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Monday, September 12, 2016

The SuperWoman Myth

I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, usually called Mormons. In my church, especially in Utah where I lived until recently, the culture for women in the church is that you are expected to be superwoman. Before you start throwing rotten tomatoes and castigating me in the comments, note that I said "Culture", not "Doctrine." There is a huge gulf between the two. Doctrine comes from God by revelation. Culture is what grows up around doctrine, sometimes it is helpful and good, sometimes it is destructive. The superwoman expectation fits in the second category.

I felt this pressure for years. I was "supposed to" bake bread every day, cook healthy meals from scratch using produce I grew myself in my yard that would make a professional chef salivate, sew all my kids' clothes and bonus points if it was from old garments that I recycled, keep my house immaculate and ready for a magazine photoshoot at a moment's notice, create artwork of lasting beauty from trash to decorate my gorgeous home, and on top of all this, study the scriptures for hours a day, read to my kids, cater to my husband's needs, make things to donate to the needy, volunteer for every good cause that came my way, serve in my Church callings, and stay pleasant, cheerful, and energetic. The recommended way to accomplish all of this was to arise at 4:30 am every day and keep going until after midnight.

Yeah, not gonna happen. Not that those are bad things, just that the list is overwhelming. It was more than I could do, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I just couldn't do what I felt was required of me. I felt inadequate, unworthy, a failure, because I wasn't checking it all off my list every day.

I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 1992. I had four small kids at the time and spent most of my days curled up on the couch berating myself for being lazy. If I just got up I could do everything I was "supposed to." I was exhausted, mentally, physically, and emotionally. I was spiritually drained by trying to fit this perfect superwoman mold I'd been taught was expected of me. That ideal was the most damaging idea presented to me. In order to cope with the fibromyalgia (think of chronic fatigue with lots of muscle pain that never goes away), and take care of my baby, toddler, and two preschoolers, I had to change my ideal image of the perfect Mormon superwoman. I spent a lot of time coming up with my necessary to-do list. If I accomplished that list, I could call it a good day where I did what was needed. I finally came up with four items—two physical and two spiritual.

1. Change diapers when needed - I had two in diapers. That is not something you can ignore or wait until someone who feels better is home to take care of it. Same with my own bodily needs. Some days, it is a chore to get up and go to the bathroom. It takes energy which is in very short supply on a bad day. But it is one task that cannot be ignored or delegated when you are the only one in the house capable of doing it.

2. Feed everyone three meals a day - I never specified that those meals had to be healthy, balanced, organic, home-cooked, or anything else. There were many days that those meals were cold cereal. When I had the energy, I did my best to make them healthy and balanced, but when my energy was gone and I ached, we ate what we had that required little or no prep work. I made sure I included myself in that "everyone," too. It hit me how horribly I was treating myself when I realized one day that it was three pm and I hadn't eaten breakfast yet. No wonder I was tired and cranky and grumpy. There are times when Mom has to take care of herself first.

3. Read my scriptures - this is essential to keeping myself grounded. That scripture time was many times snatched a verse or two at a time while nursing the baby or going to the bathroom. The amount wasn't as important as my attempt to read. I was doing what I could, and it was enough. Now? I don't have the same excuse. I try to read much more at a time, as well as spend time pondering the meaning. My baby is a teenager. I have lots more uninterrupted time and all my kids can use the bathroom without help. Most of them can cook, too. It makes my life easier.

4. Pray - this was the most important thing to do, but one of the hardest for me. I had to humble myself and ask for help. And you know what? It was always there, even when I didn't recognize it. With that help, both physical and spiritual, I made it through the worst of those years and through even worse ones later. I'm in a good place now, my heart overflows with gratitude to my Heavenly Father for the blessings I have.

Those four items are still on my list. If I do only those four things, I can call the day a success. I can put on my superwoman suit. Because I've done what I needed to and that's all it takes to be superwoman.

I let go of the damaging expectations and replaced them with ones that uplift and heal and nurture not just me but those around me.

Do I still bake bread? Sure. Do I sew my kids clothes and grow a garden and all the rest? Sometimes. When it is the right time and place in my life and I need that item on my list. When those things help me be a better person. When those things fulfill a need or want for me. When I can enjoy those things.

Is God going to grade me on the superwoman list? No, He's going to grade me on how well I followed Him, how well I loved my neighbor, how well I lived up to what I covenanted to do and be. He commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. We need to be as gentle and forgiving of our own faults and weaknesses as we are of our neighbor's. And give up the superwoman ideal. It's a myth.