all of the comments, was so good to read and realize I wasn’t terrible for thinking these things.

  • Cynthia July 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Jenna, thanks for showing us the flip side to freelancing and running a business. You and Mark do such a good job…parenting is a constantly changing endeavor that takes energy, as do all the other commitments in your lives. I hope you get a chance to enjoy a little slower pace…it may be a little uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but I believe you and Mark will have enough sales in the bakery business until your freelance work picks up. Maybe this is the universe saying to refill your cup and have some time to look around and be refreshed. Wishing you peacefulness, faith and contentment 🙂 I have so enjoyed your cabin at the lake pictures and travelogue with kids. You are a wizard with that camera!

  • maja July 14, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    your posts always make me wish i had more time to write, to think for that matter. have you read virginia wolf’s room of one’s own? i read it in college and it resonated with me even then.

  • le petit cabinet de curiosites July 14, 2011 at 4:10 pm


  • Ashley July 14, 2011 at 8:09 pm

    I loved this post. I just discovered your blog from Cup of Jo, and am glad I did. Your honest confession (which clearly resonated with so many) is something I wonder about a lot, as someone who doesn’t yet have children, but wonders how I’ll juggle my job (teaching) with a family some day. I love that at my husband’s residency, there are a few stay at home dads that support their wives’ 80-100 hour work weeks…because it’s an uncommon thing to see, especially in Alaska where “manliness” is such a virtue. Seeing my mom as a single-mom/breadwinner definitely empowered me in feeling like I could do anything–by choice if not by necessity. It is amazing the impressions parents set, and just your awareness of gender gap frustrations is undoubtedly a great start.

  • Willow July 14, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    I just discovered your blog through your post on “A Cup of Jo” and I love it! Your writing is so thoughtful and your photos are gorgeous. I’m on my way to becoming a mom myself and am loving Joanna’s series since I see myself being a working mom as well…hopefully in a more creative career than the path I’ve been on (academics/college professor). I’ll be back for sure!

  • Alejandra July 14, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I really enjoy your reflections. You reminded me of a link I found today about women, work, and why we aren’t equals in the workforce:
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Theresa July 15, 2011 at 7:26 am

    I have given much thought to so many parts of my children’s view of the world and view of me as a mother but I honestly haven’t given much thought to what their perceptions are when it comes to roles for my husband and myself (money, chores, etc). I am really glad that you wrote about this because I think it is really important. And, I know my daughter who is now four most likely already has opinions on what she believes is a mommy role and a daddy role. Like, Tony does all the cooking… I always do the laundry, I would however say when it comes to everything else we are very equal. But, I am sure her view of things may be different. Even small things may shape her view of how mommy and daddy do things. Like, mom always bakes with French music playing or cleans with rock music playing, etc. When it comes to finances it has been a struggle for me since moving to Sweden. In New York I was the breadwinner and here I haven’t had much of a career and thus I was forced to return to restaurants (obviously also a career as my husband is a chef but it is not my career choice). Anyway, I have had a lot of guilt about not contributing enough money to the family but luckily here in Sweden you are still taken care of when it comes to maternity leave etc. Thus I was able to take the 18 paid months off (each kid… YEAH) and not feel guilty but as soon as my maternity leave was over GUILT. Now that I finally have a decent paying job in my field I have transferred my guilt to “why don’t I do more around the house… I’m the mom after all”. Here in Sweden I find that things are pretty equal when it comes to taking care of the children but in terms of how we care for the children I think things are still very gender related, if that makes sense. Motherhood, fatherhood… it’s all a balancing act.

  • Kimberly July 15, 2011 at 10:11 am

    such a great post, thanks

  • Helle (Helen) July 17, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Normally when I read blog posts I click on to the next blog when having finished, now I’ve been sitting and staring out the window for the longest time thinking about so many things. How I grew up in a Scandinavian family, my mother very much being a feminist at the time, my dad a real stick-in-the-mud who found that while it was fine for them to start an education fund for my brother, it was not necessary for me, as I, the girl, would only need a trusseau. I am a bit older than you, but not that much ;-)) – I remember resenting massively that the girls in our family, extended, were always expected to help in the kitchen, do the dishes etc. and I was always considered the difficult one for grumping. My point is, while things have definitely changed, girls are expected to get an education and a job, in Denmark child-care is universal. But it’s still the women, the mothers, who give up their jobs, go part-time to take care of the families, men so rarely do. For whatever reasons. I honestly also believe, most men would be bored silly staying at home with the children. It’s still the girls who are expected to do more chores in the house, to be helpful, compassionate etc. I really wonder if things will ever change so much that men and women have equal opportunities, that there will be a female president, hopefully not Palin, I might add. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. And anyway, I think I’ve written enough as it is.

  • oilandgarlic July 18, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    My husband and I were talking about working motherhood the other night (and I need to write a real post about this!) but my feeling is that in the U.S., it’s not a real “choice” to stay home due to our inadequate maternity leave system. My friends in Europe that decide to stay home choose to do so AFTER at least 1 year off and many have access to low-cost and high-quality government childcare (at least I was told that it’s affordable and high-quality in Germany…not 100% sure). I think it’s amazingly difficult to leave your 3month old baby who is still breastfeeding and go back to work. Plus you have suffering from lack of sleep and feeling overwhelmed when you make that stay home or not decision. However, it’s a different story if you make that same decision after 1 year off. By then you should be getting decent sleep and also can stop breastfeeding w/o any guilt.

    Only if women band together and make changes on a government level can our children (daughters) have real choices..

  • onirical July 21, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Go Mia, go!

  • courtney July 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Your girls are adorable!

  • Mrs D July 27, 2011 at 12:24 am

    Amen Jenna…

    I am actually reading a couple of very interesting books at the moment – They f*** us up, and How not to f*** them up, both by Oliver James. He talks about how childhood experiences affect the way you want to/are a parent. It is certainly very interesting in that he says that no matter what mothers’ want to do from a working perspective, they must make sure that their choice makes them happy. It also touches on the fact that society (and other mothers who choose the opposite to you) can make your choices difficult.