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.

    2. I think girls way to hard on themselves. I am hanging for dear life, everyday. I don’t believe in throwing stones in glass houses. I would be the last person to say anything about your car. I am wondering if your husband has given you the hard time for a messy car, or have you been to hard on yourself. I tried to explain it to my boss when he dropped the “discipline” word, it is like knowing exactly what needs to be done and how to do it and still failing at doing it. He made reference to me running everyday and the fact that that takes discipline and I replied with that is my one successful constant. I run because that has been the one habitat that I have been able to maintain. And it is part of my treatment plan.

      I would say by all means ladies get loud. Just remember it is not my fault. I am sorry that you feel like guys are getting a pass.

  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!

  2. A further problem, which I got out of a book on women with ADHD – I wish I remembered which one it was – is that women are expected to fulfill different social roles, and the roles that we are expected to fill include things that are harder for people with ADHD. If a man has brilliant ideas and is disorganized, he is likely to have a secretary. A woman is more likely to be the secretary, so she is responsible for being organized herself and also for organizing someone else. In a standard household, it is the wife, not the husband, who is expected to keep track of appointments, assignments, doctors, dentists, groceries, meal planning, keeping the house tidy, even if she is the one with ADHD and her husband would be much more capable of handling all of this. And she is expected to handle it not only for herself but for everybody else in the household. And certainly we can consciously think through these things and say “you are better at remembering the kids appointments, so why don’t you do that part”, but the default expectation is that women handle organization for themselves and for the whole group, as mothers, secretaries, people who keep track of extended kin networks – send Christmas cards And organize family gatherings – and that we will do this for everyone. This burden falls very much harder on women with ADHD, and we are judged for not doing it well.

    1. @foa

      SO MUCH THIS! Women in general are expected to be organized and organize everyone else around them. My weakest area is executive functioning, and my husband (who does not have ADHD) has me doing 100% of the indoor chores, caretaking of our pets, grocery shopping, planning the trips, etc. Even when we make plans with friends for an evening, I am the one who has to call them up. We don’t have kids, and frankly, I don’t want them when I KNOW that they will another responsibility that he’ll dump into my lap. He gets a free pass to get to things “if he has time” but if I can’t get to something, the hammer comes down on me. I’m constantly criticized for clutter and messes (some that belong to him, too), no matter how hard I try to keep things clean. I’m often treated more like an employee that works for him than a spouse and partner. I’ve tried many times to ask for help because I have ADHD and I can’t keep up with it, but he just thinks it’s an excuse. I constantly feel like a failure and walk on eggshells because my husband is so highly critical and has such high standards. The sucky thing is that I’m a teacher, so it is CRITICAL that I am organized at work, and having to be organized at work PLUS the extra demands I shoulder at home is exhausting and I can hardly wait for summer when it comes so I can breathe a little.

  3. This rings painfully true for me. As a grown-up mother and full-time older student, I am painfully aware of the expectation that I be a “role-model” for younger students (which basically means behave yourself and have your sh!t together), and that I manage my household and my kids well. Regularly being 5 minutes late to my son’s or my school makes me feel like a failure as a mother and student, and I’m aware of the silent judgement from people who think I’m just lazy or inconsiderate. I feel like I could be the author, as I’m faced with a very similar situation in my program of having a male classmate who is also plainly (to me) adhd. But his chatter and energy and forgetfulness and disorganization are either looked over by others, or even celebrated as part of his charm, while the same qualities in me make me flaky, immature, inconsistent, and less feminine. I work very very hard in school and as a mom, and it feels like people only see my deficiency, and not the massive amount of work I do to succeed compared to what neurotypicals do. Because of this, I try very hard to be a safe place for my two adhd kids, and to build their self-esteem. I hope they never have to have these feelings of inadequacy and shame when they grow up.

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