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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Superwoman complex

It’s time to make sure that a new generation of women doesn’t fall prey to it

Having it all. It has become such a cliché, hasn’t it? Growing up, that was the phrase that was thrown at us all the time by our female teachers and mentors. They may not have had it all, held back as they were by the constraints of a highly patriarchal, traditional society. But my generation could change all that. We could grow up to fully rounded lives, with flourishing careers, well brought up kids, happy families, and perfect homes.

Oh yes, we could achieve all this – and more. We just needed to fix our sights on our life goals, keep a razor-sharp focus, be prepared to work harder that we had ever thought possible and we would be rewarded by the Golden Grail called ‘Having it all.”

Since we didn’t know any better, we fell for that spiel. So, we played by all the rules. We worked hard. We aimed high. We did our best at the workplace. We tried to run model homes. We dutifully helicoptered around our kids. We stayed in shape. We went on ‘date nights’ with our spouses. We looked after elderly parents and grandparents.

And we tried – oh God, how we tried! – to tell ourselves that we did ‘have it all’.

It was only after our bodies began wilting under the combined pressures of sleepless nights, early mornings, long days at work, punishing fitness regimes, endless hours at the stove, and the relentless demands of childcare that we realized that we had, in fact, been conned.

We didn’t really ‘have it all’. What we had was the dubious privilege of ‘doing it all’.

But even after that realization dawned, were we willing to give up on the ‘having it all’ dream?

Not a chance. The conditioning of a lifetime is hard to overcome. So, we pushed through the bone-breaking exhaustion. We struggled to overcome our guilt about not paying enough attention to our jobs/children/spouses. We doubled down on trying to create a ‘work-life balance’. And, in the process, we created the cult of the Superwoman.

I am sure you’ve heard of this mythic creature. She excels at everything she puts her mind to. She is the quintessential Career Woman. She is the archetypal Earth Mother. She is the sexy smoldering girlfriend. She is the devoted wife (who can also do sexy and smoldering on demand). She is the perfect daughter/daughter-in-law. She runs an impeccable home. She can run in stilettoes. And she can do all this while looking like a million bucks (which, of course, she has earned herself).

We may have come a long way from when legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown popularised the phrase ‘having it all” in 1982 with her bestselling book, Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money…Even If You Are Starting With Nothing. But the phrase still exerts an insidious hold on our minds. And it is exacting an unacceptable toll on both our bodies and our minds.

I was reminded of this yet again last week when I met an old friend for coffee. No, she couldn’t take time off for lunch, even though we had so much to talk about. She could only manage a hurried coffee before she disappeared right back into the swirling vortex that was her life.

Sample this: a typical day in her life. She wakes up at 5.30 to fix breakfast for the family and send the kids off to school with their tiffin. There’s barely enough time for a quick shower before she sets off for work. She works in a large corporation where eyebrows are raised if you come even 5 minutes late – but you are treated as a laggard if you clock out at 6. She gets back home around 8 pm, dead tired, with barely enough energy to eat dinner, let alone make it. And she does this six days a week.

In this, she is far from atypical. Most women of her generation are doing the same insane juggling act, with more balls in the air than they can possibly keep in play. And the saddest part of this scenario is that they believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – that this is the only way to get the most out of life.

Well, if you ask me, we have allowed ourselves to run ragged (in high heels, natch) for far too long. And we have paid the price for it in flagging energy levels, constant guilt, and the feeling that somehow we are still failing.

But while it is too late to save us, it may be time to cut the next generation of women a little slack. Yes, yes, I know that they’re supposed to Lean In and all that (thanks Sheryl Sandberg!). But sometimes it makes sense to lie back as well, and take stock of your life.

Perhaps it is only when we grant ourselves a little down time that we get to understand that there is only one way in which you can really ‘have it all’ – by not having it all at the same time.

So, let’s not burden our daughters with the weight of expectations that we carried on our shoulders. Allow them to make their own rules. Let them choose between family and career if they want to. Give them time off after babies to enjoy motherhood; but provide them enough opportunities to get back on the career track after a break. Encourage them to choose husbands who support them at home and work. And don’t let them feel guilty for putting themselves first on occasion.

Let’s change the meaning of ‘having it all’ for their generation. And let’s quietly kill off Superwoman while we’re at it.


madhumita sengupta said...

I absolutely loved reading this article today morning ... while seeping tea and trying to fit into the day's time all that I needed to do..from washing, cleaning, cooking lunch, meeting a friend for tea and going for durga puja shopping. I felt that the article couldn't have been more true..

Anonymous said...

It's a poorly rated film, but 'I don't know how she does it all' takes a look at a working mother and her lists. Sarah Jessica Parker may look too good at times, but thought it raised some pertinent points. Thanks for the piece, women should be conditioned now to be able to choose without feeling bad - whether on marriage, or work or taking time off.

Shambhavi Tewari said...

I love your articles in brunch.. This is one of the best by you Seema ! Every line made me re-think about the choices I have made in my life because of the pressure to become a superwoma. NOW I'm surely going to make some changes in my "do it all" schedule after reading this . THANKS A LOT