Superwoman: no thank you

Gohar Karim Khan on the dangers of chasing a mirage

Superwoman: no thank you
I won’t pretend I often coze up with the works of Carl Jung on a wintry afternoon. Or indeed ever. But these words written by him have certainly given me lots of food for thought: “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of its parents.” These words are the catalyst behind the following musings about how I, and many women, are living their lives.

I write this as I nurse my 12-week-old baby boy, with Netflix in the background and my lunch of three large chocolate chip cookies nestled in the bed next to us. More delicious than nutritious, I grant. Maternity leave comes with many perks, my favourites of which are long cuddles, several undisturbed minutes of cooing and staring at the little one, the house filled with aromas of home baking, being able to pick my older children from school, chatting with other parents outside the school gates...

I am, however, frequently nagged by the voice in my head that is eager to remind me how short-lived all this will be. I am lucky to live in a country that makes several months of maternity leave possible for women but there is still a curfew on my time as a relaxed full-time parent. I enjoy the relaxation – the relief of wearing my jeans and a baggy jumper, binge watching sitcoms, going for long walks to local cafes and browsing the internet for items I have no intention of ever owning. I am, you could say, a different person for now.

I will hasten to clarify it is certainly not a case of all games and no work. Despite my brilliantly helpful husband, I have the house to keep tidy, lunches to pack, dinner to make, homework to supervise, shopping to do and family to look after. I must get crafty about how to entertain the kids, arrange play dates, ensure they are turning out to be decent human beings who will have healthy, wholesome relationships in the future. My work as a parent is certainly cut out and I know just how many will relate to this. The sleepless nights don’t help.

The end of my maternity leave will naturally mean the return to a busy job – one that I am grateful to have as I am blessed with fulfilling work and supportive colleagues. My responsibilities as a parent will of course remain unchanged. Here is my point however: I, and millions of working mothers around the world, will suddenly need to morph into two people: the doting parent who will put a hot meal on the table each night and the slick professional who will somehow manage to make room for more work on her plate, which is already overflowing. We will stay up with a feverish child all night but ensure we are on top form for a morning presentation. We will compensate for missing sports day at school by lugging the children to the toy shop after work. And I can assure you it certainly isn’t eight hours of sleep that helps us pull off the alert, sharp, professional look at work! We avoid using our insane home lives as the reason to say no to a job. In fact, the hilarious irony is that we take on more because we have a point to prove – and a promotion to earn. Even in relationships that strive for equality, largely speaking, women are the default chore doers and care providers for children. Indeed, this is changing in many societies but in the current context this is a helpful assumption to make. In return, we get serenaded with a variety of flattering labels ranging from ‘super-woman’ to ‘crusader’ and ‘terrific multi-tasker’ to ‘real-life hero’...

And for many years, these labels kept me placated. Have you ever tried offering a pacifier to a hungry baby? I can confidently confirm that this is how successfully these accolades satisfy me now. While once the notion of being perfect at everything may have appealed to me, I no longer have any interest in aspiring to this version of perfection that leaves women badly torn between private and professional life. The concept of the work-life balance is little more than farcical when you find yourself rapid firing work emails from a ‘relaxing’ lunch or manicure ‘treat’. In fact, just the act of striving for a work-life balance can be dangerous to one’s wellbeing because it implies arriving at something perfect. I am convinced that unless women stop pandering to society’s continued demand for female perfection (this is still ‘a thing’, very much so), they will be in a perpetual state of ‘catching-up’ and ‘not-quite’.
Just the act of striving for a work-life balance can be dangerous to one’s wellbeing because it implies arriving at something perfect. I am convinced that unless women stop pandering to society’s continued demand for female perfection (this is still ‘a thing’, very much so), they will be in a perpetual state of ‘catching-up’ and ‘not-quite’.

I am an English teacher by trade with senior leadership responsibilities. The Trust within which I work enrols circa 2500 students and the nature of my work is such that I touch the lives of all these young people. I wouldn’t have it any other way and my job brings me enormous satisfaction. There isn’t much room for error in my profession, but can I afford to be a little less demanding of myself? Treat myself with a little more compassion when things go wrong? Absolutely.

We have a modest but lovely home which we try and keep well. Even when no one is expected, the house is in great shape –but when we are expecting visitors, expect not to make eye contact as we will be on our hands and knees, scrubbing with all we’ve got. The dinner spread is lavish and there’s never just one dessert. Our guests leave with takeaway boxes full of leftovers for the next day; I on the other hand will be cooking next day’s lunch. We are told we are lovely hosts, but I am perpetually exhausted. Would anyone mind, or even care, if our house looked a little tired? Unlikely.

Carl Jung

And then comes that well-known maternal guilt. Glennon Doyle writes, “Mothers have martyred themselves in their children’s names since the beginning of time. We have lived as if she who disappears the most, loves the most. We have been conditioned to prove our love by slowly ceasing to exist.What a terrible burden for children to bear—to know that they are the reason their mother stopped living. What a terrible burden for our daughters to bear—to know that if they choose to become mothers, this will be their fate, too.” Playing with the kids when all you want is a nap; taxiing them to clubs in the ridiculous hope that they might become some weird amalgamation of violinists, footballers, sopranos, chess champions and stage performers all at once. Fitting birthday parties, homework, play dates, emotional breakdowns, religious education, family sit down meals, trips to the cinema and building paper mâché pyramids all into one long, exhausting week. Would the children grudge us a few slips, resent us for a little selfishness? Perhaps. But so what?

As if being the perfect professional and the perfect parent wasn’t enough, society has for centuries plagued women with the need to look perfect too! Those last few pounds, the pair of jeans lying in the cupboard neglected and longing to slip on. Hating ourselves for cancelling another gym class, resenting the slice of cake, saying no to the biscuits at work when really our bodies are screaming out for something to sustain us while we treadmill our way through the day. Will anyone except us notice if those last few pounds just stick around? That particular little inner critic can just take a running jump!

I am not suggesting that women need to discard ambitions of being good – or excellent – or just downright phenomenal at what they love. That would go against the grain of all that I want and believe. I am just more and more convinced that we need to shed the aspiration to be perfect at all we do and hold all aspects of our life in fine balance – gasping for air behind that poised façade. To think we sometimes dread the judgement of fellow women. Can you imagine the irony of that?

I know that for me it’s time to abandon the pursuit to perfection and learn to understand how damaging being superwoman really is. And we need to teach our daughters not to pursue this poisoned chalice either. We don’t need to be perfect to be incredible.

The author received a PhD in English Literature from the University of Warwick and is an Associate Senior Leader at The Ridgeway Education Trust in Oxfordshire, England