Overcoming Superwoman Syndrome

overcoming superwoman syndrome
Publicity photo of Lucille Ball from I Love Lucy, 1957.

I am a feminist, in that I believe that women are the equal of men and should have equal opportunity and equal respect in this world. I do not believe that women are a subclass, “weaker,” inferior, or owe obedience to anyone but themselves. And yet, we have drunk the Kool-Aid of our culture, and even the strongest women find ways to beat themselves up regularly for failing to perfectly perform tasks that even Superman himself could not handle.

In order to be taken seriously, women have to out-perform, out-think, and out-compete our male counterparts. We masculinize ourselves by wearing business suits that only give a half-nod to femininity by virtue of having some color. We suppress our emotions (business executives don’t cry), cut or plaster our hair, and overachieve. And even then, we may not be treated as equals.

At home, we beat ourselves up for failing to keep our houses clean enough, our food tasty and hot enough, and our children happy and educated enough. We are even so accustomed to suffering and abuse, in its many devious forms, that we actually compete with one another to see who can suffer the most and still be left standing.

For example:  childbirth. “Natural” childbirth has many adherents, and that isn’t a problem in itself. But in some quarters, if you didn’t feel every agonizing moment of a vaginal delivery, then you have somehow failed as a woman. When I attended 6 weeks of childbirth classes, I finally had to ask when they were going to discuss anesthesia. “Oh, we’ll talk about that in week 4.” One day out of six, in other words. And God help me if I should have a C-section. You’re not a “real woman” if you get one of those. I had two, and I was blissfully anesthetized.

I told someone recently that I am not Eve. It is not my lot in life to continue to pay for “Original Sin,” which is something I don’t even believe in. I don’t have to feel labor pains if I don’t want to. I was awake and aware of my children’s births, and the manner of their arrival makes me no less of a mother. Yet, the peer pressure in this area is enormous. And it’s not men who are doing it. Women are doing it to themselves.

When my first child was born, I attempted to breast feed. The nurses were single-minded in their attempts to help me, but it became obvious, as my child lost weight, that she wasn’t getting enough. Nothing, in fact. The formula was brought in. I felt enormous guilt for essentially starving my child for 2 days. And yet, there is a lot of (female) judgment out there about feeding formula to your baby. But I am grateful for it. It’s what my children needed, because lord knows I couldn’t give it to them.

Most women have to work in today’s economy in order to provide a decent standard of living for their family. Fortunately, the guilt of putting your children in daycare has more or less subsided, because most people just don’t have a choice. A good daycare and preschool can be beneficial, in any case, and many neighborhoods are often empty of small children during the work week, for better or worse. Gone are the days when most women had the luxury of choosing to stay home.

While the demands of work and domestic duties have been thoroughly discussed in the media, women still perform the lion’s share of domestic duties. Thankfully, many younger men have stepped up and are more involved daddies and more helpful around the house. Still, many women subconsciously feel it’s “their job” to do certain things, and we are disinclined to take even simple steps to lighten our load. For example:  housekeeping. If you work 40 or more hours per week and can afford it, why not hire a housekeeper? Very often, we don’t because we’re afraid of what our spouse or our friends will think of us. God forbid we should be considered too lazy to clean our own homes.

As a whole, women have suffered terribly in the past few thousand years, and somewhere in our psyches, we equate being able to endure suffering with being a good woman. Self-esteem, we think, is built upon having a successful career, maintaining a well-run household, and raising overachieving children, all while maintaining the figure and face of a teenager. Even Atlas couldn’t support that load. Yet, we continue to compare ourselves with other women, alternately judging and feeling guilty for not performing our womanly duties perfectly enough.

Physical, emotional, and sexual abusers prey on our capacity to endure suffering. After all, if you believe somewhere inside that you deserve it, or that your ability to endure the suffering will one day bring you validation or relief, then you will put up with a lot of abuse. Don’t.

The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.
~ Steve Biko

The oppressor is sometimes malesome men are bad news, and vice versabut most often, we simply oppress ourselves. We believe that suffering is “our job.” We believe that what’s good for us has to wait until some distance future day when the children are grown up, the husband is retired, and we have no worries. That day will never come. Such women never look after themselves. Don’t be that woman. If you cannot matter today, then you will not matter tomorrow, either.

Release yourself from self-imposed suffering. Hire a maid service, either weekly, biweekly, or monthly, if you can. Negotiate chores with your significant other. Make sure your children have a list of chores, too. They can start doing small things at 2 years, such as putting away their toys. Acknowledge that you are not Superwoman and that you do not have to do everything to have value on this earth. Delegate. Put up with some chaos. Take some personal time for yourself often. Have date nights with your partner. Be an equal member of your family, not the family pack mule. But most of all, release any beliefs you may secretly harbor about needing to suffer.

Henry Kissinger said, “A diamond is a chunk of coal that is made good under pressure.” But you never started out as coal. What need has a diamond for additional pressure? It is already priceless.

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