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Sorry, but there’s no such thing as a ‘superwoman’

“Mothers are required to grow their own veggies, raise chickens, organise their pantries with military-like precision, knit their kids’ socks… It’s the ‘cult of intensive motherhood’ that runs on guilt.”

Sorry, but there is no such thing as #superwoman.

We try to be superwoman to all the people around us, we comment with the hashtag #superwoman whenever we see an influencer doing everything and we fully lap up anything superwoman-y—T-shirts, cards and cute coffee mugs—and why shouldn’t we? I do love how feminism has sparked new life into this superhero character; what I don’t love is how we hold up women to these higher standards.

The expectations we hold for ourselves – and the ones society places on women – are fuelling our mental exhaustion in many ways. Conscious or unconscious, that’s just how it is. #Superwoman is a mythical status that is too hard to achieve. Expectations build up little by little, without you even realising. It’s a heavy burden we all carry, yet we all buy into it… even in self-isolation.

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“The cult of intensive motherhood”

It means we end up doing more than perhaps we really need to – around the house, in our work lives, in our social circles – and this can eat into the valuable time we could otherwise be using to focus on our own wellbeing.

If you have kids, then this new domesticity movement is in overdrive as mothers are required to grow their own veggies, raise chickens, organise their pantries with military-like precision, colour block their bookshelves, knit their kids’ socks and move to Byron Bay. It’s the ‘cult of intensive motherhood’ that runs on guilt.

The #superwoman tag broke me not so long ago. It made me sick. I would literally crawl into bed at the end of each day, bones aching, soul depleted, comforting myself in my soft, white cotton sheets. I would struggle to sleep as thoughts swirled around my head.

But it was my body that carried the evidence, as it so often does when you’re mentally burnt out and physically fried. For me, I broke out in head-to-toe, face included, psoriasis. My health suffered simply due to mental and physical exhaustion, but I was so busy I didn’t have time to notice until it was too late.

Want more stories like this? Here are six busy mums on how they juggle parenthood and here are the TRUE confessions of a so-called ‘supermum’.

“It’s OK to feel your own struggles”

Stress is such an individual, subjective thing, as Dr Ginni Mansberg, author of The M Word: How to thrive in menopause reminds me. She tells me stress can be a strange one to study as it’s hard to objectively measure. Some of us are genuinely stressed, whereas others are just plain busy.

Even though we know there are many displaced women and children around the world, it’s still OK to feel your own struggles. It’s not a competition. Dr Ginni warns, though, that sometimes it can be ‘a battle of the stress heroes’. Two women can report a similar level of stressful feelings, with one saying, ‘My boss is such a bitch’ and the other saying, ‘Oh, to have a job’.

The physiological outcome can vary, too. Dr Ginni sees women who are beyond stressed, not sleeping, at risk of losing their jobs, whose cortisol levels—the hormone our body releases to respond to stress—are normal. Yet, other women, who are not coping and are exhausted, with no mental bandwidth left, have had cortisol levels higher than the Himalayas. Dr Ginni worries, too, about the increase in young women suffering social media stress.

Women are more stressed than men

In all the studies I’ve come across, women consistently report higher stress levels than men and, in turn, are more prone to burnout due to their modern-life juggle. I’ll share the results of just one study. In 2016, researchers at the University of Cambridge reviewed over 1200 published studies about anxiety, and found that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from severe stress and anxiety.

Some experts have even labelled it the ‘stress gap’ – just another gap to add to our ever-growing, feminist to-eradicate list. Sure, hormones, brain chemistry, and coping strategies come into play (that is, how we tend to ruminate on that bad Bumble date versus how fast he moves on) but, overall, we feel it more. It’s true, too, that stress peaks at different times in our lives: age 35 to 44 is when women’s stress is shown to peak.

Stress is linked to a long list of physical health issues, but most importantly to our mental wellbeing – sleep deprivation is a fundamental sign that your body is in full-blown stress mode. As Dr Ginni says, ‘Sleep has an enormous impact on your resilience, every day.’

She genuinely worries that the modern-day juggle is harming our wellbeing. Social researcher whiz Dr Rebecca Huntley has seen this firsthand in her interviews: ‘I constantly see men and women struggle with these issues, and one of the consequences for women is a building up of resentment over time which can manifest itself in different ways, such as impacts on their health.’

‘Trapped’ is a word that comes up a lot when I speak to my friends, women on social media, and workmates via Zoom. There is no way out, no light at the end of the breakneck speed tunnel and if we keep going at this pace, not only will our mental health suffer but our marriages, friendships, and lives will fall apart and we’ll pass all this anxiety onto our kids.

COVID-19 or not, we are mentally falling apart, little by little.

Felicity Harley is whimn’s editor-at-large. This is an edited extract from her book, Balance & Other B.S: How to hold it together when you’re having doing it all out April 28, follow her on Instagram for more.

Grab a copy of Felicity’s book, Balance & Other B.S. Image: supplied.

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