ADHD in Women

It’s (Always Been) a Scary Time for Women with ADHD

My ADHD husband’s messy desk makes him an absent-minded professor while my messy car makes me a moral failure as a mother.

Gender roles and societal expectations mean that the same ADHD symptoms cause more shame in women than in men.

I was a running joke in high school, a space cadet. My assignments never made it in on time. I zoned out in class. I passed notes instead of taking them. I’d raise my hand and blurt out something like Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood might do.

“Lizzie is spaced out,” my friends moaned. But when time came to pick partners for a big project, I was snapped up. “Why do you want to work with her?” my friend’s dad sneered. “She’s a space cadet.”

“Dad,” she said, “Lizzie’s the smartest kid in the class.”

Another kid rivaled me for smartest student in the class. He also spent most of his time staring out the window, ignoring the teacher, forgetting his books, and borrowing someone else’s. He made a game of elaborate pen-twirling and flirted with all the girls within a three-seat radius. He’d blurt out answers, without raising his hand. “He’s so smart,” everyone cooed. And he was. But no one called him spacey, even when he stared at the ceiling for 20 minutes. No one ever chided him to stay on topic.

Women Are Ridiculed for Their ADD Traits

After I grew up, I realized we’d both been grappling with the same brain difference through our high school years, and I got mad. I remembered the passes he’d been given. I recalled how his behavior was accepted as normal, while mine was labeled and ridiculed. I was a girl, and girls are supposed to be good. Here is a short list of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) traits that girls are not supposed to exhibit in society, and what society thinks they mean:

1. Daydreaming that makes you lose track of a conversation. It shows you don’t care about what the other person has to say.

[Self-Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women and Girls]

2. Interrupting others, or blurting out an unrelated idea. This means you think that your contribution is more important than the other person’s.

3. Forgetting important items. This is evidence that you’re not prepared, which shows disrespect to the people around you—or at least inconveniences them.

4. Lateness. You don’t respect other people’s time.

5. Messiness. A sign of moral degradation.

These ADHD traits become, for women, a judgment on their character and their intentions. This can, of course, hold true for men. Men also suffer from ADHD stereotypes, and suffer terribly. As an ADDitude reader commented, “I do get the idea that the shame is different, but believe me, the pain of the shame is no less real for a man being called a slob if he is trying not to be.” But he put his finger on it: The shame is different. While the pain might be similar, the sense of shame — of being less of, of being deficient — is greater in women.

Fighting for the Girls Who Come After Us

Women need to fight — not only for ourselves, but for the girls who will come after us, for those we need to keep from being called “space cadet.” First, we can talk. When we catch ourselves doing an ADHD-ish thing — interrupting, daydreaming, blurting out — that men get away with, we can say, laughingly: “Too bad I’m not a guy. They’re allowed to interrupt. But Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale says I have to listen politely, despite my ADHD.” When we call attention to gender stereotypes, we take a first step toward breaking them.

[Free Webinar Replay: Stronger Than You Think: A Guide to Empowering Women with ADHD]

We can also say something when we see men getting a pass. “Dude, if I had done that, I’d have gotten the side-eye,” I might say. “Forgetting someone’s name? That would put me on the do-not-speak-to list for years, but not that dude.”

It’s not fair, I might say to a friend, that my ADHD husband’s messy desk makes him an absent-minded professor, while my messy car makes me a moral failure as a mother. Or if he doesn’t remember something, it’s “forgetful ol’ Broadbent.” If I forget my backpack, I’m a monster.

We have to be brave and speak up. Until we do, we’ll remain space cadets. If we struggle, we need to struggle together. Only then can we beat the stigma of our brain difference.

[Sister. Wife. Mother. Living with ADHD.]

Updated on May 24, 2019

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    1. I disagree, as well. “Space cadet” was my middle name growing up but good thing I had a sense of humor and didn’t let it bring me down. I had a lot of other qualities people appreciated me for and that I liked about myself. Embarrassing moments that could have been a source of shame for me caused by my ADHD, became fun material for my storytelling that kept my audience in belly-laughing tears. Of course, at that time I had no idea this was all due to a disorder—I was diagnosed at 45. I just thought I was different and realized that everyone had something they struggled with even if it was hidden. My struggles were just so evident, I learned there was no use hiding them and that in itself was freeing. I also happen to be the mother of an ADHD son and I found that his struggles were WAY less acceptable than mine. He cried himself to sleep thinking he was a stupid, bad boy and was ridiculed in school mostly by cruel girls! I don’t know how long ago the author was in school, but I believe it was a misperception as a child to think that her male classmate was getting away with his disruptive behavior. As a teacher myself, I realize when students are not aware of how I deal with other student’s issues and think they are being treated unfairly. In GENERAL, I feel schools happen to be more girl-friendly environments and boys Get in trouble more often. However, even if that observation is arguable, I feel that attempting to feel better about one’s deficits by pointing at someone else’s is a poor way to achieve justice. Turning the tables against boys doesn’t achieve equality—two wrongs still don’t make a right.

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with the statements in the article. There are numerous assumptions made about what the “generally accepted women principals” are in society. When one does that reflect those GAWPs, they are judged with a harsher measure than those same shortcomings would be assessed using “generally accepted men principals”. Granted, no one should get a pass for behaviour that unduly negatively impacts others; however when that behaviour is the product of an “imbalanced neurological playing field”, the gender of the player on that field will determine the umpire’s call more often than not!

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