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?