Drop the Superwoman Act
When I was pregnant with my son six years ago, I read all the books, registered for all the gear, took a childbirth class. But not one piece of information I devoured talked about how to prepare to be a working mom.
“You just do it,” was the most advice I received, albeit from a friend who would call me crying during her commute. “It’s awful, but it gets better.” That wasn’t enough for me. Not then, and certainly not now that I have two children and have spent five years navigating my way in and out of law firms and in-house counsel positions.
I, like many of my peers, feel compelled to “do it all.” This wasn’t much of a challenge before I had children. I became a lawyer and landed a position at a prestigious national law firm. I inserted myself into a predominantly male practice group just to push the envelope a little further. I bought a house (on my own), got married and continued to get promoted. By all accounts, I had it all.
And then we added a baby to our growing family.
Once I was back at the office with a new title — working mom — my resources (time, energy and good standing) quickly wore thin. Yet I continued to pile it on: birthday parties, laundry, daily home cooked meals. I didn’t outsource a single chore. I can do it all, I told myself, I am Superwoman.
Superwoman Syndrome — generally defined as the female propensity to look inside one’s self for solutions, rather than seeking help elsewhere — is a real phenomenon, one that Betty Friedan tried to get women to say no to in 1979. Yet decades later, we are still trying and failing. A large part of this comes from the fact that society sees the question of how we do it all as an inherently private inquiry, one that must be answered for ourselves without support from either our government or our employers.
Many of us in the trenches know that this way of thinking not only puts an extraordinary burden on mothers, but it also lets many politicians, managers and fathers off the hook. Progress needs to come both from external sources, as well as letting go of the limiting belief that women need to do it all.
To prepare myself for the demands of being a working mother, I wish I had adopted one or more of the following strategies.
Pay Your Dues Early, but Make Boundaries Clear
Or put another way, learn how to say “no.” Stay late as many nights as you need to, but refuse weekend work. (Or the other way around if that’s what suits your lifestyle.) Don't forget that birthdays, anniversaries and major holidays are milestones and full of the moments that make up a whole life. Participate fully. Take time for your loved ones, friends and for yourself — just to check out and unwind. Make it consistent. In fact, put it in your calendar just like everything else important in your life. People will respect your limits if you can deliver the work product and communicate effectively.
Focus on Attitude, Not Just the Bottom Line
Superwomen-types tend to measure success outwardly — by assessing accolades, productivity or the bottom line. However, a large part of success — in other’s eyes — comes from your attitude. People prefer to work with someone they like, someone who has a positive outlook and a can-do attitude. Know that you can turn down projects if you have a conflict without being penalized. I’ve found that assignments from partners and clients continue to flow my way even after I’ve said “no” simply because working with the curmudgeon who says “yes” to every task is far less appealing.
Cultivate a Hobby
For lots of superwomen, becoming a mother is often the first time in our lives we have something else we’re more dedicated to than our work. When a baby is born, the world suddenly stops revolving around the office (at least for some period of time) and I remember feeling like I was torn in two — between being a lawyer and a mom. Both roles were all-consuming and I had no idea how to integrate all the priorities.
For this reason I wish I had practiced being truly dedicated to something else before I had children. My advice: train for marathons, learn that second language, put substantial amounts of time and effort into something that doesn't necessarily further your career. It will make you a more well-rounded and happier person as well as make the transition to parenthood smoother.
Accept "Good Enough”
Once we've become mothers with impressive careers, we're encouraged to accept store bought cookies as "good enough" so that we don't have to bake our own at 11 pm. The problem is we have no idea how to accept anything less than amazing. If I had learned as a single woman that the revisions I made to my draft documents were "good enough" without having to spend an hour crafting the "perfect" language for a single sentence, I might either have found it easier to admit that Entenmann’s products would pass the test or that I could have more time to bake cookies with my kids if I conceded. Admittedly, this takes practice — start well before you have children.
Use All Available Resources
When I first started at my big law firm, I struggled with asking my secretary how to run a comparison of two documents on our system. I felt like I should figure it out myself, even though she was there to support me. What a waste of a valuable asset — a lesson I didn’t learn until I had children.
Ditto for spouses, family members or virtual assistants. Use whatever resources you have at your disposal for any task that will lighten your load. Don’t wait until it’s an absolute necessity to rely on someone else. That will only likely lead you to feeling more like you’re failing because you’re not “living up to” who you once were at the office or home.
Ask Yourself Tough Questions
Once you have a baby, questions and doubt will livestream through your mind 24/7. Is he getting enough (insert everything here: Milk? Vitamins? Protein? Sunlight? Socialization? Sleep?) will be on the tip of your tongue at every moment. Take the opportunity, before you procreate, to explore where your own superwoman syndrome tendencies come from. Why do I feel the need to do everything myself? Who am I trying to please? What will happen if I ask for more help? The stories we tell ourselves vary from woman to woman. Start listening now.
Letting go isn't about saying "who cares?" and adopting indifference; it's about embracing what is really important in your life and letting go of the "extras" — the stress that weighs us down. While society is slowly catching up to support mothers in the workforce, we don’t have to sit idly by.
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