Last week a friend and I were debating the merits of Katrina Alcorn’s memoir, Maxed Out Moms. My friend just couldn’t get past all the choices Alcorn had and yet she still didn’t do much to improve her situation. Being in a similar position, I countered that her “choices” don’t feel much like choices when you’re sitting in her seat. She just couldn’t understand why Alcorn felt she had to take so much on herself. Some decisions — like taking her nursing infant to a conference across the country — came off ridiculous. Why would she do that to herself? she asked. I understood my friend’s point, yet I also understood Alcorn’s motivation so deeply even if I was unable to articulate it at the time. “Superwoman Syndrome.”
The much-decried “Superwoman Syndrome,” which the journalist Ellen Goodman long ago described as women’s unfortunate tendency “to look inside themselves for all the answers and all the energy,” should have died an ignominious death decades ago. Instead, it has lived on to become a much larger form of social pathology: our collective insistence that work-family issues are private concerns that individuals can, and must, work out on their own.
I know a lot of readers see me as a whining middle class woman, who may or may not “have” to work, and who spends a lot of her daily word count complaining about corporate American culture. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But the research of Maureen Perry-Jenkins, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that this problem extends far beyond the first-generation-college-educated lawyer-types with something to prove (like me).
Perry-Jenkins spent 10 years following hundreds of working-class and poor mothers in New England. When Perry-Jenkins sat down with these women, offering them a safe and secure place to go to town on all the things about their bosses, their jobs or the state they live in, these women didn’t utter a word in that direction. Instead, they took it all on themselves. “Their first response was to suggest things that they could do to make things better, like sleep less or be more organized,” Perry-Jenkins remarked.
As Judith Warner astutely concluded, this way of thinking keeps us all stuck.
This way of thinking has, very conveniently, let employers off the hook—freeing them from the need to devise policies that allow parents at all income levels to thrive. It has let politicians off the hook—allowing them to transfer the entire burden of care (not just for the young, but for the sick and the elderly) onto the backs of struggling families. It has let most men off the hook from having to share the full emotional and physical weight of a dual working and parenting life. And, in a certain sense, it has let women off the hook as well, allowing them to stay faithful to self-limiting old patterns of thinking, instead of taking the risk of imagining, demanding – and creating – something new.
This is part of why I stay at my stuffy law firm job. I admit that my firm is generally very family friendly as far as American culture goes, but there is so much more work to do. I’m still trying to change things from the inside, though I have no idea if what I’m putting out there will make any difference. But by Superwoman, I’m trying. I’m thinking, I’m talking, I’m trying.