In the run up to Christmas this year, I was perusing the children’s wear department of a well-known high street fashion store, when my 7 year old daughter pointed excitedly at a t-shirt with the words ‘My Mum is Wonder-Woman’ emblazoned in sequins. Now on any other given day of the week (and possible not during the week before Christmas), I might have yelled ‘Hell Yeah!’ and marched to the till, credit card in hand, but on that particular day, I don’t mind admitting that it really ground my gears.
Now let me be absolutely clear, this is not to take anything away from #shero or indeed #hero (for the fellas). I am fully in favour of publicly celebrating the contribution of all those wonderful individuals in our lives (whatever gender) who have supported us, encouraged us, nurtured us, provided us with a kick up the backside, listened to us when we’ve had a proper blubber (snot and all) and held our hair back while we’ve thrown up, but I think there needs to be a distinction made between that and the definition of a super-hero. Is it really helpful to promote the idea of women as super-heroes? I’m not entirely convinced either way, so I set out on a highly scientific piece of research (ResearchEd – if you’re listening, I’m totally free to present – anytime). I sat my two girls down, asked them what qualities I would need if I wanted to be a superhero and I audited my credentials against their criteria. Here is their top 5.
They said: “You would need to be brave.” I said: “What, all the time?” They said “Yes!” Well, I can do brave. There are times when I’ve been 10% braver, spurred on by the encouraging words of the @WomenEd community, and gone well beyond my comfort zone. I’ve organised conferences and TeachMeets. I’ve led whole school initiatives and given assemblies. I’ve done the sorts of things that the ‘pre-kids’ me would have run a mile from. Coming back from maternity leave and a spate of post-natal depression was probably one of the bravest things I’ve done – although I didn’t think of it like that at the time. Coming back from maternity leave is horrible, unless you have an enlightened leadership team who understand what it means to put yourself through the emotional wringer of leaving a creature who has been utterly dependent on your for every aspect of their being in the care of a nursery or childminder, whilst simultaneously trying to find your place back in an organisation which (selfishly) has not stood still since you left. You have to remind yourself where you fit in and relearn some of the ‘teacher behaviours’ that no longer seem second nature. Coming back from two stints of maternity leave, I quickly realised that I would have to fight that bit harder than my (dare I say it, male) colleagues if I wanted to fulfill my ambitions. So, I challenged myself… again… and again… and again. Am I brave all of the time? Hell no! Am I struck with terror at the prospect of talking to a crowd? Of course I am! Do I question my abilities as a teacher and a leader? All the bloody time! Do I walk into meetings convinced that I’ll be found out as the only one who doesn’t really deserve to be there? Been there, bought the T-Shirt! Does it stop me? No. If lack of bravery is stopping you doing something, I would encourage you to think about the words of @JillBerry: ‘What would you do if you were just 10% braver?” Then just feel the fear and do it anyway.
They said “You’ve got to be born with special powers” I said “What like?” They said “Like super-strength and doing impossible things”. Well, aside from the ability to grow another human, push it out of an impossibly small gap and lactate on demand (like much of the female sex), I don’t really think I could claim to be able to do anything particularly ‘extraordinary’ or ‘special.’ I suppose in the real world, having ‘superpowers’ might mean being able to ‘do it all’ and be ‘all things to all people’. I have tried to live up to this, but I have to say, it’s a super-power I most definitely don’t possess. I love my job and I work hard at it (through choice). I love my homelife (mostly) and I work hard at that too. Sometimes, one or the other has to take a backseat because, well, that’s life. From the outside looking in, I probably don’t have a brilliant work:life balance (although I’m not a big fan of that phrase). My work is a big part of my life and I think I’m doing pretty well at it. I want my daughters to grow up knowing that my work matters to me and that I do a job that’s important. I want them to understand why I do work hard and sometimes I do bring work home. I want to share with them that happiness and fulfillment comes from having a purpose and that, for some people, that sense of purpose needs to come from something other than being ‘mum’. I guess there is something extraordinary in the fact that my kids are clean, clothed, fed and (for the most part) happy (I think), despite the crazy, hectic lifestyle that we lead. There is nothing ‘natural’ or ‘god-given’ about it. I’m fairly sure that no-one would look at me and think I make “working mum” look easy!
They said: “You have to be indestructible.” I said “What mentally or physically?” They said “Both!” I said “Wow!” I think as teachers, we are adept at donning the armour and marching into battle. The arrows of judgement, bad manners, poor behaviour and inadvertent insults, bounce off us as we command our classrooms and patrol the corridors, but as the term wears on and the weeks tick by, the rust starts to set in and the chinks appear. Before we know it, we’re losing the plot over the most minor of indiscretions and even year 9 boys are giving us the ‘u ok hun?’ look. Now, I think I’m pretty good at slapping on my ‘game face’ and pretending to have my shit together, but I have had times where I have felt distinctly destructible. I have been there, bought that t-shirt and I don’t mind admitting that I have taken those pills. It’s at home where I struggle the most. I use up a lot of my emotional tokens on my work, which often leaves me little in the way of patience and energy at home. My family understand, I think. I tell my girls that ‘mum is on battery saving mode’, which means I need to have some quiet time and recharge. I want them to know that I love them, but being a parent is tiring and that to stay well, we all need a rest from each other and that’s okay. I don’t think I’d be doing my girls any favours by raising them to think that mums are indestructible. What an unhealthy expectation to live up to!
They said, “You have to have an alter-ego.” I said, “Good word!” They rolled their eyes. I said “What like Bruce Wayne and Batman, or Clark Kent and Superman?” They said “Who?!” I said “Never mind”. I thought to myself, ‘fat bloody chance’. I am who I am. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to try to be someone I’m not. I believe in being authentic. I bring my whole self to work and I take my whole self home (Hokey Cokey style – if you will). I think I’m professional, but I am also honest. I am true to my values, whilst promoting the vision and values of the school in which I work. I don’t mind admitting my weaknesses and I have come to understand that there is power in vulnerability – although I still need to work on this. Perhaps, at times, this has been to my detriment. There are leaders who might view this kind of thing as ‘over-emotional’ and ‘weakness’ but the problem there would lie with the culture of the establishment, not the individual. So, I’ll commit here and now to challenge the culture before I’ll pretend to be anything that I am not.
They said “You have to always know what to do!” I said “How?” They said “You just do!” I said “What, like instinct? Without thinking?” They said “Yeah!” Well, thank the lord we don’t have to. We don’t, right? Am I wrong, or are we all just ‘winging it’ for at least some of the time? At work, I do the best that I can with the knowledge, expertise and resources at my disposal, but in the words of Mary Myatt, I am a ‘human first and a professional second.’ I get frustrated when I make mistakes and get things wrong, but last time I checked, nobody died as a result of a few typos or a less than perfect lesson. As for raising two girls, I don’t have a damn clue what I am doing! It is very much trial and error, with a side order of misjudgments and a sprinkling of meltdowns (theirs and mine). Sixteen years in and I am still learning to be a teacher. Ten years in and I am still learning how to be a parent. My girls are learning how to be women in the 21st century and I won’t have them growing up believing that they have to fit any socially or media prescribed roles. I don’t know everything, but I do know that you can’t go wrong with the mantra of ‘just be good people’.
So, while I’ll wear my Wonder Woman’ pjamas and I’ll carry my (slightly battered with the face worn off) lego keyring, Wonder Woman I am certainly not, and that’s okay.
I had a similar conversation with my partner. I said “What do you need to be Wonder Woman?” He said “Tight shorts, big boobs and lots of money.” I said…
…well, I’ll let you guess what I said.
Post script (another one).
Since completing this post, I came across this video, created by Marvel. This is perhaps another way of looking at the attributes of a super-hero. I quite like it, but the jury is still out. Watch it – maybe tell me what you think.
Post script (last one).
I have just heard about the passing of Bella Emberg. What a legend!