When my daughter was a baby I used to joke that she’d sleep with her eyes open if it were humanly possible, so unwilling was she to miss even a moment of action.
I would walk her and rock her, walk her and sing, walk her and whisper, and she would fight with every cell in her body to stay awake — keeping one eye open after the first eye surrendered to exhaustion, like some kind of baby Popeye.
She’s 12 now, and her early reticence was a sign of things to come. Sleep is nothing more than an impediment to world domination. She packs her days down to the minute — morning debate club followed by school followed by cheer practice followed by trampoline practice followed by prep for the upcoming math competition in Springfield followed by homework followed, reluctantly, by sleep. Wake, rinse, repeat.
I’m proud and worried.
Proud because she’s bright and engaged and fearless and determined to be great.
Worried because I fear that some voice — in her head, in the world — tells her that she’s not good enough unless she’s good at everything.
A 2015 survey commissioned by the University of California at Los Angeles, which included responses from 150,000 full-time students at more than 200 colleges and universities, found the highest levels of unhappiness ever recorded in female first-year college students. Twice as many young women than young men said they felt depressed “frequently or occasionally,” and twice as many young women than young men said they were “overwhelmed by all I have to do.”
The survey is cited in educator Rachel Simmons’ new book, “Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives” (Harper). I devoured the book, wincing, waiting for it to prove that I’m setting my daughter up for a lifetime of anxiety as she struggles to keep up with an impossible set of standards and demands.
“Yes, this is the most promising moment for girls in history,” Simmons told me recently. “At the same time, girls have more expectations and obligations than any time in history. That’s not an easy responsibility to bear.”
Psychologists call it “role overload,” Simmons writes, meaning too many roles for a single individual to play, and “role conflict,” meaning the obligations of the roles you play are at odds with one another.
“Both conditions are known to include high levels of stress,” Simmons writes. “In the so-called age of girl power, we have failed to cut loose our most retrograde standards of female success and replace them with something more progressive. Instead we’ve shoveled more and more expectation onto the already robust pile of qualities we expect girls to possess.”
Be a STEM star, but with perfect makeup. Be class president, but with plenty of time for your friends. Be an athlete, but not too muscle-y.
Simmons’ book offers a road map for helping girls navigate the obligation-laden terrain with their wits and confidence intact. The key, she argues, is to help girls know themselves well enough to pursue what makes them tick, not what they assume will please or impress others.
Social media, not surprisingly, occupies a lot of the book’s real estate.
“Girls use social media every day to mobilize and inspire their peers to activism,” Simmons writes. “When they feel alone and that no one understands them, the internet regularly offers what a hallway or classroom can’t. What girls need from their parents is not a conversation about what’s wrong with social media, but what’s wrong with the way many of them use and value it.”
But it shouldn’t be the barometer of a girl’s self-worth. Instead, she writes, we should help the girl in our life use it to do the following:
Say something about herself, rather than prove something about herself; connect with others, rather than compete with others; make statements about issues, rather than ask questions about what others think of her; amplify a cause that’s bigger than herself.
She’ll have missteps; we all do. But when she makes a mistake — on social media, in school, in a friendship — teach her to go easy on herself.
“If you don’t beat yourself up when you fail, failure becomes a lot less scary,” Simmons writes. “It’s easier to take intellectual risks and go where your curiosity takes you. The drive to learn rather than perform makes self-compassionate people more motivated, more resilient in the face of failure and more comfortable taking healthy chances.
“When self-compassionate people fail they are less likely to revert to feelings of shame and worthlessness.”
We can model this by being compassionate with ourselves and sharing stories of times we stumbled. It can also help, Simmons writes, to ask your daughter how she would approach a close friend or relative who’d made a mistake and try applying that same grace to herself.
Help her lean on others when she needs help.
“Challenge the assumption that self-made success is somehow better or more worthy,” Simmons writes. “Remind her that connections forged in vulnerability, in her personal life and at work, are often the most real and lasting.”
And, maybe my favorite bit of advice of all, help her connect with her own values.
“She will grow stronger when she is rooted in who she is, how she feels and what she stands for, not who she is trying to be for anyone or anything else,” Simmons writes. “Ask her about three values she wants to honor right now in her life. Friendship? Family? Honesty? Service? Talk together about how she can align herself with what she cares about.”
Especially now, Simmons said.
“It can feel very much like, ‘The world is happening to me, and all I’m trying to do is keep up,’ ” she told me. “Being able to get young people thinking about what they stand for gives them agency and helps them make sure what they’re doing is what they feel passionate about, not just what some college will want from them.”