Superwoman syndrome sucks

20 02 2016

me and boys 94

One of the things in my life I am most grateful for is that I failed in my attempt to earn a PhD. Let me explain…

In August of 1994, sixteen days after my second C-section, I left my infant son and his two year old brother to attend my first medical school lecture in the pursuit of my PhD in Physiology. I already had a Master degree in Education, two children, and veteran status. I had just turned 26 years old. My parents lived 12 hours away, but my mom stayed with me for the first week to care for my infant – he was too young for daycare. When my mom left, my mother-in-law took a week and then my grandmother came for two. My husband was overseas with the military, as he was about six months of every year. At six weeks, my baby went off to daycare with his brother. As winter arrived in North Dakota, I woke up each day in the bitter cold and dark to get them both bundled up, drove the highway from the military base (often through blowing snow) 20 miles to the daycare on the south end of town, then drove myself to the other end of town – making it in time for my 8am, five day a week, lecture class. I was also a TA, so after taking my courses in the morning, I taught in the afternoon. Then, the trek to daycare (again in the dark and cold and snow), and home to make dinner and study. Sometimes I also taught night classes. I was expected to be in the lab, all day, every weekday – then, seven days a week once I started working with lab animals who needed to be fed daily. The first year, I took spring break off and was almost kicked out of the program (no joke). I made sure to not take spring break… or any breaks… off again.

Looking back now – 22 years later – it seems insane. Yet, at the time, it seemed normal – expected. I was raised in the 70’s and 80’s – the time of empowerment – the time of the “superwoman” – the time of “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, etc etc”. To not push myself to the breaking point was unthinkable. I’m not bitter about much in my life… but I sincerely hate that Enjoli commercial now. I’m bitter that, although I had a stay at home mom myself, the media and culture of my childhood and teen years NEVER gave the message that, while women could do it all it DID NOT ALL HAVE TO BE SIMULTANEOUS!!

The years from 1994-1997 are a blur to me now. Fortunately, since our families lived so far away, we took hours of VHS recordings of our kids infant and toddler years. I watch them each Christmas season, although watching them sometimes makes me angry, realizing how much I missed. I know my kids were well cared for – they had a wonderful daycare, teachers who loved them, and wide exposure to childhood illnesses (with the resulting great immune systems). Although, there was the one time I brought my son with chicken pox with me to a seminar because there was absolutely no one to care for him and I was told “be there or else”… that didn’t go over well.

In 1997, the town experienced a massive flood – shutting down everything, including the med school, for several months. That flood was a horrible experience for tens of thousands of people. It was a God send for me. I got to spend several months home with my kids. It was spring, leading into summer, and it was glorious.

As the school started to reopen in mid-summer, I went back to assess the damage to my samples (power had been out, many things had been ruined). I was faced with several more years of work to finish the PhD. I couldn’t do it. I went in to my advisor to quit. He suggested, instead of quitting, to write up what I had as a Masters. I agreed immediately. Within a year, I had written and defended my thesis. My transcripts were adjusted and the “admitted to PhD program” was changed to “admitted to MS program” (not sure why they do that – maybe to avoid the stigma of failure?). I didn’t care. I took the MS and ran. I continued teaching night classes and finally spent two years as, primarily, a stay at home mom. It scares me to think that I might have made a different decision. I might have chosen to plow on, thereby missing my kids entire pre-school childhood. I am sincerely thankful I quit. Yes, I failed the PhD, and I’m grateful for that.

And, it was really okay. My degree was enough to get me an excellent job in pharmaceutical research. I started work there the same day my youngest started first grade. I still taught night classes, and transitioned that into online classes as the times changed. In time, we moved with the military and I went back and got my high school teaching certificate when my kids were in middle school. I taught at their high school the whole time they were there – knowing their teachers, seeing them in the halls and when they came to my room between classes (usually for money or food, but still…). I knew their friends.

Now that my kids are grown, I can look back from a distance and see that it all worked out. They are well adjusted and productive adults. I think the world has realized the ridiculous and dangerous expectations of superwoman syndrome, but – if not – I’ll be vocal about paraphrasing Nike… JUST DON’T DO IT!!!




One response

24 02 2016

We are so different, and yet we are so very much alike. Just yesterday, one of my friends was telling me that I’m the “most driven woman” she’s ever met. I just laughed, because she ain’t seen nuthin! If she wanted to see a driven woman, she should have seen me about 25 years ago! Now, THAT was driven! Fast forward to my late 30s, and, even though I had a baby, I was still working from home in my advertising business at least 60 hours per week, teaching an adult Sunday School class, leading a small group Bible study, and more. As if that were not enough, I decided to quit that (giving up a significant monthly stipend) and launch a new business which actually sucked up even more of my time (trying to make up the lost income)–taking me away from home more than ever before! While I was nowhere as busy as you were, I was as busy as I possibly could be in my own life. And, on some level, I’m grateful for the unexpected shake-up that happened in our lives ten years ago which caused us to re-evaluate EVERYTHING and re-prioritize. It sure seems that life throws us curve balls every now and then giving us the opportunity to stop and check the map: to make sure we’re on the right road and make course corrections as necessary. I thoroughly agree with your assessment of Enjoli and the message of “do it all” that was engrained into us in the 70s. As if… Great article, Michelle. Full of insight and truth.


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