If you have not yet read Debora Spar’s article in The Daily Beast about motherhood, work, and the giving-up of perfectionist ideals, do yourself a favor, stop right here and read it. The President of Barnard College, Spar wrote an essay in response to the blogospheric conversation swirling around Anne-Marie Slaughter’s much praised (and much maligned) story in The Atlantic earlier in the summer, about being a mother while maintaining a high level, professional career, and the give and take and what it means to try to balance it all.
While I read Slaughter’s piece and agreed with much of it, I wasn’t quite moved by it the way I was when I read Spar’s piece two weeks ago. Perhaps because I have a personal connection to Barnard (although I didn’t attend, my grandmother was an alumna, and one of my best childhood friends attended and currently works there. And one of my BFFs from my mom years is also an alumna.) It’s a great school.
But the piece is certainly more than a paean to being a smart graduate of a women’s college. In fact, it is a response to the expectation that so many of the wonderful women’s colleges set up as a paradox: how can you be the best and the brightest and go out and conquer the world, when there is laundry to do and children to feed and housework to be done?
What Spar parses so brilliantly is the damning quest for perfection that women – and especially mothers who work outside the home – must work very hard to overcome.
"Indeed, rather than leaping with glee at the liberation that has befallen women since the 1960s, we are laboring instead under a double whammy of impossible expectations—the old-fashioned ones (to be good mothers and wives, impeccable housekeepers and blushing brides) and those wrought more recently (to be athletic, strong, sexually versatile, and wholly independent). The result? We have become a generation desperate to be perfect wives, mothers, and professionals—Tiger Moms who prepare organic quinoa each evening after waltzing home from the IPO in our Manolo Blahnik heels.
Even worse, we somehow believe that we need to do all of this at once, and without any help. Almost by definition, a woman cannot work a 60-hour-per-week job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without the 60-hour-per-week job. No man can do this; no human can do this. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act, and (quietly, invidiously) berating others when something inevitably slips."
(I would like to put a fine point on the burden of society’s sharp glare on the most superficial pieces of being a woman today, exacerbated by our celebrated-focused culture on baby bumps and being back to fighting weight minutes after giving birth. We are supposed to look younger, be more fit, and be a “sexy” mom on top of everything else. Motherhood, knowing how to bake an apple pie, managing a daily commute AND the ability to rock a strapless dress well into our 50s and 60s.)
Over the past couple of months, I have been struggling with the question of accepting a promotion at my organization, accompanying which has been a request that I work full-time. I have been deeply conflicted about this, not because I am not interested in the promotion – on the contrary, I am thrilled and excited about the work and the organization and what it will mean for my professional life, which is a huge part of who I am.
But I have been in a personal head-lock with myself about the impact this will have on my family. Twelve years ago, I made the very right decision to leave my daily job and open up my own consulting shop. This decision was made in a heartbeat. In fact, it was made during the skip of a heartbeat, the morning that the Twin Towers came down, and with my three-week son in my arms, my 2-year-old with our nanny and my 6-year-old at school, I had the unmistakable realization that I never wanted to be as far away from them as downtown again. It was time to change my work life for my family's sake.
My 12 years of running my own small consulting shop, a happily self-imposed “mommy track”, if you will, was the best decision of my life (besides getting married to my husband and having our children.) It gave me the flexibility to be at almost every school event, to shuttle my children where they needed to go, to be very present in their lives, while at the same time keeping my professional skills honed and maintaining almost my full income contribution to the family. In fact, I had some of my most successful and enriching professional experiences as a part-time consultant.
And those experiences put me in contention for this job I have been offered today.
But taking this job is going to have an enormous impact on my family. My time in the office will increase exponentially. I will have management responsibilities at work, and will be expected to be available even more than I am already. The focus of my days will be entirely on work, until the end of the day, at which point I will have to turn immediately back into a mom pumpkin, consumed with overseeing homework, carpools to sports practices, dinner preparation and house chores, with barely a second to breathe in between.
Spar talks about how much we lay on ourselves as working moms, and how much we expect to do everything perfectly. I know that I am guilty of this, even with my fairly laid-back attitude towards most things. I berate myself constantly for not getting things exactly right, even when I let others slide. How am I possibly going to get all this done?
I had a revelation the other morning, driving my 17-year-old to school. I started to tell him about my job, and my promotion, and the fact that my work hours would be changing soon and I would no longer be able to give him an emergency ride so easily (he and sister had had a bathroom conflict that morning and he was running late.)
Given that it was 6:45 am, he was, needless to say, completely unresponsive. So of course, I continued babbling. And in my babble, I said that my new schedule would mean that everyone else in the family would have to step up and step into new responsibilities.
I nearly rammed into the car in front of me as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, for I realized that they were completely true. I have four perfectly competent human beings sharing my space in our home – each of them already has a set of chores, of course, although truth be told, the 18-and-under set could certainly take on more. But even my husband may have a little room in his bag of tricks to learn, perhaps, how to get a meal on the table one day a week.
I was both flabbergasted and exhilarated by my statement. It’s really true – I don’t have to do it all, and the entire family will have to adjust as a result of this new change in our lives. And they can and will. What is more, additional work hours means additional pay, so it’s a change that comes with financial remuneration – one that will make a difference in our ability to launch each one of our children when the time comes and make those college payments just a tiny bit easier.
So I realize that I am doing my part to help my family again, except that this time, it means going back to work, rather than easing back on work. If I step back and look at the trajectory of my career, it is a windy road, curving around the needs of my family while still maintaining some directed course. It is, I believe, a product of the women’s movement. And it is actually the goal I think we should set for ourselves – to set ourselves up with the drive to succeed, encourage the flexibility to veer off course for periods of time, and harness the strength to right ourselves again when the time is right.
Spar’s closing paragraph says it all:
"Feminism wasn’t supposed to make us miserable. It was supposed to make us free; to give women the power to shape their fortunes and work for a more just world. Today, women have choices that their grandmothers could not have imagined. The challenge lies in recognizing that having choices carries the responsibility to make them wisely, striving not for perfection or the ephemeral all, but for lives and loves that matter."
Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr