On being Superwoman

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I’ve been fortunate to have mostly fabulous mentors ever since my undergrad research days. These have been almost evenly split between men and women; senior and junior level researchers; academics without children, and researchers with kids ranging in age from infants to college students. However, despite this, I rarely had any discussions with them about how they actually *do* it, as far as keeping it together, maintaining funding, and keeping some semblance of a life outside of work. But once upon a time, I did receive a book.

At the time, I was a bit more naïve than I am now. I guess the reason I’d not discussed any of these career/life issues much with any of my mentors was because I hadn’t considered the reality of how difficult my career trajectory would be; I didn’t know yet just how clueless I was about the kind of life I was choosing. The book was a collection of essays—dated at the time I received it, but still pertinent. They discussed the reality of being a woman in a scientific career, mostly with a very positive spin and “you can do it!” attitude. Most of the researchers were women whose names I didn’t recognize.

Until I got to the essay by Lynn Margulis.

I’d read her book "Acquiring Genomes" and knew the basics about her—she had been married to Carl Sagan, endosymbiosis, etc. So I thought, “fabulous, here’s how to do it.”

Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to drown my sorrows in a stiff drink.

I’m a pretty blunt person. I prefer honesty to euphemisms, and the truth to white  lies. As such, I’m still conflicted about Margulis’ essay all these years later, especially since now I'm a divorced single mom living in sin with a new partner and trying to make it all work.

In the essay, Margulis discusses her roles as a mother and wife, and how they’ve conflicted with her scientific career. She relates this to the movie “The Red Shoes”, where a prima ballerina feels forced to choose between her life as a dancer and the man she loves. Margulis opined:

At age 15 I was certain that the ballerina died because of a silly antiquated convention that insisted that it is impossible for any woman to maintain both family and career. I am equally sure now that the people of her generation who insisted on either marriage or career were correct, just as those of our generation who perpetuate the myth of the superwoman who simultaneously can do it all--husband, children, and professional career--are wrong.

She goes on to discuss how the idea of being a "superwoman" leads to "thwarted expectations, the helpless-hopeless syndrome, failed dreams, and frustrated ambitions. A lie about what one woman can accomplish leads to her, and her mate's, bitter disappointment and to lack of self-esteem."

I disagree with her blanket statement that no one can "do it all"—plenty of scientists can and do combine success in their career with very happy home lives, raising well-adjusted children within supportive partnerships. Are they the exceptions that prove the rule? I think of myself as an optimist, and most of the time I like to think that Margulis is just overly pessimistic, and extrapolating too far from her own experiences with failed marriages. Indeed, she attributes her own scientific success to twice quitting "her job as a wife." But there are definitely days when I feel like I can’t handle it, and that despite knowing intellectually that it’s impossible to be a SuperEverything all the time and something’s gotta give…and I wonder sometimes, amongst the stress couched in chocolate wrappers and stacks of papers, if she wasn’t on to something.

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  • proflikesubstance says:

    "you can't do it all" in the sense that no one can do everything to the level that they are most happy with all the time. However, finding the (constantly in flux) balance where some things get done well and some get done well enough to keep shit from falling apart is the key. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula because the only constant is change. I think those who try and force a rigid structure of 'duties' in their live are those that have the hardest times. There will be times when your kids give you tremendous guilt for not being there, just as there will be times when your colleagues, students or dean will do the same. If you accept that instead of killing yourself over it, things are a bit easier.

  • Perdita says:

    Not everyone can do everything: sometimes it is necessary to make a choice. Some of the wisest (and happiest) people I know are the ones who have faced that reality and chosen, rather than being pushed by society into buying the 'having it all' concept.

  • scicurious says:

    Well...how depressing is that.

    I'd like to think she's wrong, but our generation has very much been raised with the "we can do it all!" attitude.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    We were also raised with Margulis’ "flagella are derived from spirochaetes" hypothesis, and that didn't work out so well.

  • Stacey says:

    I agree with prof - I juggle two part-time jobs (medical writer by day, freelance editor by night), 3 kids, and a 9-year marriage - I don't do any one thing as well as I'd wish, and there are days that one thing will suffer while I excel at another. People ask me how I do it and I just say, "Without any grace whatsoever."

  • Jill says:

    I think that where the "you can do it all!" thing falls down is that it doesn't acknowledge the compromises that inevitably have to be made when one is dealing with the big picture of how to accommodate everyone in a family. You can have your dream job...but perhaps the location and hours mean that your partner can't, or vice versa. Or commute time means that your kids are in day- or after-school care longer than you'd like. Or you shift your workday so that you're done in time to take the kids to soccer or piano in the afternoon, but that means you don't see them in the morning. Or a new job would move you away from family and the community and support they provide. Or or or...

    "You can do it all!" sounds like all the pieces will just magically work out, that difficult decisions about whose needs to prioritize and when and how won't have to be made.

  • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


  • Karen says:

    I guess it depends on what you mean by "it all." Not entirely of our choosing, my husband is staying home with our child; it means that property ownership is solidly out of reach now, but on the other hand, it's a lot easier to leave my kid with her daddy than to either pay someone else to kiss her boo-boos or to stay home myself and role-play kids' books for 10 hours straight. Your cup might only be half full, but look at it this way: that makes it easier to lift.

  • Janne says:

    Even if we can do it all, are we sure that'd be the most satisfying choice? Me and my wife could have had children, but we both - separately, before we even met - came to the conclusion that we're happier without. Having children would mean a lot of compromises on other aspects of our lives.

    Similarly, for my career to progress (it needs all the help it can get) I would have needed to relocate not just once, as I did before I met my wife, but at least a couple more times since. And we could have: we could have moved house, perhaps to yet another country; she could work long distance; we'd have to leave friendships and hobbies behind. We could have made it work. We have friends who have moved to a different country six times the past decade to further their science careers, and we've seen what it entails. Relocating would have been a huge, multi-year compromise where nothing in our lives was really going as well as it could.

    We decided, again, that the compromise was not worth it. Better to live the most important part of our life - our actual time together - to the full, and let other parts of our lives adapt. So my career, limited as it is to the area we live, is sputtering rather than roaring ahead. I would not be surprised if I end up leaving research altogether at some future point. The train to steady employment has pretty much left the station already, and I can only win the temporary grant lottery so many times before I fail and have to find something else. Which, again, is fine; it's a conscious choice and we're both happier sticking to it.

  • becca says:

    I think she's wrong and she's right.

    Husband, children and superb science can coexist. But a LOT of stars have to align. Husband, children and you being healthy. Superb mentoring in the science. Social support systems that work well.

    It's not good to *expect* you will be so lucky, or to look at a few things you have been lucky with and conclude that if things still aren't working *you* must be doing something wrong. But if anyone figures out the trick of modest expectations without self-defeating pessimism and freedom from self-blame without freedom from responsibility, let me know.

    And I'm willing to bet that the majority of men would not make husbands where it could work. Being a wife shouldn't be another job. It should be a reflection of a relationship that is part of that functional social support.

  • Katherine says:

    A problem I frequently have with these discussions is that everyone has a different definition of "being able to do it all". Some people take it to mean "having a job and a family" (everyone should be able to do this much!) and others take it to mean "having a really time-consuming career and being the primary parent of your kids" (not so easy). It's become a really unhelpful phrase - conservative types use it to disguise their "women should get back in the kitchen" feelings as something more moderate, and then the liberal blogosphere explodes from a misunderstanding as to which definition someone is using.

    I assumed the wrong definition initially, good thing I re-read the post.

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  • Of course back when Margulis (born 1938, PhD 1963) was making her choices, the idea that one's husband might carry ANY of the household and childcare load was pretty much unthinkable. A really generous and supportive man might permit (sic) his wife to have a job. He might even help her to dry the dishes after dinner sometimes, if he didn't mind being caricatured as hen-pecked. We have actually come a long way, baby. Not far enough, sure, but umm, go watch Mad Men or read a history book or something.

  • Hope says:

    What I hate most about the you-can-have-it-all zealots is that while it’s OK to admit that your house is not so tidy or that you finished your talk/presentation/paper at the eleventh hour, you must never, NEVER say that you think the quality of your science has suffered, or that your relationship with your SO/husband/kids has taken a hit. Because even if you make it perfectly clear that you are only relating your personal experience and not generalizing about all women, you will find no shortage of people – mostly women – popping up to tell you that you are wrong about your own life, that your science or relationships have not suffered, that you are setting feminism back and scaring young women away from science, etc. As if the young women seriously contemplating these issues were delicate flowers who have to be “protected” from a diversity of opinions.

  • Peggy says:

    Of course back when Margulis (born 1938, PhD 1963) was making her choices, the idea that one’s husband might carry ANY of the household and childcare load was pretty much unthinkable.

    While it's better now than it was 40 years ago, I've talked to a number of people who still assume that relationship maintenance, childcare and housework somehow come "naturally" to women. Even highly educated career-driven women feel this way - that making their career their top priority or asking their male partner to make compromises in his career to help hers is selfish or even unwomanly. Of course I'm in my 40s and like other members of my generation I'm a product of my time.

    I hope it's better for current 20-somethings.