Getting Over the Superwoman Syndrome
“I do think women can have it all, but not all at the same time” – Madeleine Albright
“My goodness, it’s nice to have someone so involved. You’re a regular Supermom.”
I remember hearing those words coming from my son’s preschool teacher. I also remember how, for the briefest of moments, my chest puffed with pride, and my head started to swell with thoughts of my own grandeur. Yep, I told myself. Single mom and I still manage to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
My oldest child was four years old and attending Head Start. I volunteered upward of twenty hours a week. I chaired the parent group. I served on the policy council for the entire region. I put together the monthly newsletter.
My son’s teacher thought I was the poo.
When I came back to earth, the guilt started to sneak in. What would she say if she knew the truth?
- My head was a constant snarl of indecision and anxiety.
- My kitchen sink overflowed with dishes.
- There was a pile of laundry the size of Kilimanjaro on my bedroom floor.
- I yelled at my kids too much.
- I had a terribly contentious relationship with my ex.
- Sometimes I fed my kids frozen chicken nuggets for dinner. And boxed macaroni and cheese.
That was eighteen years ago. Since then, I’ve volunteered a lot and I know it’s hard to get parents involved at school. I understand the value of a parent who gives their time to their child’s school and parent organizations.
But Supermom? That implied I had my shit together. The truth was somewhat different, but I wanted to be that woman. More than anything.
There’s a certain expectation these days that all moms MUST BE _______. Fill in the blank. You must do certain things, talk to your kids a certain way, spend quality not quantity time with them, feed them organic-non-GMO-whole-foods-from-local-growers, buy them this toy to encourage their imagination but not that one because it encourages stereotypes, get them into sports and music and community service, and on and on and on.
Like I said, I wanted to be that woman. I wanted to do all and be all for my kids. Other women did it, why couldn’t I?
I never stopped to consider the possibility that I was setting myself up for failure, that even the best moms have their kryptonite. I never stopped to think that the concept of the Supermom was pure fiction.
I wish I had, because it would have saved me a lot of guilt and shame, and maybe, just maybe, I would have been a better mother for it.
I think I’ve gleaned a little wisdom since then. I know that we, women and mothers, have one of the hardest jobs in the world. Not just because we’re raising the future of our world, but because we are so hard on ourselves.
We’ve bought into all the stereotypes and all the expectations. We think we need to be June Cleaver, Oprah Winfrey, and Angelina Jolie all rolled into one.
When did the bar get set so impossibly high?
I mean, really. June Cleaver might have kept a spotless house, but she didn’t have a job, did she? Not to mention, she was a TV character. From the 50’s. And she wore friggin’ heels while vacuuming.
Oprah? She has no kids, and we won’t mention her yo-yo dieting.
And Angelina Jolie? Okay, maybe she’s a bad example.
My point is none of these women are the be all and end all of womanhood. Neither am I.
I do, however, have a little perspective now that my kids are grown. I wish I could go back and tell that thinner, younger, scared-shitless version of myself a few things.
- Screw the dishes. If, when you die, what people remember the most about you is you were a really good housekeeper, you’ll have failed at life.
- Ask for help when you need it. Insist upon it. Too much pride will hurt you.
- You always told yourself your kids need a parent, not a friend. This is totally true, but it’s okay to be their friend a little bit.
- Worry less about finding a boyfriend and more about finding yourself. You’re really going to like her someday. She’ll be your best friend.
- Pursue your dreams. Actively. Doing anything else just wastes a lot of time, and even if you fail, at least you can say you tried. It beats the alternative.
- Stop comparing yourself to the Joneses. There will always be someone better, richer, hotter, smarter. You happen to be wicked cool, so it’s okay to like who you are.
- Be kinder to yourself. Those impossibly high standards you set for yourself are really going to kick your ass if you don’t learn to set reasonable goals.
- Forgive yourself. When you fail to reach those impossibly high standards, you’re going to beat the hell out of yourself. Let it go.
- It’s okay to feed the kids chicken nuggets, no matter what your mom says.
- I know it sounds cliché, but enjoy your kids while they’re young. One day you’re going to put them to bed as three and five year-olds and they’ll wake up as twenty and twenty-two year-olds. You’re going to cry when that happens. A lot.
- No matter what you do, your kids will have their own shit to deal with. This one is important, so let me repeat it: NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, YOUR KIDS WILL HAVE THEIR OWN SHIT TO DEAL WITH.
The bottom line is this: Supermom doesn’t exist. She’s as much fiction as June Cleaver. No matter what you do, you’ll never live up to that impossibly high standard. Instead, we should focus on what we’re good at, the ways we totally rock this parenting gig.
I can think of a few for myself:
- Every night before my kids went to bed, they had to read for half an hour. Comic books, fantasy, classics, whatever. It didn’t matter as long as there were words on the pages. They’re both avid readers now. Sure, it’s a lot of Manga, but who cares as long as they’re reading?
- When they would ask me what a word meant, I’d tell them to get the dictionary and look it up. Sure, they whined about it at the time, but now they are articulate young men who know how to find the information they need.
- I let their friends come over. A lot. Sometimes it seemed like I had five kids instead of two, but I figured if they were hanging out at my house, they weren’t hanging out somewhere else doing God knows what.
- We talked. A lot. About almost anything.
- I spoiled them. But not too much. They always knew how lucky they were.
- When they went outside to play, I’d caution them to not play with sticks, lest they poke someone’s eye out. Of course the first thing they did when they got outside was play with sticks. I knew what they were doing and kept my mouth shut.
- I taught them how to do their own laundry when they were ten.
- I went to every play, every concert, every game they were ever in, and I volunteered for all the parent groups. I didn’t always like it. Sometimes I actually hated it, but I knew it was important for them to see me involved in my community.
- I let them see me as a complicated, flawed human being.
I’m proud of the young men I raised. They are interesting, intelligent, independent. They don’t always make the choices I want them to make, but they are following their own path. They know they can come to me if they need help, or advice. They know I love them to the ends of the earth and back again.
She’s got nothing on me.