San Francisco's Carol Orsborn Helps Compulsive 'Superwomen' Learn to Lie Down on the Job

updated 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

At 37, Carol Orsborn was a public relations company president, a magazine columnist, wife of a businessman, mother of two and a brown belt in karate. She was also an exhausted victim of the trendiest malaise this side of the talk show circuit, something that might be called "superwoman syndrome." Like other sufferers (who tend to be hypercompetitive types with good incomes), the Californian found herself struggling for perfection on every front—and losing her sense of self amid her achievements. "I had fiddled with every piece of my life to be happy, and it didn't work," says Orsborn. "One day I had an extra 15 minutes. Instead of making business phone calls, I wrote down all my feelings. That was the start of the first newsletter."

And thus was born "Superwomen's Anonymous"—a self-help organization for harried "I-can-have-it-all" women yearning for downward mobility. For $12 a year, recruits receive a membership card, a poster with the group's motto—"Enough Is Enough"—and a quarterly newsletter about the joys of doing less. Appropriately enough there are no conventions or fund raisers or monthly meetings.

"I was shocked by the response," says Orsborn, who has enlisted 500 anonymous superwomen and now receives up to 100 letters a day from her beleaguered sisters. "I really hit a nerve." One correspondent wrote, "You will receive [thousands] of responses from women like myself who have it all...but who sometimes forget their telephone numbers, husband's name, children's ages, the year and even the reason they ever wanted it all in the first place." Another sent in the membership fee for his wife—a physician who works 36-hour shifts as an intern, is a new mother and in her "spare time" is punching out a treatment for a TV show.

As Orsborn sees it, such superwomen are fueled largely by a deep sense of inadequacy exacerbated by unrealistic ideas about successful women. Even the most accomplished, she says, can feel like underachievers when they read magazine articles "that tell you by good management you can cram 30 hours of stuff into a 24-hour day."

For her part, Carol has taken some drastic measures to keep life on a mortal scale. Last summer she and husband Dan, 37, sold their San Rafael home—with its bay view, hot tub, sauna and maid's quarters—and moved with Grant, 6, and Jody, 15 months, into a country cottage in Mill Valley. "We cut our mortgage in half and reduced our time on the highway from 40 to 20 minutes," she says. "It was daring." She no longer volunteers for every community group, nor does she chauffeur her children to French classes and ski lessons as much. She has given up her high-pressure aerobics classes in favor of solitary rowing sessions.

The erstwhile superwoman also has limited her time behind the desk: She now spends 30 hours a week—rather than 50—at the Orsborn Group Public Relations office, which she founded in 1971. She has pared her staff from 15 to seven, and she no longer accepts every account that comes her way. "Time and time again she'd come into my office very upset and say, 'I can't handle this,' " reports Dan, the company's chairman, who is also a musician. "She doesn't do that now, and when she does get upset, we make it fun. I say, 'Here we go again—the drama,' and she laughs."

Her newfound sense of perspective didn't come easily, however. The only daughter of a Chicago physician and a mother whom she calls "the Volunteer of the Year," Carol Matzkin was bred to be competitive. "Mom wanted me to have all the advantages—ballet, ice-skating, singing, piano lessons. I always thought I should be great at whatever I was doing." At New Trier High School she was "everything—National Merit Scholar finalist, first chair clarinet, a writer for the school newspaper." At the University of California, Berkeley, it was the same story. By the week after she graduated (Phi Beta Kappa, of course), Carol had the requisite husband and a summer job on the San Francisco Chronicle. Her only detour came that fall, when she left the Chronicle to spend six months in Europe. While Dan composed music, she wrote a novel (unpublished), and by sojourn's end they were so broke they sang for sous in the Paris Metro.

After the two landed back in California, however, it was "right down the tube into success," as Carol puts it. "It was all work for us, seven days a week. Even our social life revolved around business. I had no exercise, no time for a manicure. I'd go into a store and say, 'Give me what it says to buy in Dress for Success.' "

Pregnancy in 1978 only heightened Orsborn's boundless ambition. "I assumed [being a mother] would be a breeze—nothing had ever stopped me before." She hired a nanny and set up a nursery in her office but admits "it didn't work. I found myself going to business meetings carrying a baby bottle." With her second pregnancy, Carol says, "I realized that I wanted to be fully present at my child's birth and not [be] too busy to enjoy it." Less than a year later, she and Dan shed the San Rafael house and Carol began "finding friends and activities that would support the part of me that was just learning to hang out."

Not that she's in danger of completely forsaking the executive suite for the sandbox. Her ministry to flagging superwomen is growing. She is expanding her newsletter into a book to be published in the fall. Could she be making a high-powered career out of her new downwardly mobile careerism? Carol swears it ain't so. "I'll always be a recovering superwoman," she says, "but now I know how to monitor myself. As my hairdresser recently told me, my motto shouldn't be 'Enough Is Enough' but 'Enough Is Too Much.' "

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