Melissa Terras - On not being Superwoman

Posted 5th October 2012 by Melissa Terras

Melissa Terras

A year since returning from maternity leave to her full time academic role, Melissa Terras finds herself frustrated that people keep calling her Superwoman. Here she explains how she balances having three pre-school aged children and academia. 

I'm not superwoman... I have a supportive partner. The most important piece of advice for anyone contemplating having a career and a family is choose the right person to do it with. The raising of a family and the management of the household should not just be the responsibility of the mother. Feminism begins at home, folks: share chores and childcare equally.

I'm not superwoman... I can afford childcare.
The cost of childcare in the UK is just horrific. I'm incredibly lucky that we can afford for both of us to go to work. This is not "will my salary cover childcare?"- why is it always the women's salary that has to cover childcare? I'm incredibly lucky that we didn't have to make that choice: if you give up your academic job, the competition is such that you aren’t getting one back again.

I'm not superwoman... I have flexible working hours. Long academic working hours are legendary. But so are their flexibility. I regularly work in the evenings so I can spend more time with the boys through the week. I never work weekends, though, unless I am at a conference. Weekends are family time.

I'm not superwoman... I don't work in a lab based discipline.
One or two days a week I work from home from my shed at the bottom of the garden which means I keep on top of email and working documents, plus can power through the laundry backlog in breaks. All academic jobs are not created equal, but the ones which are flexible... man, are they flexible.

I'm not superwoman... I can afford help around the home.
Despite our best efforts (and lets face it, it was never my ambition to be a dream house wife) we have a cleaner come in for two hours a week. I don’t understand guilt about paying for extra help (as long as you pay decent rates, pay for holidays, and dont treat your cleaner like.... dirt).

I'm not superwoman... I take as many shortcuts as possible. I havent ironed anything since 2003. No-one has noticed yet (have you?) Make as many short cuts around housework and your home as you can.

I'm not superwoman... I use all the technology I can to make this easy. The postman hates us with all the parcels off eBay; we use lots of shared calendars online to plan everything; I tweet, shop, and email when I'm waiting on trains. When I'm away with work I speak to the boys on video chat as often as I can. Make technology your friend.

I'm not superwoman... I don't have a dead commute. It takes just over an hour to get door to door from home to work. Nursery is on the way between our house and the station for drop off and pick up: dont forget the importance of location! Time on the station platform is generally spent on twitter: the time spent on the train I get on with some work.

I'm not superwoman... I travel a lot with work.
This may sound like an oxymoron, given I've done lots of work travel over the past year with at least two trips a month away. I try to go away for two nights maximum, and during that time I get a couple of good nights sleep and tend to work like a daemon. Room service, and work til midnight.

I'm not superwoman... I have supportive family and friends. My mother-in-law now lives locally. Having family (and helpful friends) nearby makes caring for children, and dealing with the chaos that that often brings, much much easier.

I'm not superwoman... I just work incredibly hard.
I do work long hours, but when I am working I am WORKING, and when I am with the boys I am with the boys. If anything, motherhood has made me much more focused, and I take my career much more seriously: no I'm not going to meet you for a coffee during the working day to talk about shoes.

I'm not superwoman... I just don't suffer from motherhood guilt. I am not one of those people who bursts into tears as they leave their children at nursery. I have faith in the care my boys get, and I feel I see the boys a lot.

I'm not superwoman... I just have a very supportive employer.  Again, I'm incredibly lucky to have an employer who both values my contribution and supports the fact that humans might actually breed and want to continue working.

So there you have it. A confluence of luck, good choices, hard work, and support have meant that its not terribly stressful for me to be an academic working mother.  I don't like being called superwoman. There are lots of us around, all doing our best: it can be done without fanfare. It would be much, much harder work to stay at home looking after 3 small boys day in, day out. I've done it. Believe me.

I haven't mentioned "work-life balance". I don't believe in it. There are only 24 hours in a day, and its all my life. My work is my life and my home is my life and my family is my life. Life is full, round, packed, joyous, tiring, exhilarating, exhausting, fast, fun, and being lived. I love my family. I love my job. And this is how I do it.

Melissa Terras is Co-Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and a Reader in Information Studies at UCL. This is an edited version of a much longer post that appears on Melissa Terras’ blog.


Karen Holford - PVC Cardiff University:

5th October 2012

Have to say - what a wonderful refreshing article - I agree!!


5th October 2012

I wish employers will have the right level of faith in their female staff to get on with things and get them done on schedule. There is too much pressure on being "seen" at work. Hopefully this will change! All the best Melissa.

working mum:

6th October 2012

Melissa - you are lucky your employer is understanding. I work in consultancy and have recently returned from maternity leave. I've arrived back to find many of my previous duties taken over by male colleagues and have just had a much lesser qualified and experienced male colleague promoted over me. And all this done by my female boss who is also a mother. So its nice to see that there are some employers out there who value their female employees and realise that people do actually have lives as well as work.

Melissa Terras:

11th October 2012

Thanks all, for your comments. I'm incredibly luck with my workplace, and my home situation. @workingmum, I'm sorry to hear this - have heard horror stories from my friends like this - and I hope that things get better for you soon.

Jessica Chivers:

5th December 2012

Melissa, this is terrific stuff simply and honestly put. Thank you for sharing your story and being frank about how it is for you. It tallies with the stories I gathered in writing Mothers Work! How to Get a Grip on Guilt and Make a Smooth Return to Work (Hay House, 2011). I'd love to talk to you about your experiences if you have some time - my contacts are on

Lavigne zhm:

31st March 2013


Greet Brosens:

9th May 2013

Melissa, these comments are so refreshing. There appears to be so much pressure on mothers to be perfect , and as a full time working mother myself, I agree that the key is in accepting imperfection. I have a good carer for my son, I don't interfere with her choices of activities, meals... and can therefore really enjoy the time I do spend with my son, rather than stressing about all the things that aren't perfect. My house is reasonably tidy but never spotless, I can't remember the last time I ironed, and yes we have some help in the house as well.
I work with women engineers, coaching them and helping them with the challenges in the workplace. I often get asked about combining work and family and many young women simply believe it is not possible, which is such a shame. I would love to share your blog with them, I hope you agree.


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