Last week saw the close of The Rio Olympic Games and over the last month words such as 'Strong, Powerful and Superhuman' have been splashed across the media. At times being accompanied by images of 'Strong Mums', such as Jessica Ennis Hill and Jo Pavey. It's been a year of true inspiration for any fit-mama's out there. However the focus hasn't just been on the Mums dominating the track. Indeed, throughout the Games sponsor's P&G have been promoting their film 'Thank you Mum', which follows the journey of four Olympic children and moments where their mother's inner strength made all the difference. With the tag line 'It takes someone strong to build someone strong' it got me thinking, what exactly is a 'Strong Mum' and how can you become one?
Over time the word 'Strong' has become synonymous with Athletic, Tough and Durable - all qualities of the classic superhero and although rare in comparison to their male counterparts, superhero women have certainly been described as 'strong' in the past. Often displaying similar attributes, female superheroes always tend to have incredible physical strength, outstanding endurance and the power to kick-ass when needs be; however, far too often these powerful women are seen to sacrifice an important aspect of womanhood, and that's becoming a mother.
Sadly even the rare occasions where a few superhero women have broken the mould (for example The Invisible Woman, one of the founding members of Marvel's Fantastic Four) they are often documented as taking some considerable time off after giving birth to their child.
So with superhero mothers scarcely documented, does this suggest that it's just not possible to be a superwoman and a super-mum? Or can we mere mortals learn from these wonder-women and unleash an inner power to become super-mums ourselves?
The Multi-tasking Mum
One of the most prominent superhero mum's to date is Pixar's 2004 Mrs Incredible, who with a unnaturally flexible body is able to protect her family, cook, clean and fight crime all at once. Quite a feat, even with superpowers! Nonetheless for many parents multi-tasking is essential.
According to a new book, The Economics of Multitasking, mothers spend on average 7.4 hours every day focused on multiple activities and only half of their waking hours able to focus solely on one task. However David Meyer, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan believes multi-tasking to be hugely counter-productive and in some cases dangerous, stating "People are being asked to do multiple things, but they would need superhuman abilities". Meyer believes that multi-tasking is especially stressful when the tasks are important (as they so often are for mums), saying "The brain responds to impossible demands by pumping out adrenaline and other stress hormones that put a person "on edge", and a steady flow of stress hormones can strain the body and threaten health".
So should we all be cleaning our shower whilst simultaneously washing ourselves in it or is multi-tasking a mother's kryptonite and something we should put on the back burner if we truly want to be strong? Let's face it - If multi-tasking is leaving you stressed, exhausted and depressed it seems hugely counter-productive when aspiring to be energetic and productive.
Mums need energy and it would be ridiculous to suggest that physical strength isn't important when parenting. The amount of bags, car seats, shopping bags, nappies, pregnancy notes and water cups that you have to carry on a regular basis ( and yes sometimes all at once), demands mothers to have an element of physical strength. Not to mention the cardiovascular stamina one needs to match the energy of a rampaging toddler.
However, although some of us might love pulling on our trainers after a busy day and getting a healthy dose of endorphins, not all women find exercise a positive pastime. Jenny Willott, Minister for Women and Equalities said "It's sad that women feel pressured to lose weight so quickly after pregnancy, and it isn't healthy", but with the demands on a mum certainly requiring a level of physical strength, is it unwise not to regain some level of fitness postpartum?
In addition I think it's important to realise that exercise isn't just for those wishing to slim down. Working out is also know to improve sleep ( what parent doesn't want that!), lift a person's mood and combat anxiety and stress. So while it needn't be right away, surely postpartum fitness should be encouraged and not villanised?
The Mindful Mummy
Ahhhhhh, what a peaceful day - said no mum ever! According to a 2011 survey by Proctor and Gamble, modern day mums have on average only 26 minutes of 'me time' a day and shockingly 66% of these mothers admitted to spending those precious few moments hiding in their bathroom in order to be alone.
However, Dr Sherrie Bourg Carter believes having some alone time to relax and be mindful is crucial for positive parenting. Dr Carter says "Spending time with yourself benefits everyone because by having a happier and healthier mindset, you're in a better frame of mind to take care of the people who are important to you". Nevertheless, statistics don't lie and recent studies have shown that many mothers reported increased feelings of guilt and anxiety at the thought of taking more time for themselves.
But, if it's true, and happy mum = happy baby, perhaps we should be encouraging mothers to focus a bit more on their own needs, rather then purely those of the people around them?
The Must Have-It-All Mum
Speaking of time to yourself, it's little wonder this seems to be dwindling. Nowadays, aside from engaging with their children, working, or cleaning the house, most parent's can also be found online. Social media has boomed over the past few years, and suddenly being a stay at home parent doesn't mean you can't run a business or build a career.
Although there are many benefits of breaking down these walls, some women are feeling the pressure to capitalise on this opportunity and become more than 'just a mum'. The number of mothers returning to work is increasing and NCT postnatal leader Juliet Pollard is quoted as saying "Once upon a time motherhood was the given and work was the choice, Now it's the other way round".
Similarly, Psychotherapist Marni Eisenberg from TheMaxiGroup said "Every mother knows there aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done, and that's without adding a career. Since when did women stop viewing motherhood as a full-time job in it's own right?"
It seems that the desire to 'have-it-all' is causing some mothers to feel more anxious and negative than ever before, so maybe the key to positive parenting and 'strength' is accepting the challenges that come your way and letting go of the additional pressures we put on ourselves to achieve more?
Strong Mum Recipe
So what is a 'Strong Mum'? We throw these words around as if it's a description, when in actual fact there doesn't seem to be a way to define the term. I think it's clear that being strong isn't just about lifting weights and eating healthy, there are times when in order to be strong you have to make a tough decision, or be brave when you're scared or juggle multiple activities. Or sometimes when you feel completely exhausted and fatigued, strength might mean pretending to be strong for those around you. In the end, it comes down to accepting that strength doesn't mean perfection and it doesn't mean never acknowledging weakness.
There is no simple recipe for becoming a 'Strong Mum', and there is no single description, but what we do know is that being a mum requires a lot of it, and sometimes it can appear just at the right time. Ultimately, a mothers strength is individual to each woman but I do agree with P&G on this, it's a mothers strength that will impact her children.
This summer The Huffington Post UK is spearheading an initiative helping families thrive, with a focus on parent wellbeing, the challenges facing stay-at-home and working parents, friendships and navigating the landscape of modern parenting beyond the 2.4. To kickstart the campaign, Jamie Oliver guest edited the site, bringing a focus on feeding healthy families.
We'll be sharing stories and blogs with the hashtag #ThrivingFamilies and we'd like you to do the same. If you'd like to use our blogging platform to share your story, email firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved.