After I read about the suicide of Cynthia Wachenheim, I was (and still am) an emotional wreck. I didn’t know her personally, but the circumstances were all too familiar.
Wachenhiem was the quintessential overachiever. A valedictorian in high school; graduate of Columbia law school; clerked for a judge; earned a six-figure salary; an activist in her synagogue; world traveler to Pakistan to work on women’s issues; married fairly late in life and was blessed to have a child – an imperfect child and therein lies the dilemma. She was a 45 years old woman living what others might deem a “charmed” life, but suffering from internal pain. At one point in my life, I had lived the life of Cynthia Wachenheim. I fully understand the dangers of living as a “perfectionist.”
I don’t know at what point in life, Wachenheim discovered her imperfection. My revelation came when I was hit with the diagnosis of infertility. Wachenheim became a mom at age 44 and had a son who might have had some physical challenges. The New York Times reports that her 10-month old son fell twice; once from a play set onto a wooden floor while when she walked out of the room for 5 minutes and the other time from the bed. “She blamed herself, and was convinced that those falls had led to a series of concussions and seizures that aggravated or contributed to maladies that would harm him for the rest of his life” although her pediatrician and family tried to convince her otherwise.
Wachenheim, like many of us as women, suffered from the super-hero complex. We are supposed to have perfect careers, perfect marriages, perfect body images and perfect children. And when we fall short of those unrealistic goals, our world begins to unravel.
Wachenheim was on Family Medical leave and like many women, might have felt socially isolated in her Harlem apartment with no one to talk to while her husband was at work. Perhaps she felt devalued because she no longer earned 6-figures, especially if the family faced financial constraints.
On that fateful morning, there were loud noises coming from her apartment that drew the attention of some her neighbors. It seemed like a “typical” domestic dispute but 3 hours later, she wrote a 13-page suicide note in a spiral notebook, strapped her 10-month old son to her chest in an Ergobaby carrier and leaps from her 8th floor Harlem apartment to her death. Miraculously, the baby survived with minor injuries to his face.
As a woman and as a physician, I have failed Cynthia Wachenheim. I have failed her because I have been unsuccessful in dispelling the myth of the feminine superhero. I have not created a safe space in this Universe where women can speak about their fears, doubts and imperfections without experiencing shame. I should have told her that it’s okay to take off the cape; that even when we think our children are less than perfect, they are indeed perfect in the mind and eyes of God — and she was too. Oh my dearest Cynthia, I wish you had just held out for a little bit longer. There really would have been a light at the end of that perceived dark tunnel.
This is a message to all of the superwomen out there; please, please, take off those capes in honor and memory of Cynthia.