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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Mothering at Mid-Career: Not Perfect
October 1, 2012 - 4:38pm

Let me start by staying I do not aspire to perfection. (If you've ever seen my house you will know that this is a gross understatement.) So you would think I'd be in complete agreement with Barnard President Debora Spar, whose recent piece in Newsweek is titled, "Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect." Spar's piece is accessible, clear, and often grimly funny in the way people sharing parenting stories can be. She writes of delivering a lecture in a suit that smelled of baby vomit, of slipping out of meetings to attend piano recitals, of missing track meets when a deadline loomed. I get it: she's been there, she's juggled home and family, and she has the scars to prove it.

So when she says that it should have been easier, that there should be more support for women doing what she did, and that there should be more women in leadership positions, I can only agree. And I am happy to be living in a time when women in positions like hers can confess the difficulty of meeting expectations, of "doing it all." Many of us look like we're "doing it all"—the home, the family, the job, the spouse—but in fact are juggling, are neglecting one for another, are feeling, often, far too close to the edge—or even just over it. But when women in leadership positions like Spar confess their difficulties, they make the rest of us, I think, feel a little better about our own "failures," our own difficult choices. Or I know I do.

So why does this piece leave me somehow frustrated? It's anecdotes like the one about the MacArthur-winning professor and parent who told a graduate student that if she wanted to know what her colleagues thought she read their books. Really? Spar seems to cite her approvingly as someone who managed a kind of balance for herself that enabled her to get her work done. She writes that "If you want to know what your colleagues think, you don’t, in fact, have to spend endless hours chatting over coffee. You can read their books. 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. Sometimes, you can pack Ring Dings instead."

But when I talk to my colleagues about their work, I don't trivialize our conversation by thinking of it as "endless hours chatting over coffee." I think of it as my writing group, for example, where four of us sit (yes, sometimes over coffee) offering constructive feedback on each other's work, and learning from them as they think through the difficult questions they are trying to answer. Frankly, that benefits me more than reading their books only after publication would—I get not only the insights into their minds but the benefit of their wise counsel. “Chatting” with my colleagues, as I see it, is part of my work—giving it up would seem to me to be giving in, and in fact throwing my lot in with the perfectionists.

And no one I know is trying to bake perfect madeleines for the second-grade fair. In fact, alas, too many schools will no longer accept home-baked goods for fear of potential allergens, or contamination, or I-don't-know-what fear of the week. But in fact I can relax better baking a couple of sheets of cookies to take in for a bake sale (when it's allowed) than I could by doing additional grocery shopping and spending money on food I'd rather my kids not eat. Your mileage may vary—I’m not saying you should bake. I’m saying, it all comes down to cases.

Of course here I am nit-picking the examples and not getting at the underlying message Spar means to convey, which is that we should all stop sweating the small stuff and focus on what's really important. That if we give ourselves a break and stop trying to be perfect, we can be pretty good, which is almost always good enough. I do get that, really I do. But what if I've already stopped sweating the small stuff, and I'm still overburdened? What if my college just "needs another woman" on a committee, and I can't say no to the additional hours of work? What if my child has special needs and I need to be vigilant about his IEP, or her food allergies? Many academic parents I know have already organized potlucks and babysitting co-ops, two of Spar's suggestions for how we can share the work and ease the pressure on ourselves. But, again, what if we have already done that and are still feeling stuck, anxious, or unfulfilled?

Finally, I guess, reading Spar's article made me feel as I had reading Allison Pearson's 2003 novel, I Don't Know How She Does It.  Almost a decade ago, Pearson identified the "problem" of balance for working women as a personal one, one that has to do with the unattainable goal of perfection, rather than with structural issues in our society that make "perfection" only just "good enough" for most women. That is, when we don't see women as CEOs, college presidents, and top-flight researchers—or, even more, when we see women who were on track for those positions step off the track (or, worse, get pushed off by promotion denials or more subtle underminings) it still looks as if aiming for perfection is the only way for women to succeed. It’s the Ginger Rogers problem: do it all in heels, backward, and you still don’t get the credit your male partner does. To suggest that individual compromises are the way to attack that problem seems to me too limited—it also seems to me to deny the power society and, perhaps especially, media have in creating the problem.

Spar's right that the world has changed greatly in our lifetimes with regard to gender and power. And she's also right, of course, that we may have more agency than we think in changing the culture around us. But it's not unlimited. Institutions need to change too, and until they do, perfection may still feel like the only route to "good enough," and that's too bad.


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