The supermom is revered in our society. I have seen countless headlines that boast about how incredible these supermommy multitaskers are. (The most recent was “Hockey Player Breastfeeds her Baby During Game Breaks — Like a Total Mom Boss.”) And I get the jaw-dropping awe and admiration — I really do. We’ve all seen her: That freshly showered, well-coiffed mother running errands during the heat of the day — with two or three kids in the stroller, to boot — showing up everywhere on time, seemingly without a hint of effort.
I am not one of those mothers. I don’t elevate multitasking into an art form. Sure, there are times when I hit my stride and exceed my own expectations. In those moments I conjure up my own headlines, like “Mom Prepares New Recipe While Caring for Infant, Operating Breast Pump and Participating in Conference Call, and Is Obviously Killing It.” But more often than not it is a daily struggle.
I have a T-shirt in my closet that depicts a stack of pancakes slathered in butter with the caption “I am a hot mess.” I used to love it, but I don’t wear it now — it’s become uncomfortably close to the truth.
It hasn’t always been this way. Before I became a mother, I mostly had my act together. I balanced a full-time job, a relationship and a busy social life, all while managing my finances and maximizing travel as much as possible. I arrived on time to appointments, shampooed my hair more than twice a week and never thought twice about the luxury of looking into the mirror before leaving the house. I would never claim to be the tidiest, most goal-oriented, polished professional ever, but I did make my bed most mornings and fold my laundry.
What did me in was a confluence of major life events when I was in my mid-30s. As my brother said at the time: “You are planning a wedding, buying a house and trying to get pregnant all at the same time? Wow! Those are a lot of milestones at once.” Those words have come back numerous times to haunt me.
Our trifecta of baby/house/wedding all happened within six months and it was an incredible, exhausting time. Instead of decorating our new home, I decorated the tables at our wedding venue. Instead of a wild bachelorette party, I gyrated my pregnant body on the dance floor underneath a glitter globe while stone-cold sober. When my daughter was born, a contractor was still finishing up work inside of our house. The first weeks of her life, we were camped out in my in-laws’ home rather than nesting in our own.
Over the next couple of years, like all new moms, I gradually adjusted to motherhood. I stayed at home with my daughter for nearly a year before starting a new job. When things finally began to stabilize again in both my personal and professional lives, it was time to start trying for baby No. 2. In other words, I kissed the emerging stability goodbye for the greater good of family expansion.
These days, with an 8-month-old and a 3-year-old, I drown daily in a sea of rainbow plastic, plates of yesterday’s scrambled eggs and unidentifiable floor crumbs so large they should probably be classified as leftovers. The mail is piled up by the entrance, I lose my car keys and cellphone at least three times a day, and there is a rotating pile of coats and shoes on the floor near the door that is like a grade B interactive art installation.
Despite my poor multitasking abilities, I am still pursuing a version of “having it all.” For me, this includes part-time child care, part-time household management and part-time self-employment. Yet the more I juggle all this, the more I realize that the biggest gift that I can give to my family (and myself) is my undivided, singular presence and attention.
So these days, I’m a proud “uni-tasker.” I’ve learned to accept myself for being the substandard multitasker that I am. My goal now is to simplify, to prioritize and to strategize based on what works best for me and my family.
In practical terms, this means I turn off my cellphone at the end of the day in order to be present with with my family; I stop creating to-do lists in my head while playing with my daughters; I espouse a philosophy that’s best summed up as One Thing at a Time.
Instead of multitasking — like making (read: burning) baby food while simultaneously calculating invoices — I work to establish a sense of routine so I stay grounded amid the chaos. I eat meals with my baby instead of eating breakfast on the go while dropping my older daughter at preschool. I do morning exercises during the baby’s first nap instead of doing squats while trying to keep her entertained. I designate set times to work, uninterrupted and without distraction. When my older daughter comes home, I make a point to sit with her while she draws and I listen as she talks to imaginary friends — even if it’s just for five minutes.
Doing One Thing at a Time has helped me witness the beauty of childhood, and I experience my own life a little more fully, too. For example, when I take my baby for long walks in our neighborhood, I live vicariously through her enchantment and remember why I moved out to California in the first place.
Yes, this is still a work in progress. But when I accept myself for who I am — a uni-tasker! — minutiae stops clogging up my neural networks. I notice more, hear more and feel more. And when my stress level drops, it trickles down to the rest of the family. There is more laughter and more time to savor precious moments.
As mothers, we all encounter daily struggles, although they do not all look alike. The term “supermom” need not apply only to mothers who excel at multitasking and household organization. It can also include those of us who are loving and proud uni-taskers.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a freelance writer, art therapist and mother of two daughters. She and her family live in the Bay Area. Kveller is a thriving community of women and parents who convene online to share, celebrate and commiserate their experiences of raising kids through a Jewish lens. Visit Kveller.com.