Why We Really Need to Stop Calling People "Superwomxn"

Those seemingly upbeat terms can actually be damaging to people's mental health. Here's what to say instead, and how to ease the pressure of  "doing it all."

woman balancing several objects on body
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It's used in headlines.

It's used in everyday conversation (your friend/colleague/sister who just seems to *somehow* get everything and more done).

It's used to describe the ever-elusive balance mothers often chase. ("Supermom" is even in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.)

As a first-time, full-time working mom, I've had plenty of people call me "superwoman" or "supermom" in the year-and-a-half since I've had my daughter. And I've never quite known what to say in response.

It's the type of terminology that seems benign — positive even. But experts suggest it could actually be problematic for womxn's mental health, promoting an unrealistic ideal that's, at best, unachievable and, at worst, damaging. (BTW, here's what the "x" means in words such as "womxn.")

Here, what the terms "superwomxn" and "supermom" really mean, the implications they could have on mental health, and the ways everyone can work to change the narrative (and, in turn, lessen the load for people who feel like they need to "do it all").

The Problem with "Superwomxn"

"The term 'superwomxn' is usually offered as a compliment," says Allison Daminger, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University who researches the ways in which societal inequalities affect family dynamics. "It suggests that you're beyond human in your capacity. But it's a 'compliment' of the variety where you're not quite sure how to respond; it's sort of a strange one."

After all, it usually relates to handling a heavy load that "doesn't seem to affect you in the way we would expect mere mortals to be impacted," she explains.

And is that a good thing?

On one hand, if someone uses the term to describe you, you might feel proud. "It feels good to be recognized — and I think when people call someone 'superwomxn' or 'supermom,' they do mean well," says Daminger.

But it can also layer on the guilt. "For a lot of people, the internal experience might not feel so positive," she says. Read: You might not necessarily feel like you have it all together — and that might cause some dissonance between the way you feel things are going and the way others apparently see you. So when someone calls you a superwomxn, you might think, "wait I should I have it more together; I should be able to do all of this," which can then spiral into feeling pressure to do even more. (Another phrase to reconsider using? "Quarantine 15" — here's why.)

When you're complimented for a particular trait, it's kind of embarrassing or strange to then have to ask for help, right? So, instead, you just take the so-called compliment and continue doing what you're doing (which already feels like too much), as well as now feeling like you should actually be doing more to truly fulfill this "superwomxn" quality. And "doing it all" sans an extra pair of hands? That could wind up making you feel isolated, explains Daminger.

Plus, the more you passively accept this "compliment" — instead of refuting it or asking for help — the more you may feel like you need to keep up the act. And eventually, being a "superwomxn" becomes an integral (read: not optional) part of your identity, says Daminger. "And we know from psychology that humans want to act in ways that are consonant with their identity — even if it's an identity that's been imposed on you by others," she shares.

For a mom, the terminology can come with unspoken pressure to keep up a certain level of intensive mothering, which is essentially when the mother is seen (by themself and/or others) as the sole person 100-percent devoted to their child's care, sometimes ahead of their own needs, adds Lucia Ciciolla, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University who studies maternal mental health. "If a womxn has managed to pull together a beautiful event or juggle an impossible schedule — which may have been highly stressful and straining on their mental or physical capacity — they're then rewarded with the recognition that they're doing what is expected of them and meeting the societal ideal, [thereby] pressuring them to want to continue at a high level of performance that's not realistic or sustainable."

In general, the superwomxn narrative feeds into a bigger picture issue: that trying to seek out balance — and failing to do so — is an individual issue, not a larger, societal problem deep-rooted in modern culture.

And this can contribute to burnout, feelings of shame, and mental health conditions, such as depression — all from not meeting their own or society's expectations, explains Ciciolla. (

"Womxn blaming themselves for failing to achieve balance — when, in reality, it's the system stacked against them — is not the solution," says Daminger. "I feel strongly that this is a systemic issue and that we're going to need widespread change on a societal policy level."

How to Change the Narrative

Of course, if you're feeling worked to the brim or as if you're tasked with a "superhuman" to-do list, waiting on big-picture cultural changes doesn't necessarily help ease the burden in the moment. What might? These small tweaks you can make in your own day-to-day activities and conversations.

Call Work What It Is: Work

Daminger's research explores both physical labor (chores such as cooking or cleaning) and the "mental load" (i.e. remembering that a permission slip is due or noticing the registration sticker on the car is expiring soon).

"A lot of the behaviors that womxn are labeled 'superwomxn' for often have to do with the cognitive work that doesn't usually get put on the balance sheet," she says. "These things are effortful — they have costs in the form of time or energy to the person doing them — but some work is more easily recognized than others." Think: always being the one to remember to pack the diaper bag or that you're out of paper towels. You may not talk about it but you think about it and that's exhausting too.

To make sure all of the mental work you're doing winds up on the balance sheet? Start by getting more specific about what you're doing (even if you're not physically doing it), she suggests. "There's sometimes this perception that love and labor are incompatible," says Daminger. (For example: If you call having to keep track of everything that needs to get packed for a day trip "work," then that might mean you're not doing it because you love your family.)

But the truth of the matter is that IDing all of those chores floating around in your head matters. "Looking at the work itself, calling it work, and recognizing different types of work in mental, emotional, and physical forms moves the focus away from this person who is 'superhuman' in their skill set to what is actually happening," says Daminger. In short: It helps you — and others —see (and spread out) the burden. (

Make Invisible Work Visible

The work of the mental load is invisible but there *are* ways to make it more seen. Daminger, for one, suggests working backward: Instead of just saying aloud that you cooked dinner, list out the steps that had to happen for that to occur (you had to make a grocery list, check the pantry to see what was stocked, go to the grocery store, get the table prepped, clean the dishes, the list goes on). "This can be a way to make those tasks visible," she says. Detailing all of the steps — both mental and physical — involved in a task aloud can help others understand what goes into the work you're doing and give voice to the unseen parts of it. This can help someone (i.e. a partner) realize your load more easily but it can also help you understand that you are doing a lot — and ultimately help you delegate.

When you're trying to reallocate tasks within your home? Consider not just the visible task, but all of that background work, too. Instead of suggesting a partner be responsible for "cooking dinner" suggest they be responsible for "dinners" more broadly speaking — and that entails everything that comes with the meal. "Giving ownership over an area rather than a particular task can be a helpful way to equalize," says Daminger. Divide all of your household chores or tasks that need to be completed this way, figuring out who is responsible for what.

Go Ahead and Ask for Help

Being told you're superwomxn and feel like anything but? "Being honest about the struggle is one way we can collectively move toward change," says Daminger.

"Normalize that 'good' people ask for help," suggests Ciciolla. "Having relationships and communities that share the expectation that we need to support each other will help to promote psychological wellness." After all, relationships and connection are vital to our well-being — for practical help, emotional support, and reassurance that we aren't alone, she says. (

Asking for help — even in small ways, ideally before you need it — also slowly works to change the narrative around what's doable and what's not one person at a time. It models vulnerability and the importance of seeking out support and connection for others, says Ciciolla.

When someone calls you a "superwomxn" and you feel like you're hanging on by a thread, start a conversation about it by saying something like, "To be honest, managing so many different things can be pretty overwhelming at times." Or, if you're able to, figure out the areas in your life where you could most benefit from some added support — whether it's cleaning or childcare — and be specific about asking for what you need.

Find More "Me Time" Moments

Whether it's a 20-minute yoga class or a simple walk around the neighborhood, intentionally taking time to regroup and notice your feelings can help you make more informed decisions going forward, says Ciciolla. And this, in turn, encourages you to respond rather than react. Afterward, you might be in a more balanced headspace to, say, have a productive convo with your partner or roomie about equally dividing tasks rather than inciting a blow-up because you're on your last leg.

Plus, making sure you carve out times for self-care is one way to chip away at the go-go-go mentality, reminding everyone — yourself included — that time for you is just as much (if not more!) of a priority as time for everything and everyone else. (

Ask Questions Instead of Making Assumptions

In general, this is a good policy: Trust that you, as an outside observer, can only see one small fraction of what's going on in someone's life, says Daminger. "While you might be impressed with what your friends or parent friends are doing, asking what they need is probably more helpful than just telling them that they're doing a great job."

Not sure where to start? Try simple questions such as, "how are you holding up?" and "what can I do to help?" or "are you okay?" Giving people space to share their true experiences can be healing in and of itself — and ultimately help to lighten someone's load. (

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