Strange notions of perfection

The more I study human behavior, the more fascinated I am by the narratives we tell ourselves. We all have certain defining narratives, perhaps scripted in childhood, perhaps scripted due to generational circumstances, or perhaps owing to something else entirely. Regardless, we tend to view these narratives as gospel, and so it is always jarring to learn that other people do not tell themselves the exact same narratives.

We started hinting at this in comments on the previous post on “Why it’s good to be in charge.” We discussed whether some people have more of an ambition gene than others. Some people naturally think that more responsibility and money and power is good — and the idea that you would not seek out more of that sounds strange. On the other hand, some people think it’s strange that you would work more if you didn’t need to. You’re perfectly comfortable, so what’s the fuss? Why make life harder?

This theme of narratives stuck in my head as I read Debora Spar’s piece for Newsweek on “Why Women Should Stop Trying To Be Perfect.” Spar, the president of Barnard, has spent years in academia while raising three children. She’s also watched thousands of young women start their working and family lives, and has drawn various conclusions from that. But I think she also subscribes to certain beliefs that are narratives — not absolute truths — and those narratives permeated this essay in a way that made reading it feel a bit odd to someone who has different narratives, even though I agree with certain broader points.

Consider this excerpt: “Today, part of what keeps women from the top ranks of their professions is a fear that they will not perform well enough; a suspicion, usually ungrounded, that they are not fully qualified for the job. Part of what makes women unhappy at home is a related fear that they are not quite good enough—that their kids don’t practice piano for at least two hours a day, their closets are a mess, and the brownies they brought to the bake sale weren’t entirely gluten-free.”

Hmm. I’m not sure exactly whose definition of happiness involves making the kids practice piano for two hours per day, and I must confess that every time I read some definition of having it all that involves baking, I scratch my head. I have never baked something for a school occasion. I buy cupcakes or other snacks at the grocery store and bring them in. It is simply not part of my worldview that store bought cookies say anything other than that stores sell them and I bought them. Another thing I can’t imagine being judged on: having toys on the floor at night — which is another narrative I’ve discovered while looking at people’s time logs. Some people deeply believe that the house must be clean before bed. For time makeovers, I’ve told women who are doing an hour of housekeeping at night to use that time to read or hang out with their significant others or advance their careers instead. They look at me like I’m crazy. Don’t I know the house has to be clean? This strikes me as silly (Does someone show up for a nightly 11 pm inspection?) but the thing about narratives is that they never sound silly to the person who believes them. Spar later advances the notion that “If you want to be a good mother, you don’t have to chair the nursery-school auction or bake perfect madeleines for the second-grade fair,” but she puts this notion out there like it’s scandalous. Really?

A few other thoughts on Spar’s piece:

  • Many young parents do create their own networks of people who they can call on to help. Religious and civic institutions can be substitutes for a lack of extended family nearby.
  • She uses some correct statistics but omits an important bit of analysis: “Between 1965 and 2000, the number of working mothers in the United States rose from 45 to 78 percent of all mothers, and the average time that an American woman spent in the paid labor force increased from 9 to 25 hours a week. Yet women were still devoting nearly 40 hours a week to family care: housework, child care, shopping. Men, by contrast, spent only 21, most of which were devoted to fairly discrete and flexible tasks like mowing the lawn, washing the car, and tossing softballs with the kids.” True, but men’s paid workweeks are closer to 40 hours, while women’s hover around 25. The total amount of work — adding paid and non-paid — is eerily close between men and women. I’m not saying this should be the natural split, with women doing more unpaid work that’s less socially rewarded, but the grand total of hours of labor is not that different.
  • Another quote: “Try this. See who in any household schedules the kids’ dental appointments. My own husband, lovely though he is, seems not to be aware that our children even have teeth.” Sorry to hear this, Spar. My husband just scheduled our kids’ dentist appointments. Curiously, the receptionist seemed to think that he and the three year old can have cleanings at the same time. I’ll report back!

What narratives do you tell yourself? Have you ever changed a narrative or rethought one?

38 thoughts on “Strange notions of perfection

  1. I think you are rare in having a husband willing to deal with these things. I don’t think it’s the women that have these narratives- it’s often husbands who have these narratives. My husband doesn’t work 12 hour days or travel frequently, as his dad did, but curtailing his job commitment to spend more time on family stuff is a tough sell.

    Women who are attractive fair well in the marriage market even if they are ambitious. Women who are plain and ambitious often wind up single. My husband wishes our house were more picked up, yet HE never does it, because his mother did. His brothers have both been divorced, in part over this issue, and his brother’s new wife made the same observation about my husband’s two brothers. (They live within a few blocks of each other.)

    Most of us don’t get to make housekeeping decisions in a vacuum.

    1. @Twin Mom – I definately agree that many husbands do not believe that houswork is their concern, mine certaily doesn’t. However, he doesn’t particularly think that I should do it, either. Like Laura, he is aware that there is no 11pm inspection, so he could not understand my concerns about how clean the house was when we first moved in together.

      I mention this, because I believe that many women (and I am not making a comment about you, but about other women around me) who chose to make the cleanliness of the house some Voldermort/Harry Potter style contest – husbands cannot survive while clothes go unfolded on the lounge.

      As my husband quite fairly pointed out, why should he meet my standard of house tidyness/cleanliness, when I didn’t want to stick to his standard? So I decided that I would rather have a messy house than argue with my husband or spend all my time cleaning.
      Having said that, he has improved somewhat, but I have also relaxed, which makes for a much happier household (expect when inspections do happen in the case of unexpected household guests!)

      1. Further, you raise a very important point about the messages that parents send their children. It will be difficult for women to get ahead in society if men are willing to get divorced over the amount of housework their partner does. My husband’s mother is pretty relaxed about cleaning, which I imagine contributes to him not thinking that I should do it, either. However, my mother was a cleaning machine, which is why I wanted my husband to do lots of cleaning and tidying. I have just chosen to be more relaxed as I don’t want to fight over how clean the house is like my parents did. I imagine your brother-in-laws would be much happier if they would just relax as well.

    2. @Twin Mom – oh, certainly men from all different backgrounds have their narratives too. I was just teeing off Spar’s article, which looks at women’s narratives. Some common male narratives might include “if I leave work in the middle of the day earth will crash into the sun” or “crying is for sissies” or a host of others.

      1. Most common: I am way too important and irreplaceable in my office to be gone for any length of time, such as for one month of paternity leave. No one else can do what I do and there is no way to teach them.

    3. I agree about the scheduling and making appointments generally not being a part of men’s narratives. I also agree that there can be exceptions, but the vast majority of wives/mothers I know keep the family calendar, even if they work full time. Occasionally (if they’re lucky) they can outsource it, and there are some couples who share it equally, but I don’t think I’ve met a single husband/father who keeps the family calendar and lets his wife off the hook.

      And unfortunately I don’t think calendar-keeping is just a narrative you can blow off like cleaning the house at night, because if there’s no calendar you and your family forget to do important stuff and everyone gets mad.

  2. My husband also does the oldest’s dental appointment and always has. Sometimes he schedules *my* appointments for me. (One of my least favorite chores.)
    re: baked goods: We don’t get it either, and also we think it may not be a narrative in the midwest or south:
    I’m glad Twin Mom thinks I’m attractive! Though I have to say my ambitious single friends are even more attractive than I am. They just didn’t get to go to residential boarding high schools full of sexy nerds like #2 and I did.

    1. I can tell you’re great looking from your blog comments. 🙂

      Seriously, though, I am in a volunteer organization with intelligent, well-educated (PhD), high-earning professional women who are single and I think would like to be/have married. (They’re approaching 40 so even if marriage worked out, kids likely wouldn’t.) Two are quite heavy and one is slightly overweight; I think this hurts them in the marriage market more than it hurts men, ’cause men with their characteristics are married if they want to be.

      1. Every overweight economist I know is married. The single women are all skinny, fashionable, and generally even-featured. One theory is that they are intimidating. Another theory is that they’re picky.

    2. @NicoleandMaggie – I love that post on baked goods. Yeah, I don’t get it. Do schools even have bake sales? That strikes me as enormously inefficient (much like box tops for education – another topic I need to research and write about at some point. We were told our elementary school’s goal is $900 this year. I think you could get that from the change in people’s cars if you shook everyone down in the drop-off line someday). I’d rather write a check. Plus lots of kids have allergies to eggs and nuts which probably cuts down on the appeal of baked goods sales anyway. I guess in New York Times land one’s baking proclivities say something about who you are as a mother. I’m not sure this happens in real life. I was recently at a pot-luck event where several folks who would be far ahead of me in line for mother-of-the-year awards brought store-bought stuff.

      1. Our Home School Association assessment is $150/kid. There are various fundraisers throughout the year that if you buy X, a certain % will go towards your assessment. Or…you can give them a check for $150. The check is easier than harrassing my family/friends/coworkers to buy wrapping paper.

        @Laura, I would be interesting in the box top research. Could you also look into the whole soda can tab for dialysis? We’re also asked to set those aside. 🙂

      2. My daughter’s elementary school collects the box tops for education, and each year they are able to purchase new things for the school that they wouldn’t have been able to buy otherwise (and trust me, they do enough additional fund raising for the school and PTO that I wouldn’t be willing to just write another check). I think they bring in a few thousand dollars each year by collecting. It’s really not that hard to just cut the box top out of a product as I’m getting ready to recycle the packaging, and my daughter enjoys collecting them and bringing them into school. Her school has a contest each month, which is a good incentive to get the kids to bring them in. The class that collects the most box tops each month wins a popcorn (I think?) party. The kids love it, and I’m happy to take a few seconds of my time to cut out the box tops to help out.

        1. @Emily- I can see that it would make sense for some schools, but I’m staring at my letter from the box tops coordinator right now, and it says her goal is to raise $900 for the school. This letter had to be printed and copied, which has some cost (even if General Mills under wrote it). Then it had to be put in all the children’s folders/backpacks, most likely by a teacher or teacher’s aide — who I imagine have other things they could be doing with their time. So I’m just not sure this was the best way to raise an additional $900. It does seem like an effective way for General mills to get its website and links to coupons out to families in the target demographic.

          1. I don’t mind the Box Tops because there are a few of them on products I would buy anyway, and I just cut them out when I recycle the box, save them in a drawer, and send them in to school twice a year. My mom does it too and saves them for me and we end up sending in hundreds. She doesn’t mail them, I just pick them up when I visit. I realize it isn’t very efficient, and there are other fundraisers that I don’t bother with because I just don’t like what you have to do for the money, but for me this is an easy one.

      3. For Box Tops for education, you have to include the scissors-practice value of your preschooler/kindergartener cutting them out in your analysis and the “commitment” value. We have saved those since before we went to school, in part because my preschooler liked cutting them out. The “commitment” value is the value of showing that you support your child’s school- there are other ways to do that, but I’m not sure how many of them are as convenient for working class single parents.

        The number/kid PTA goal works best for families with some ability to sell stuff and/or write a check. I’m guessing this varies dramatically (and inversely) with the free/reduced lunch price eligible percentage in the school. In our school, art, software for advanced math and field trips are among the items funded by the PTC. Only $140 of the $20,000 was a direct donation. The local dealership gave $10 for each parent that drove a minivan (or one of two other choices) around the block during the last ice cream social, for a total of $800 to the school. My husband and I each drove; the dealer apparently considers it a good use of their marketing dollars. (where the actual dollars came from)

      4. I’m so glad you’re planning on writing on the crazy economics of school fundraisers. Our box top coordinator said she has family all over the country mail her box tops (and of course she encouraged us to do it too!) This year, apparently, they decided the wrapping paper fundraiser has been moved totally online. We’re supposed to order a $10 roll of wrapping paper so 40% will go to the school. I think I should just buy a 3-pack at Target for $5 and give the school $5. We both come out ahead.

        1. I sort of feel the same about these fund-raisers, but now that I’ve ordered and used some of the fundraising gift wrap from my kids’ school, I have to admit that the fundraising gift wrap is much better than the stuff in the 3-packs at Target, and makes me happier to use it. It has sturdier paper and cleverer and/or more beautiful designs. Some of it is reversible, so you can wrap complementary presents.

          I didn’t think I really cared about that kind of thing very much, but one year I was using cheap 3-pack wrapping paper and it ripped a lot on the corners and the presents didn’t look that nice. And if the presents don’t look nice, why bother wrapping them?

          I know it sounds rather overly frugal, but I actually save nice gift wrap and re-use it, and the cheap 3-pack stuff also doesn’t re-use very well. It fades and it’s even worse with the ripping the second time around.

          1. @Karen- we totally re-use gift bags. They’re often so nice, it seems a shame to use them just once! Of course, this doesn’t work if the person wrote on the attached tag (or at least doesn’t work as well).

    1. @Carrie – I love this sudden twist on the baking narrative. Baking homemade goodies goes from being something a good mother does to being something dangerous and frowned upon. How quickly the stories can change!

  3. My husband does dentist appointments for the kids, too- he schedules them and takes the kids to them. I schedule the doctor’s appointments, but he sometimes takes the kids to them. It depends on who has meetings. We also switch off staying home with sick kids. We divide up our chores around the house, and he is far more likely to pick up the toys on the floor at night than I am (although most nights, neither of us does this- except Wednesdays, when I will often pick things up so I can do yoga the next morning). This seems normal to both of us, and neither of us ever considered having things any other way.
    If I’ve learned anything from my various attempts at talking/posting about chores and couples, though, it is that a lot of women do not have partners who do these things, and do not think it is normal to have a partner who does these things. They wonder how I made this happen- but then are a bit horrified by my statement that I would divorce a man who did not view the chores as equally his responsibility. Of course, the more accurate statement is that I would never have married him in the first place. And I recently had a conversation with a friend who knows women whose husbands would divorce them (or at least start cheating on them) if they don’t keep their weight down and their appearance up to levels that I have never bothered with. I cannot imagine putting up with such expectations from my husband. Again, I don’t think I would have married such a man- or more accurately, such a man would never have continued to date me for long! So I think that there are women for whom Spar’s assumptions ring true. And there may even be more of those women than women like me.
    On fundraising- we’ve decided we’ll just write checks. I refuse to do silly fundraisers. We wrote our first big check a couple of weeks ago. However, I think the Box Tops thing might have value in our school, which is a magnet and pulls kids from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, because it is a way for the families who can’t just write a big check to feel like they are contributing to the fundraising effort, too. So I won’t argue with it.

    1. Cloud, this is exactly the reason I do the Box Tops. Yes, my husband and I can just afford to write a check to our kid’s school, but I know that many of the parents who’s kids attend my daughter’s school can not just do that. I also like the way it motivates my daughter to participate (see my comment above about the incentives that her school does to get kids to participate). She gets excited about raising money for her school and learns some things that just writing a check could never teach her.

  4. I needed to hear this today: “It is simply not part of my worldview that store bought cookies say anything other than that stores sell them and I bought them.” Planning for guests who’ll come over Friday has had me ruminating about what to bake. Seriously? Why do I think I need to bake? I’ll be more hospitable and fun if I’m rested, not tired from mixing, kneading, etc. at 9:00 the night before. Besides, that’s what grocery stores are for.

    1. @Susan – glad to hear I’m providing inspirational quotes as needed! Good luck with the dinner party. Yes, it turns out that grocery stores sell all kinds of useful, wonderful foods that people eat. I don’t ferment my own grapes for wine, and people seem to think store bought wine is all right, so it seems logical to extend that thought process to food too…

  5. My husband and I have what I would consider a pretty even split in household chores. I haven’t had to clean the bathroom in years. I know it’s not like this for every woman…but I am glad my life is fair in this regard!

    I feel really conflicted about school fundraisers. I’d rather write a check, but some families can’t do that (my parents couldn’t have when I was in elementary school). My older son’s previous elementary school (by far the majority of parents there could have easily afforded to write checks) used to pull all of the kids out of class into an all-school assembly once a year, where the PTA would hand out catalogs for things like wrapping paper and cheap trinkets. They would try to get the kids excited by really talking up the prizes they could “earn” by selling. I was honestly kind of annoyed that they would take up class time to do this, rather than just send the materials home with a note to parents.

  6. Who is this woman tottering around on Manolo Blaniks cooking quinoa and fielding calls from the president? I want to meet her because people keep writing about this elusive ‘having it all’ woman and she doesn’t sound like anyone I know.

    Life is how you frame it. If you hate your job and it sucks the life out of you, of course your family is going to suffer. If you love your job, but it poses some extreme demands on you occasionally, you’ll work it out. I never apologize to my kids for working.

    And…speaking of kids…and these mythical women who are trying to be perfect (again, not anyone I know). What about making the kids clean up? What about giving them chores? What about saying ‘no’ to underwater fencing class?

    And finally, oh, the irony. These educated, highly successful women who have probably raised pretty decent kids keep telling us that it is just impossible to have a career and a family. It’s difficult, but everything worth having in life requires some amount of sacrifice.

  7. There is a ton of great stuff here. I am a bit horrified about writing a check for my kids’ fundraiser and think that the backlash against GS cookies and other things is missing the point of — AN OPPORTUNITY TO GET KIDS TO SELL ! Why would you write a check when you could use this opportunity to teach your kids to sell and entrepreneurship. To me teaching my kids to sell an also to network and to be able to fend for themselves are great things. If you just write a check I think a learning opportunity that is possibly more valuable than a lot of what is learned in school is missed.

    1. I dunno, what I always learned in these fundraisers was that the person who won was the one whose parents were able to twist the most arms at their places of work.
      Personally, I’m all about cost-benefit analysis of effort and think that learning the value of time/effort vs. money is a good one. There are many more ways to contribute to the economy than as a sales person and many more ways to learn to sell oneself than by going door to door with your parents (since it’s no longer safe to go by oneself) selling over-priced crap. (Exception made for girlscout cookies which are not crap.)
      It’s good to learn not to get taken-in by MLM schemes too. The world would be a better place if fewer moms tried to sell their passion parties/candles/vitamin water etc. at their friends and acquaintances.

    2. I’m sorry I horrify you! I think we are making different assumptions about what will help a kid develop the skills she needs in life and how best to grow those skills. And that is fine- our kids will probably turn out to have different skills, and as long as I try to listen to what my kid actually wants to do, I’m OK with that. Personally, I SUCKED at those school fundraisers, and hated them. And yet, here I am, a well-networked professional who has plenty of confidence. I still dislike untargeted business development- but that is fine, because that isn’t what I want to do or how I add value to my organization. And when I’ve been in organizations that need technical support for sales efforts, I have no problem doing that. When I’ve had things I care about to try to sell/partner, I’ve had no problem doing that. I also have no problem advocating for my group within the organization. What I don’t do well is sell something I’m not personally invested in. Perhaps if my parents had made me take those fundraising efforts more seriously, I would be. Perhaps not. There are career paths other than selling, and some of them are quite good. If my kids are interested in trying to sell, of course I’ll let them. But I won’t force them, and I won’t add it to my list of things to do, either.

      1. Also, I don’t think there’s any backlash against girlscout cookies. Those things sell themselves and the mark-up isn’t that large considering that they’re a duopoly without so very close substitutes (as in, they’re expensive because only two companies sell them and quantities are artificially limited). However, most school fundraisers sell over-priced crap that people only buy in order to support the school, and would not buy if they were in the grocery store.
        I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy girl scout cookies to support girlscouts, but because I like thin mints and samoas.

  8. @Cara – I agree about the opportunities to sell and gain confidence in speaking with adults. I was amazed last year by our 10 year old’s zeal to which he took to the neighborhood for several days selling goodies and wrapping paper. It was also terrific to hear the feedback from neighbors unsolicited and he took pride in being top seller in the school. For the magazine drives, my other son uses it as an opportunity to call and chat with extended family members about renewals – but no hard selling. My basic philosophy is if the child is interested in doing it, then they do. If not, then they don’t. There is no pressure or involvement from us.
    * Regarding the arm-twisting philosophy – I will admit that I was one of those GS who sent her father to law school armed with the cookie order form. Though he was originally hesitant, he quickly found he had nothing to do to but pass the sheet around and law school students were only to eager to sign up for Thin Mints, etc. So really, it was arm twisting done by my sister and me so could earn the trip to Kings Island!
    * Our schools tend to take a one year on, one year off approach to selling drives vs event fundraisers. They are always happy to have a check.
    * Regarding baking, I adopt a similar philosophy as with fundraisers. If our kids are interested in helping with the baking, then we do it. If they aren’t, we don’t.
    * Lastly, my husband would be happy to be married to anyone who feels the house needs to be cleaned up every night. He is willing to do it on occasion and does. But otherwise we meet somewhere in the middle on acceptable levels of tidiness and agree that we have bigger priorities.

  9. I was wondering what your take on this article was:

    I’ve seen it shared on Facebook about a zillion times in the past few days, and then I read this blog post and it seemed to fit right in with what you were saying.

    The article itself, which is called “The Mom Stays in the Picture,” is sweetly written, and the pictures are cute, but it strikes me as addressing another one of those perfectionist narratives that seem silly to those who don’t share the narrative.

    The idea of being in pictures with your kids–even if you (gasp) haven’t applied make-up or are “carrying a little baby weight,” is being presented like it’s something daring and scandalous. Apparently for some women it takes a high-profile article with 600K+ hits in the Huffington Post and a “photo challenge” to get them to even consider it.

    Really? That idea was never part of my world view before this article. My husband and father are both big shutterbugs and I am in TONS of pictures with my kids. I never really thought about it before, except to point out occasionally that I too know how to use a camera and would like to be the one *taking* the pictures sometimes.

    It’s really surprising to me that the perfectionist narrative described in that article resonated with so many women. Even the author said, in a follow-up, that she was “stunned” by the response.

    1. @Karen – wow, thanks for sharing that. I hadn’t read Allison’s article (wonder how I missed it?). That’s great for her that it got so many reads/shares. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone tries to get her to write a book or something out of it. I’m thrilled for her.

      But yes, that essay does fit in with the perfectionist narrative – I think there was a line about how no one notices her circling the supermarket looking for special treats or making sure all the stuffed animals are on the bed. I think it it makes you happy to do those things, then do them. If it doesn’t make you happy? Then why subscribe to the narrative that the good mother is doing things that kids don’t notice and she doesn’t enjoy just because that’s what a good mother does?

      I may have to blog about this piece next week, so thanks for sending it along.

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