Adrienne Griffen, MMHLA Executive Director, recently spoke with Dr. Karen Sheffield-Abdullah about tennis great Serena Williams, arguably the greatest Superwoman of all, and her decision to evolve from professional tennis to focus on her family and her investment firm, Serena Ventures.  Read Serena’s story in Vogue magazine.

Karen Sheffield-Abdullah, PhD, RN, CNM, is an assistant professor of nursing at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she researches strategies to reduce the long-term health effects of stress, psychological trauma, anxiety, and depression on women’s health and birth outcomes.

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah recently gave the keynote speech at the Postpartum Support International conference in July, where she spoke about the Superwoman Schema.

Karen M. Sheffield-Abdullah, PhD, RN, CNM

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah’s research focuses on the utilization of holistic, integrative, multi-sector strategies to promote physical, mental, and emotional well-being for individuals and communities. She is particularly interested in developing strategies to reduce the long-term health effects of stress, psychological trauma, anxiety, and depression on women’s health and birth outcomes. Her interests include the bio-psycho-social benefits of self-compassion, mindfulness, and other mind-body therapies as adjuncts to conventional treatment modalities. Her program of research focuses on the development of culturally relevant interventions to reduce disparities in stress-related adverse outcomes during the perinatal period and to provide a platform to guide successful models for women’s health care provision that incorporate stress management and improve wellness across the lifespan. She utilizes the Superwoman Schema conceptual framework developed by Dr. Cheryl Woods-Giscombe to guide her work.

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah is currently an assistant professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing. She has a doctoral degree in nursing from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing and a Master of Science in nursing degree from Yale University. She did her postdoctoral fellowship at The University of North Carolina School of Medicine, Program on Integrative Medicine, through an NIH T-32 Fellowship Training Grant for Research in Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine. Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah was also a postdoctoral fellow with the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. Lastly, Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah is a mindfulness instructor and is currently pursuing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher certification through the Brown University’s Mindfulness Center.

Question:  Let’s start with your area of expertise, stress and anxiety in Black women.  Can you talk a bit about the Superwoman Schema: what does it mean, where does it come from, and how does it impact Black women in particular?

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah:  The Superwoman Schema is a conceptual framework developed by my mentor, Dr. Cheryl Woods-Giscombe of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that states that there are certain socio, cultural, and historical perspectives that have happened in our country that cause many Black women to take on certain characteristics.  The five hallmark characteristics of the Superwoman Schema are:

  1. Emotional suppression.
  2. Maintaining a stoic exterior.
  3. Determination to succeed despite limited resources.
  4. Resistance to vulnerability.
  5. Care-giving, even to the determinant of personal health.

These characteristics of the Superwoman Schema guide my work, and I saw quite a bit of evidence of the Superwoman Schema in the recent Vogue article about Serena Williams and her farewell remarks to tennis.

Question:  What are some things that you saw in the article that made you think about Serena vis a vis the Superwoman Schema?

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah:  I saw threads of Superwoman Schema woven throughout the article.  One of the first things that struck me was this quote: “I’ve been reluctant to admit that I have to move on from playing tennis.”  There is this narrative of her determination to succeed — I can do it.  I can do it.  I can do it. — pushing herself even beyond her own limits now that she has the additional demands of motherhood.  She seemed determined to return to where she was pre-pregnancy.  We can see that she is reconciling that her return to who she was as an athlete prior to having her daughter, Olympia, was not going the way she had envisioned it.

We see how she was reconciling this throughout the article.  She starts saying things like: “It’s a taboo topic.”  She says “taboo” more than once, which I think highlights a perception that any sign of weakness can be seen as taboo, especially within the Black community.  There is a reluctance to express any type of vulnerability. Maintaining a stoic exterior is often the default.  I will get it done.  I will win this match.  I will, I will, I will.  Despite what she had going on as a mother.

She writes that “I went from a C-section to second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final.  I played while breastfeeding.  I played through postpartum depression.”  Hello!  Talk about determination to succeed!  This is it.

[MMHLA Note: Serena experienced significant health issues following the birth of her daughter, Olympia, in 2017, undergoing four surgeries in seven days, leaving her bedridden for six weeks. Read this Elle magazine article in which she recounts her pregnancy and postpartum experience.

Although Serena had a history of blood clots and asked for interventions to prevent them, healthcare providers dismissed her concerns, leading Serena to write: “No one was really listening to what I was saying…but I persisted: ‘I’m telling you, this is what I need.’ Finally, the nurse called my doctor, and she listened to me and insisted we check. I’m so grateful to her. Lo and behold, I had a blood clot in my lungs, and they needed to insert a filter into my veins to break up the clot before it reached my heart.”]

What does it mean for women if healthcare providers would not listen to one
of the most famous, strong, powerful women in the world?

Question:  Can you talk a bit about emotional suppression?

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah: Going back to the earlier quote and expanding a bit with the quote in the middle of the
Vogue article, where Serena says: “I’ve been reluctant to admit that I have to move on from playing tennis. It’s like a taboo topic. It comes up, and I start to cry. I think the only person I’ve really gone there with is my therapist.”

So, we can sense that the emotion is there just under the surface, and when it comes up she starts to cry.  This is emotional suppression: she disregards her emotions and feelings even though they are there and very real, and she keeps “stuffing them down.”  When she says, “It comes up and I start to cry,” she is acknowledging this vulnerability that exists under the layer of emotional suppression.

She then writes, “The only person I’ve really gone there with is with my therapist.” I want to highlight that this is the conversation we need to have and hear from Black women to destigmatize mental illness or mental health concerns. The fact that she is willing to say that she is having a conversation with a therapist is significant for Black women. It’s important to hear that someone who is well-resourced and appears to have it all together is talking to a therapist.  She provides a bit of normalizing about talking to a therapist, and I think that absolutely needs to happen.

Question: I’ve heard you say that the Superwoman Schema is a double-edged sword. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah: The Superwoman Schema definitely is a double-edged sword: There are benefits to it, and there are downsides to it.

What I have found in my own research is that, often times, Black women are reconciling what they think they should be doing with what feels right and authentic to them. They worry about what others say, or what society says, they should be doing versus what they inherently know to be their truth and what they want to do.  

What you are seeing with Serena is that she is still reconciling her decision to leave professional tennis. She says, “One thing I’m not going to do is sugarcoat this. I’m going to be honest. There is no happiness in this topic for me. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads.” When she says this, she is living in her own authentic truth, she is speaking it out, even in all of the vulnerability that comes with it.

This is what I’m saying, this kind of double-edged sword. She says, “I’m not ready to do this. I’m torn. I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.” She has this incredible determination to continue to succeed, as if she hasn’t already achieved so much success. She knows that prioritizing her family is not “settling,” yet she is still reconciling her desire to continue to be the greatest tennis player with her desire to grow her family and business.  It highlights that as Black women we can be multi-passionate. We can want more than one thing at the same time.

Question:  How does the Superwoman Schema cross demographics?

Dr. Sheffield-Abdullah:  The experience is the same across demographics of Black women, whether well-resourced or from an under-served, over-looked, marginalized, minoritized community.  The way that it plays out may be slightly nuanced, but as we think about those five characteristics, some things remain true across demographics.  We often suppress our emotions, resist vulnerability, maintain a stoic exterior, feel obligated to help others, and are determined to succeed.  I am so happy Serena chose herself, her family, and her business.  She is a legend in he own right, and truly deserves to evolve into this next phase of life knowing she was enough, she is enough, and she will continue to be enough.  Well done, Serena.  Well done.