It’s a sunny day and I’m sitting in the living room with my eldest daughter reading her end of year school report. She’s worried about her grades because not all of them are A’s. She wants to excel in every subject. She wants to be perfect.
‘I’ll work harder,’ she promises. ‘I’ll do better.’
I want to tell her she can succeed at every single thing she sets her mind to, that she can be brilliant at everything all at once, if only she keeps working harder and pushing herself. But I stop myself, because that’s a dangerous lie I told myself for far too long.
The Allure of Superwoman
I’m a published author of many genres, a freelance marketing consultant, and a guest lecturer on various topics — including writing fiction, creative diversification, and self-branding.
Recently I began to contemplate as to why my career is so varied and why I don’t feel fulfilled unless I have too much on my plate (I don’t even stay in the same place for very long, the first six months of 2022 I was in five different countries).
The more I learned about the Superwoman archetype, the more I realised that as empowering as it sounds it can actually be very damaging to the physical and mental wellbeing of women.
Like anything in life, our definition of worth begins with our childhood. And in my case it was a childhood full of busy women.
I was brought up by a Superwoman. An inspirational and loving mother who fought against the limitations of the 60s and 70s, who wore her shoulder pads with pride in the 80s, who juggled children, a career, the home and further education in the 90s.
And she wasn’t alone. All the women in my life growing up were like that. In my family it was a competition as to who was the most exhausted, everyone vying for the top spot of the busiest woman. Productive meant successful. Busy meant best. I can’t remember ever seeing any woman sitting down.
If these women weren’t at work, they were cleaning, cooking, looking after the children, or sharing their creative skills. All while running their own businesses, teaching, studying, and volunteering on the school board of governors.
I soon learned that if you wanted something done, you did it yourself. Asking for help was weak, relaxing was lazy, and lacking ambition was the biggest crime of all.
‘Women before you fought for our rights, so don’t you dare waste the opportunity to have it all,’ my mother would tell me.
The Root of the Superwoman Myth
The phrase and concept of “having it all” was coined by Cosmopolitan editor, Helen Gurley Brown, in her 1982 book,“Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money, Even If You’re Starting With Nothing.”
At the beginning women wore the concept of having it all like armour as they smashed their way through the glass ceiling. These Superwomen were (quite rightly) striving for everything they were owed, demanding their right to do it all as a form of feminist defiance against the oppression of the patriarchy. They didn’t care that their workload had doubled overnight because work meant respect.
I wanted to be like them. I wanted everything, everything, everything all at once, so I stepped into adulthood fully prepared to put myself last so I could come first.
That was the way of the woman. It’s what made us strong, powerful, unbeatable.
Superwoman and Your Health
Yet with having it all comes the caveat of doing it all — something that the Superwomen I emulated never viewed as oppressive or exploitative, because they were told to wear that exhaustion like a prefect badge. They weren’t to know the long-term effect it would have on their health and that of every woman to come.
And how did these women feel? Were they happy, fulfilled, enjoying themselves?
They don’t know because no one ever asked them, and they never stopped long enough to ask themselves.
Being congratulated and admired for taking on more than your fair share is a very insidious type of control. Women are led to believe that the extra load should be an honour to carry, that they’re ungrateful or selfish if they complain. After all, isn’t that what they’ve been fighting for all these years?
And when they can’t cope, they take that as proof that they’re not capable enough, smart enough, strong enough to have everything they want.
They don’t want to fail, so they push on through…even if it makes them ill.
The Superwoman Archetype is a Con
No person should ever have to choose between all the things they want in life, but neither should they feel they have to singularly carry the mental and physical strain of juggling it all at once.
The danger of women defining their worth by how busy they are is that there’s always someone whose load has been lightened in return, and they’re normally the ones congratulating us.
Because when we keep busy, we don’t have the time to stop and ask ourselves why we are doing double the work. When we are tricked into thinking that exhaustion, a packed schedule, and putting everyone before ourselves makes us a better woman, we ignore our bodies and minds telling us that there is only so much one person can manage.
And how do we feel when we reach our goal? Sated? Victorious? Calm?
No. We look for more things to do, because it’s the doing that makes us feel like we matter.
When we’re busy it’s impossible to remember that our exhaustion doesn’t mean we’re getting ahead in life, it means we’re being exploited.
Women are Human. Superwoman is Not
It took me thirty-eight years to learn that vulnerability isn’t a weakness but a strength. That true joy is not in how much we do, but how much we enjoy what we do. And that in reality, the world keeps spinning perfectly well when we say no, delegate, or accept help.
There’s nothing un-feminist about saying ‘I’m taking a break, someone else can deal with all of this. It was never my job to do it all in the first place.’
My daughter is waiting for my reaction to her school grades. She needs to hear it from me that she is worthy, that she is enough.
‘I am proud of you,’ I say to her, my sweet girl who has spent her whole life watching her mother fight against the urge to keep running, even when her legs can no longer hold her up.
Her mother, the woman who finally found the courage to scratch out the ‘super’ from her gender.
‘You can have it all, and you will, but not all at once,’ I say. ‘Who you are is all that matters, not what you do. The only thing you have to strive for in life is health and happiness, so pace yourself.’
She smiles and we sit on the couch together in silence, her head on my shoulder, her hand in mine.
There is a lot my daughter will achieve in her life, and I know whatever she sets out to do she will try her very hardest, but this stillness, this quiet, this matters too.