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In Chinese culture, Hua Mulan is an iconic female heroine. As you might remember from Disney’s depiction of the heroine, Hua Mulan lived according to Chinese cultural standards until her father was conscripted for the army. To avoid her elderly father entering the army, Mulan disguised herself as a man and took her father’s place. According to the Chinese legend, Mulan had a decade-long, distinguished military career and upon her return, was honored by the emperor with an offer in high office. The character declined the offer, instead returning home and reestablishing the traditional, female role.

A day in the life

Mulan is a good foil for many high-level, professional women in general, and mompreneurs specifically. Consider the start of a typical mompreneur’s day. She wakes up and is in full “mom mode” at varying levels. Her morning activities might include some or all of the following: waking kids up, getting them dressed, changing diapers, reminding them to get up, finding various missing items, listening to kids’ stories, signing off on permission slips, making breakfast, mom/child negotiations, reassuring worries, making lunches, reminding kids about various school or after school related activities, overseeing school bag packing, driving them to school, getting them to the bus stop, volunteering at before-school tasks. In the middle of all that, this mompreneur is also getting herself ready – showering, self-care, running through her workday schedule in her head, choosing an outfit which aligns with the tasks of the day, making her own breakfast and lunch, organizing her own work materials – but she is still in “mom mode”. She may fluctuate between feelings of intense love, overwhelmed, like she isn’t in control, like she is or is not organized, feeling rushed. This is all typically before 8am.

Once the kids are at school and on the commute into work, this woman shifts from “mom” to “professional/entrepreneur/business leader”. She leaves behind the nurturing, empathetic, sensitive parts of her to adopt the assertive, directive, objective qualities many businesses demand of their leaders. She engages in meetings, negotiations, decisions based on profitability. She portrays a cool demeanor and a composed persona, able to think rationally and react stoically. Her schedule is on her computer and phone and directs her day. In between meetings, she is answering emails, texts, and random individuals popping into her office with “just a quick question”. She expects answers, results and no excuses, and if she’s lucky, she is out the door by 6pm and commuting home.

As she walks through the door of the after school care program or the door of her home, the work persona shifts back to “mom” and the nighttime routine begins – checking in with each kid, thinking about what to have for dinner, making or ordering dinner, helping with homework, listening to kids’ stories, mom/child negotiations, reassuring worries, reminders, last minute project or baking requests, baths, pajamas, snuggling, bedtime stories, “quality time”. Add to that, if this woman is living with a partner, adult conversation, scheduling, affection, relationship/marital negotiations, and potentially {thoughts of, guilt over not, finding energy to have} sex/feel sexy/feel attractive.

We are Mulan

Mulan taught us well. We move through our days, shifting from our feminine energy and qualities to our masculine energy and qualities at work, and back to our feminine as societal or cultural roles dictate. These shifts are exhausting. For many mompreneurs, the mental and physical exhaustion is attributed to the amount of tasks we plan, juggle and accomplish in each part of our days. Yet what significantly contributes to the exhaustion are the shifts – moving between two personas and discounting one part when the other is in place. This can create a feeling of cognitive dissonance, the discomfort which comes when our thoughts and beliefs don’t match our actions. When we suppress one part of ourselves, it negates who we are and does not feel authentic, creating the dissonance.

How to avoid the Mulan Complex

Now you may not walk into a board meeting and greet each member with a hug or a pat on the head, and you likely won’t create a project management plan for your child when she doesn’t pick up her room. Finding ways to avoid flipping the switch fully from “feminine” to “masculine” traits, from who you are personally to who you are professionally, could alleviate the dissonance, the division in yourself and the exhaustion. This approach creates two outcomes:

  1. It might allow you to be who you are, authentically and fully, in all areas of your life. This will increase the experience of being fully unified as a person rather than the frequent feeling of being divided or “torn” between two worlds.
  2. You might find that the strategies and traits typically used in one role might provide new avenues of effectively managing people and situations in the other role. So while you might not engage in physical affection in the board room, tapping into the nurturing, “connector” side of you might get you to acknowledge each member at some individual, personalized way. And while you might not create a stylized, organized project management plan for your daughter, you might consider how some of parts of project management (like creating a SMART scope statement) could help support your daughter in achieving the goal more consistently.

By doing so, you become more you and less Mulan.