Let's Ditch the Superwoman Complex
“You can have it all, but not all at the same time.”
In 2012, Anne Marie Slaughter came out with an article titled: “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” — and the press went wild. Hell, I went wild.
Me: "Of course, I can have it all. Who are you to tell me I can’t? Oh, and if you tell me that I can’t? Then I’ll push myself even harder."
Come to find out (hindsight is 20/20; master of the obvious; insert all relevant, punchy, and "uh, duh" quotes here): this is a seriously damaging mindset.
As Anne puts it: "All my life, I’d been on the other side of this exchange. I’d been the woman smiling the faintly superior smile while another woman told me she had decided to take some time out or pursue a less competitive career track so that she could spend more time with her family. I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."
Can you believe the pressure we (okay, and society) put on ourselves?
Not only the pressure to be super-mom, but the pressure to be super-employee, super-leader, super-colleague, and super-wife. Give me any role a woman a plays and you better believe she expects to be super at it.
It's the superwoman complex.
And when you watch someone else from afar who appears to perfectly play all of their superwoman roles? Crushing defeat. (But, remember: we're not seeing the big picture of this person's life, likely only the highlight reel.)
Why do we hold ourselves to such an unrealistic standard of success? And notice: we rarely include that we want to be “super-kind” to ourselves, or “super-good” at self-care while tending to our physical and mental health.
The conversation of whether we can "have it all" has traditionally been focused on women. And, I'm writing this from my perspective and lens as a woman and mother who has struggled to come to terms with my own limits; yet, the question is truly one for everyone.
It's involves a series of personal questions and choices. In a 2012 HBR article, Eric Sinoway suggests that: "As you progress in your career and life, more responsibilities and opportunities are tossed at you. And so at some point, to maintain your balance, you’ll have to drop something. The key is to decide consciously what to relinquish instead of unwittingly letting go of the most important item."
Another, equally as compelling article, encourages us to continue to tell girls/women that they can have it all. As the author suggests: "And now, having worked through two pregnancies, I still find it odd when strangers ask me in professional settings how I am planning to balance "it all." It's such a profoundly personal question that it doesn't seem to deserve a response. But the answer is that the women I knew as a kid did much more with far less and simply got on with it, and I use their example as my guide."
At this point in my life and career, I agree with these various perspectives; particularly when it comes to describing this domain as a uniquely personal set of decisions. However, it took me some serious soul-searching and several really downright tough years to internalize and believe the idea that I can’t have it all right now.
As a young Mom and ambitious professional diving into a career, I desired to be one of the women who could flip the script and change the narrative.
My mentality was one of “I’ll show them” versus doing what I knew/felt was right for myself and my sanity. Ultimately, this ended poorly. I burnt myself out. I wasn’t showing up at my best for anything in my life and I was stretched way too thin. You can't possibly be at your best when you're running 100 miles an hour in 12 different directions.
You know how airline attendants tell us to put our oxygen masks on first? It’s an overused analogy, but holy moly, it is spot on.
For years, I pulled all-nighters to execute on (what I thought were) my main priorities, only to crash out and struggle to be present for the people I cared about on the weekend. Sure, I accomplished many things, but at what cost? People near of the end of their lives don't say "gosh, I wish I had put in more time at work."
There are a variety of reasons why I let my priorities get out of whack (which I’m still exploring), but the take-home points I'd like to share are clear, and getting clearer as the days pass:
(1) No matter how ambitious, driven, and committed we are, I believe we truly can’t have it all at the same time. And we certainly cannot do it all either. I am, in no way, advising you to lean out or step away from your goals and ambitions. Quite the opposite. I'm saying that if you want to be successful while living a live of satisfaction, you have to be very intentional, deliberate, and strategic with where you to decide to be super.
Struggling with this? Consider doing a life map. Map out all of the important roles and domains in your life. Get as specific as possible. For example, you might have: spouse, mother, employee, manager, mentor, community activist, daughter, runner, etc. And categorize these into group. Then, ask yourself (and be realistic):
Who do I want to be in this part of my life?
How important is this role/dimension?
Is this an area I want to prioritize now?
(2) We have seasons of life for a reason — and in each season, we have to prioritize, sequence, and make decisions and sacrifices. Who should get your best and when? Choose your path and make decisions that align with. Resist outside pressure and comparison.
(3) We don’t have to be perfect and we don’t have to be SUPER-anything. But if you want to be super-something, look back at number 1 and get very intentional with your energy and time.
(4) We also can’t be everything for everyone, and we must learn to lean on others, ask for help, and admit when we’re going down a damaging path.
(5) We have to keep questioning ourselves and our actions — the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, and the solution is somewhere in the middle.
Let’s flip the narrative — women can be whatever they want, whenever they want, just not all at the same damn time.
Take care of yourself,