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You Are an Unholy Mess—Embrace It

Vivia Chen

October 3, 2012

© pzRomashka - Fotolia.comOh, no, no, no! Not another article about whether women can possibly have it all. Didn't Anne-Marie Slaughter just tell us, "forget it, girls"—thereby setting off an exhausting round of debate on the whole work/life balance mess? If you're like me, you're probably feeling fatigued by the issue, and just want to see it go away for a while.

But Barnard College president Debora Spar doesn't seem deterred. Recently, she waded into those choppy waters in The Daily Beast. She describes how women have set up unrealistic expectations about themselves:

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.

Spar reminds us that the women's movement was suppose to liberate us; instead, it's contributed to the "double whammy of impossible expectations." And chasing that idea (or ideal) of balance is actually making women even less balanced:

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.

 Though Spar doesn't openly criticize Slaughter for using her own work/life balance problems to make a broader statement about the overall condition of women, I think she does so obliquely. Unlike Slaughter who rails against the demands of an unrelenting workplace (such as her job at the U.S. Department of State) and policies that don't take full recognition of family demands, Spar argues that the problem has much to do with women's own hyped-up expectations of themselves:

This is because many of the problems that plague women now are not due to either government policy or overt discrimination. They cannot be resolved solely by money, and they are not caused only by men. Instead, the problems we face are subtler. They come partly from the media, partly from society, partly from biology, and partly from our own vastly unrealistic expectations.

This might be interpreted in some quarters as a "blame-the-victim" type of message, but I think Spar is right on point. Many times, we, women, are our worst enemies. We guilt-trip ourselves (and each other) about what a "good mom" should do, and just run ourselves ragged.

I see this syndrome at my children's schools where both working and nonworking mothers set the volunteer bar so ridiculously high that school events, like auctions and fairs, often resemble Broadway productions. I used to think that having a full-time job would give me an acceptable excuse to opt out of all that. Not so. One year I was "assigned" to be a class mom because I was outed as the only one who had not yet served. I felt like a cheater, especially since high-powered moms (law firm partners, investment bankers, talent agents, etc.) always seem so damn cheerful about volunteering. Not only was I a slacker, but I had a terrible attitude.

Spar's message that women should give themselves a break is not new (click here and here about the tyranny of supermomdom), but we all need reminding—lots of reminding. She says we can make choices about our careers and families—when and if to take a demanding job that requires traveling, whether to breast-feed our kids until they are toddlers, etc. We don't have to do it all, and it doesn't have to be perfect, she says.

Amen. If only she could write an excuse letter on my behalf.

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It is refreshing to realize that I am not alone in these constant self imposed guilt- trips that I am not doing it all perfectly! I don't even know what quinoa is but for some I feel like I should. Fortunately I was able to work out a part time telecommuting position, I really don't know how I did it all before. I guess contantly reminding yourself of all the truths in this article would certainly help.

Luckily for me, most of the moms at my daughter's public school don't look like models - but they do have the time to do all the dang volunteering that I can't and good grief who can keep up with all the paperwork?

Agree. The competitive parenting movement is tough. I'm just getting a dose of that as my oldest starts school among the children of the Real Houewives of My City. Sheesh. The moms look like models, and are always dressed with hair and makeup that looks camera-ready. I am part of a minority of moms who work real jobs (not counting the part time cupcake shoppe), I'm in BigLaw, and I often feel like I'm going to be behind in every front, when really, my practice is good, my kids are good, and I've had a shower. I'm calling that a victory!

Dare I suggest we look to men as our role models? How many of them strive for perfection? - and look how confident they are!

Amen. In addition to the wounds women inflict on themselves as a result of high expectations, women sometimes wound each other through competitiveness. Being the "perfect mother" has become a sport.

"The more things change..." as
they say, ..the more we must find allies in the on going work of women's equality and respectful treatment by their husbands and male colleagues . We're getting closer.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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