How often have you heard women say they are striving to “have it all?” I hear it all the time. And what does it mean? It means being a fantastic mother, great wife, partner and powerhouse in your career — all at the same time. Does that sound as absurd to you as it does to me? And to make matters worse, you’re supposed to do all that with a positive attitude, and make it look like a breeze. Here’s the problem with that: trying to be Superwoman is just plain unrealistic. Even worse, it’s harming the health of women all across the country – and the world!
I am a passionate feminist, but I believe that the feminist movement has steered us wrong in this department. Us women feel like we have to prove ourselves worthy of equality, instead of recognizing it as our right. So we push ourselves to these unrealistic lengths, trying to be all things to all people.
Many years ago, I fell into the trap myself. I wanted to be the perfect mom, the perfect support for everyone around me, and the perfect healthcare practitioner. When I opened my practice exclusively to women in 1985, we did things no one else at that time had done before. We blurred the lines between home and office.
My practice was in a comfortable Victorian home and we all brought our children to work, (babies until about 6 months of age). But because I stretched my energy and resources too thin, this began to wear on me personally. As my children grew older and couldn’t join me, I wasn’t with them as often as I would have liked. It breaks my heart to hear them tell me now that I was never home.
Here’s the part you can probably relate to. Eventually this idea that I could be the perfect everything went too far and it took a huge toll on my health.
How Being Superwoman Made Me Sick
When I got married, my biggest dream was to be a mom. I had amazing fantasies about spending days at home with my children, raising them, and being the best mom I could be. But just before I got married, my husband-to-be was having contract issues and without any notice or fair warning, he simply never went back to work. What a shock that was to a newly engaged bride-to-be dreaming of starting a family!
What did I do? I did everything that was possible to try and maintain my dream of a family while also being the breadwinner. I began building up my functional medicine practice because I knew it would have to support my family’s future. As any mom can tell you, with motherhood comes great sacrifice. Sacrifice I wouldn’t change for the world. However, because I wanted to be everything for my children – I stretched myself far too thin.
While my children were growing, not only was I building a thriving practice and putting food on the table and a roof over our heads, but I was on the board for my children’s school, I made costumes for my daughter’s competitive dance team, and attended every single lacrosse and baseball game my two sons had. I ran and ran, working myself to the bone, afraid that missing any event or telling someone I was unable to do a requested task meant I was a failure.
What happened? I didn’t have enough time to take care of myself. I’ve always made the gym and great nutrition priorities, knowing that self-care is so important. But because I was always on the go, I wasn’t eating often enough and I definitely didn’t have any time for friends. The idea of having any downtime at all was a joke. I began gaining weight and feeling the ill effects of this lifestyle. But it really hit home that I was ignoring my own advice when I got breast cancer. I firmly believe that this was my wake up call to recognize what all this pressure that I put on myself to be Superwoman was doing to my health.
The Physical Impact of Being Superwoman
You’ve seen the headlines and you’ve felt it yourself – American women are more exhausted, stressed out, and burned out than than ever been before. We consider it a badge of honor to push through the night with no sleep, bags under eyes covered up with makeup, and a cup of coffee in hand.
We are pushing ourselves physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually – but at what cost? Here are just a few of the serious health conditions that can occur as a result of so much stress:
- Autoimmune disease
- Adrenal dysfunction
- Hormone imbalance
These are all medical conditions that disproportionately affect women over men, often associated with adrenal dysfunction.
Why is it that women are more likely to get these conditions than men? There are a lot of theories out there, but I suspect it’s a combination of things rather than one single reason. That said, stress is very likely a large factor.
We already know stress is a killer. Stress has the ability to trigger biological, psychological, and behavioral changes within the body. Stress can change your gut microbiome composition, cause leaky gut syndrome, adrenal dysfunction, contribute to autoimmune disease, hormonal imbalance, and more.
Now let’s look at women’s lives. There we are, stressing ourselves out to be Superwoman and do everything. On top of that, we have little sleep and no time for meaningful friendships. All of these factors create the perfect storm for wearing down the health of any well-intentioned woman.
When I look back on the cumulation of events that led to my diagnosis, it’s clear to me where I went wrong. I did not make enough time for the things that are important to good health. Sure, I made time to go to the gym and that’s probably a lot more than many moms today are allowing themselves. BUT there are many other things in addition to diet and exercise that keep you healthy. And socializing is perhaps the most important one.
Our Brains Are Wired to Socialize
We are social animals. Our brain’s intricacy exists to navigate our complex social situations. Socializing improves cognitive health, makes you happier, less anxious, prevents dementia, is better for you than exercising, and helps you live longer.
The longest running study on happiness by Harvard University has observed people for over 80 years. The scientists of this study have concluded that relationships are the key to happiness. And that goes beyond immediate family. Camaraderie among fellow women is more than just a night out – it’s quite literally what your brain was built to do.
Our society used to be built more around community. Neighbors knew each other, grandparents were nearby, and mom’s helped each other out. Now, women are pretty isolated when it comes to support. If they’re lucky, they have the support of their partner (although there’s evidence that even when their partner shares in the household chores, women do most of the “invisible work”). If they’re even luckier, other family members may live nearby and offer support. But the broader community just isn’t there anymore. Who has time for community building when we’re running from place to place constantly? That’s why so many people present themselves as Superwoman – at great expense to their health and happiness.
Take Time for What’s Important – Friendship, Joy, and YOU!
I hear so often that it takes a major catastrophe – like my breast cancer diagnosis – for women to realize something has to give. When we are diagnosed with cancer, autoimmune disease, hypothyroidism or any number of other conditions, it’s nearly always a culmination of life events that result in your body breaking down.
I understand the desire to give everyone around you everything, but you can’t do so at the cost of your own your future and happiness. My best advice is to take time for yourself. Give yourself the care and attention you give everyone else. And I don’t mean just one “Mom’s Night Out” Making yourself is a priority that you need to attend to every single day. Reduce the impact of stress in your life by learning to say “no.” Find ways to calm and soothe your tired soul. Take the time to eat well, exercise, and get quality sleep. You deserve it! The bonus will be that when you pay attention to your own needs, you’ll have plenty left over to do the things that truly matter. Remember you need to fill your own well to have enough to give to others!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD