You’re Not Superwoman and That’s Okay

In honour of Mother’s Day, we’re excited to share an essay from Erin Pepler’s incisive and hilarious collection Send Me Into the Woods Alone: Essays on Motherhood (Invisible Publishing). Moms of the world: read and commiserate (and children and partners of the world, read and take note).


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A never-ending stream of information plays inside my head, like the news ticker on a weather station. It updates constantly, sometimes with new information and sometimes repeating itself, daring me to take it all in without forgetting. It lists household tasks and work deadlines, social obligations and the particulars of my kids’ entire lives. It reminds me to make dinner, sign field trip forms, replace worn-out shoes, and keep up with the pediatrician’s recommended vaccination schedule. I hurry to make notes and add dates to calendars so I don’t forget, but the volume of information is relentless. Inevitably, I miss something or otherwise screw up. I whisper apologies to everyone around me. When you look at any single item on this list, it seems relatively easy to cross off. We’re not talking about complicated stuff—every task is mundane, and yet they keep piling up in order to take over my life.Plan meals, make the grocery list, then figure out when you have time to go to the store. Don’t forget to buy coffee while you’re there. Remember that work deadline—it’s an important one. Get the kids’ bags ready for swim lessons and send an e-transfer to the piano teacher. Clean out the fridge and the microwave, or at least one of them, because they’re gross. Vacuum out the car, same reason. Get gas while you’re out. Buy a gift for that birthday party and have the kids make a card. Book haircuts for your increasingly dishevelled offspring. Book a haircut for yourself and then cancel because it conflicts with something the kids have. Put wine in the fridge so you can offer it to guests later. Switch the laundry before it gets musty and has to be washed a second time. Or a third. Take chicken breasts out of the freezer soon or there’ll be nothing for dinner. Find a photo of the family for that school project. Make lunches for tomorrow. Replace the soap in the washroom. Water the plants.On and on it goes, forever, and then one day you’re dead.I am the person in our family who knows where everything is, except for my own phone and sunglasses. I am the keeper of schedules, birthdays, school events, and big feelings. I am the problem solver. I am our chief medical officer and emergency task force. I make and execute plans and deal with unexpected challenges as they arise.One day last year, my daughter came home and announced that one of her classmates had lice. “Did they check you?” I asked quickly, a shudder running down my spine at the idea of live bugs on her head.She nodded. “I don’t have it—they checked everyone.”They had, and she was fine—until the following week, when she came home and sat at the kitchen table, a concerned look on her face. “Mama,” she started slowly. “My head itches.”I froze in place. “Nooooooo. Really?”She nodded. “Can you check my hair?”I did, quickly finding what looked like eggs. “Oh,” I said, trying and failing to stay cool. “You totally have lice.”I thought about what I had planned for the rest of the day—cooking dinner, running a couple errands once the kids were in bed, working on an article that was due soon. That was all about to be pushed back in favour of combing out my child’s conditioner-soaked hair with a fine-tooth nit pick. I’d do a lot of that over the next week, also taking her for professional nit removal and then combing out her hair at home again and again as the lice travelled enthusiastically around the heads of her classmates, hitting several of them a second time.“My teacher wore her hair in a ponytail for the first time today,” my daughter remarked drily.“Are you bothered by any of this?” I asked her, thinking of how embarrassed I would have been at her age. She shrugged. “Nah, not really. Maybe if I was the only one, but like, everyone has it now.”I was proud of how unflappable she was, and deeply relieved that no one else in our house was affected.This has happened to us with pink eye (everyone got it), gastroenteritis (we all went down), and strep throat (an infection that’s worse for adults than kids, which I learned the hard way). At one point, the kids and I all had ear infections, which was baffling because those aren’t even contagious. “It probably started from a shared cold,” the doctor said, shrugging and writing us a series of prescriptions. Through it all, the ticker in my head kept ticking, reminding me of everything that had to get done for our house to operate. There were still dinners to make and deadlines to hit. Life doesn’t stop—it just gets more complicated.
I’ve discovered that even when you’re too sick to do it all, you’re still doing it all: calling the school to say the kids will be home sick, making doctor’s appointments, cancelling piano lessons for the week, or popping out to fill a prescription. Occasionally delegating these things to your husband, who is willing to do anything you ask but needs to be asked. He’ll notice a sink full of dirty dishes and clean them without a word, but a trip to the grocery store requires direction akin to a military mission. Plan A, Plan B, and, if possible, notes on where to find unfamiliar items in the store.“I don’t have time to be sick,” I always moan. This is because for me, there are no true days off—tasks just pile up until they’re addressed or abandoned.Even when everyone is healthy and things are going well, the list marches on. I often wonder how single moms do it all. I have a partner who is present, engaged, and devoted to our family, and I’m still exhausted most of the time. The mental load is enormous. My husband would never think to check if the kids’ underwear still fits or if they need new socks. I don’t know if he’d ever think to wash stuffed animals or purge old toys and clothes as they grow out of them. It’s likely there’d be no teacher gifts, Christmas cards, or holiday photos. He’d provide the necessities of life, but ask him what the kids’ shoe sizes are or what Santa usually puts in their stockings and he’d be lost.
He’s far from lazy and often putters around with a broom in his hands, tidying up and throwing in laundry as he moves through the house. He gets up with the kids in the morning, handles bedtime like a champion, and takes them to swimming lessons. He is what most people would consider a good dad and a good husband—I certainly think this—and even so, we all rely on my brain to keep our household moving. I’m the executive with the plan and my husband is a capable administrator who waits for direction. He understands the kids need to eat; I’m the one who knows both their preferences and what’s in the fridge. He might pack sunscreen for a day out; I’m the one who knows which brand of sunscreen gives our son a rash, which one doesn’t, and which we haven’t tried. He does things very well, but usually only after I’ve laid out what needs to be done.It’s been suggested to me that if managing my household leaves me so exhausted, I should lower my standards. I should stop sending Christmas cards if it’s so much work, skip teacher gifts, quit volunteering at the school, or “let the house be a mess.” The latter is only said by those who don’t know me well, because the house is a mess most of the time. So is my car. If I get seventy percent of my list done, the rest is readily ignored. This means the garbage in my car, the laundry pile beside my bed, and the pile of paperwork in my office all sit there, taunting me everywhere I go.But these other things, the nice-to-haves, are important to me. I don’t want the bare minimum from life, I want to live the hell out of it. I love our holiday traditions, like the visit to Santa and the photo cards. I want to recognize the teachers who devote so much of their time and energy to my children. I care about finding the right sunscreen for my sensitive skinned child. Volunteering in the school brings me joy. I want to do it all. I cannot turn off this element of my personality, nor do I want to. I have never done anything halfway, except for cleaning my house. That, I always do halfway.There are items I’ve chopped off the list and expectations I’ve skirted, but I’m selective about what those things are. My children don’t participate in a ton of extracurriculars because it requires more money and time than I’m willing to spend. We pick and choose how to spend our time, placing value on what matters to us, not to others. Despite this, there is always somewhere to be and plenty to do. Some families love hockey or happily run between three soccer games a week, but that’s not for us. Similarly, some families couldn’t care less about the things that matter to mine. It doesn’t matter how you spend your time as a family, as long as you’re doing what you want instead of what others expect of you. I prioritize a sit-down dinner every night. Other parents prioritize something else. Neither approach is better, they’re just different ways of dividing time and creating happiness. I prefer to be home after school and on weekends, or out hiking with my family. As overextended as I sometimes am, I’m guarded with my time and energy.Moms are always working, inside the house or out, their brains always in high gear. We do as much parenting as previous generations and then some, with the rise of extracurriculars and parent councils and Pinterest, and it’s now the norm for moms to work full-time jobs outside the home. We don’t parent less if we work more—we just sleep fewer hours and get less downtime. Burnout isn’t extraordinary, it’s incredibly common and very real. The standards set for modern motherhood are absolutely impossible and set us up to fail. There’s a pervasive mentality that we have to do it all, be it all, keep a thousand balls in the air at one time, and it’s killing us.We’re told to make time for ourselves and prioritize self-care. But how? Where do we find the time, the money, the energy? Self-care was a phrase that once held meaning in political spaces as a form of self-preservation and resistance. Popularized by Audre Lorde, the term spoke directly to marginalized communities, but in recent years it’s been stolen by brands to sell things like face masks, bath bombs, and spa days. Manicures are suddenly self-care. Wine is always lauded as self-care. I enjoy many of those things, but I know this isn’t what Lorde meant. Bath bombs don’t buy me more time in my day, relieve my invisible workload, or check items off my to-do list. Treating ourselves well shouldn’t have to mean spending money. Participating in capitalism isn’t self-care, no matter what we’re told over and over again. It’s okay to enjoy these things, but let’s not lie to ourselves about what they do for us. A pedicure does not make up for six months of disrupted sleep with a new baby or a lifetime of being overworked and underpaid. Ask a single mom what would make her life better. I doubt the answer is something you can order online. A weekend away with your partner or friends is a wonderful treat, but it doesn’t solve our problems. It’s an escape rather than a solution. It’s also a lot of extra work to plan and execute a trip, sinking you further into the stress that makes you want to take a break in the first place.I flew to Chicago for a bachelorette party in 2018, when my kids were six and eight years old. And by “party” I mean a multi-day trip to another country, because that was what the bride wanted. It was an amazing four days of touring the city, dining out, dancing, and visiting comedy clubs. I got dressed up (not really dressed up, more so I didn’t wear plain black leggings every day) and wasn’t responsible for anyone but myself and, occasionally, the bride (as the maid of honour, I felt responsible for both her well-being and enjoyment of the trip). It was lovely. Even the plane ride itself felt like a vacation. I read a book for two uninterrupted hours. At this point in my life, I welcome a long flight alone; it is truly not the inconvenience it used to be.
But for that trip to happen, I had to make sure my husband blocked off his schedule so he could parent solo for four days. Then I made arrangements for my mother to pick up the kids after school and watch them for a few hours while my husband was still at work. I made sure they had enough groceries and stocked the freezer with convenience foods like lasagna and frozen pizza. I told both teachers I’d be away, so if an emergency occurred, they’d reach out to my husband instead of me. I worked double my usual number of freelance hours the week before so I could justify taking a few days off, snuck in extra cuddles with the kids, and, finally, packed my bags. Oh, and I planned the bachelorette party itself, booking accommodations for the group, collaborating on planned activities, and buying penis themed decorations. If ever I didn’t want customs going through my suitcase, it was that weekend. My bag was, quite literally, full of dicks.Planning any sort of getaway is a big deal when you have kids, but in the end, it was all worth it. I came home remembering what it was like to feel young and (almost) carefree, even if my kids were in the back of my mind the entire time. I was also incredibly happy to get home to a life dominated by sweatpants and falling asleep in a single bed beside one of my children, snuggled up after bedtime songs and stories, my hair a mess and no champagne to be found. I do not belong in a carefree world anymore, nor do I want to. I’m not chasing another life. I just need my own life to slow down sometimes.The ticker in my head will probably always keep going, but I’m trying to tame it. In a way, the most effective form of self-care I’ve discovered is saying the word no. Not because I’m giving up on what matters to me, but because I’m prioritizing it. No, you can’t have more of my time and energy than I’m reasonably able to give. No, I won’t go to every event or send my kids to every birthday party, because sometimes I want to stay in my pyjamas and hang out with my family until two in the afternoon doing nothing. They won’t be in four activities each and have play dates every weekend. I’ll volunteer for some things but not everything. I’ll skip the bake sale when I’m busy at work instead of baking two dozen cookies at midnight, even when I want to say yes. And sure, sometimes I’ll do the self-care things that aren’t really self-care—the bath bombs, the pedicures, the face masks—because they don’t solve my problems, but they do relax me, however briefly. My life is just as hectic with manicured nails, but it’s a pleasant interlude at least.I’ve also found power in saying yes. Yes to my village—I accept the help you’re offering because I cannot and should not do it all. I’m grateful for you, and I’m there for you in return. Yes to my husband when he offers to do something in my place, even though I know he won’t do it the way I want him to, and that makes me squirm like the control freak I fully am. Yes to admitting I’m having a long week and need to talk about it. Yes to acknowledging that we aren’t meant to do this alone. And yes, yes, yes, I’ll do that thing that’s purely for fun because it’s okay to do things for myself. We all need to have fun. Life is meant to be enjoyed, and I’m ready to enjoy it. What better example can I set for my kids than that?Excerpted from Send Me Into the Woods Alone: Essays on Motherhood by Erin Pepler, with permission from Invisible Publishing.

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Erin Pepler is a freelance writer who lives in the greater Toronto area with her husband and two kids. Her work has appeared in Today’s Parent, ParentsCanada, SavvyMom, Romper, Scary Mommy, MoneySense, Broadview Magazine and more. You can find Erin on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as well as at