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Superwoman Is Dead

June 6, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

Most mothers fight a constant battle between stress and guilt.

“The Age of the Superwoman is dead,” says Samantha Parent Walravens, editor of the recently released TORN: True Stories of Kids, Career & the Conflict of Modern Motherhood. I called Ms. Walravens at her Northern California home to discuss the impetus for the book and her goals and vision. We forged an instant bond because I know first-hand exactly what she is talking about.

Many of us today have bought into the superwoman myth. We think we can do it all – careers, children, healthy marriages – and then we realize that we still need to sleep at night!

The stress occurs when you’re home with your children; the guilt when you’re not.

I find that most mothers (and many fathers as well) fight a constant battle between two warring negative emotions – stress and guilt. The stress occurs when you’re home with your children; the guilt when you’re not.

A calm state of equilibrium and contentment seems inaccessible. We’re never doing enough; we’re never actually becoming “all we can be.” Or are we? Who do we really want to be and are we perhaps using all our energy to accomplish this?

These are just some of questions and dilemmas that the mothers in Samantha’s collection of essays are wrestling with. Samantha herself graduated from Princeton and felt the same tug. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, available to her children, but there was always that voice in the background whispering (and sometimes shouting) “You should do more.”

Ms. Walravens acknowledged that she’s not sure if the voice is internal or external but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Either way, the pressures continue to mount from all sides. Families need money. Children need mothering. Marriages need attention. Mothers need intellectual stimulation and perhaps a concrete sense of accomplishment.

Everyone’s juggling or jogging in place or stuck on the treadmill – choose your metaphor.

One of Ms. Walraven’s goals is to eliminate the “shoulds” that torment many women. You “should” be at home. You “should” be using your degree. You “should” be class mother. You “should” have a high-powered career. You “should” be bringing homemade cupcakes to the PTA meeting. You “should” be climbing the corporate ladder and breaking through the glass ceiling. These voices and be destructive. They can alienate us from our true sense of self and values.

She would also like to see less competition among women (wouldn’t we all?). It seems that insecurity is the driving force here causing stay-at-home moms to be contemptuous of working mothers and vice versa. We may have “come a long way, baby” but we still have a long way to go.

But I think that the real power of the book – and what I believe the editor likes the best – is the sense of community and empathy that it can create. We won’t call it misery loves company but…

All these very different women, in very different circumstances, are confronting some aspect of this struggle, are wrestling with some aspect of this debate. We are not alone. And no one is actually superwoman. No one is doing it all.

No one is doing it all.

"I initially felt like a failure," Samantha tells me, of her discovery that she couldn’t live up to her idealized image. But this book and the conversations it has sparked are a source of comfort and a reality check. “Trying to do it all isn’t liberation,” she says. “It’s hell.”

And it’s only an illusion that someone else has everything under control. Even your neighbor across the street – you know the one I mean, with the perfectly manicured lawn, sitting out front coiffed and made-up at 7:30 a.m. drinking her homemade espresso as her perfectly behaved children line up around her for the school bus – even she isn’t superwoman. As the movie said, “Something’s Gotta Give.”

In the end we all just have to do our best. We have to stop judging each other and most of all, stop judging ourselves. We have to engage in activities that will be nourishing to us and to our families. We have to keep growing and evaluating, seeing what works and what doesn’t. We have to determine our priorities and shape our lives accordingly.

We’ll still get overwhelmed – even if Ms. Walraven’s dreams of more (paid) maternity leave, better on-site childcare and a greater societal appreciation of the value of motherhood – are realized. Yet it remains comforting and a relief to know we are not alone.

In fact, speaking of not being alone, I would add that there is certainly one important piece of advice missing from Samantha’s prescription for societal change and from most of the pieces in the book. Nothing can be accomplished without the Almighty’s help. It’s best not to wait until desperation strikes to ask for help but better late than never. Someone once told us that when she had her third child, she recognized that she and her husband were outnumbered and turned to the Almighty for help. There was really no reason not to turn to Him sooner.

We need to take all the practical steps we can to make our juggling acts easier and more realistic – appropriately tailored to our needs, abilities and goals. And we need to turn to the Almighty for the wisdom and the energy to keep going. He will do a bunch of the heavy lifting also, if we would only ask.

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