There are a lot of women out there who are like-minded in their assumption that, in order to achieve success, they need to be everything to everyone all the time. Now, they might not verbalize it that way, but that is the mindset from which they operate. Admittedly, sometimes I am one of these women. I come by my superwoman alter ego honestly. Executive. Parent. Wife. Taxi Service. Scheduler. Soccer Mom. Overnight Doctor. The list goes on. Unfortunately, the consistent drive to maintain impractical standards of success has worn us down.
I recently finished a terrific book that came out this year titled, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, by Debora Spar, president of Barnard College. She is a former professor at Harvard Business School, mother of three children, and author. I read the book cover to cover and Spar has plenty of wisdom for any woman who is feeling leaden by be-all/do-all expectations, whether self-imposed, society-driven or both.
In Wonder Women, Spar makes insightful observations on the progression of the feminist agenda in America and how for the generation of women born in the 1960s, feminism wasn't attractive, nor was it intended to be: "Feminism was meant to remove a fixed set of expectations; instead, we now interpret it as a route to personal perfection. Because we feel we can do anything, we feel we have to do everything." In her view, women have made two mistakes: we've privatized feminism and made it a quest for perfection and ratcheted up expectations.
In September, Spar was interviewed by Terry Gross for NPR's "Fresh Air" and referenced how much of the media in the 1970s showed "effortless images of women combining the traditional lives of women as wives and mothers, with this new, exciting reality of being astronauts and astrophysicists and pretty much anything they wanted to be." As we have aged, not only are women trying to do it all, but they are also battling feelings of guilt or inadequacy when the quest to "have it all" ultimately fails.
This quest for perfection primarily revolves around two pillars of life: work and family. For example, women, especially working mothers, tend to go home after their 9-5 to a "second shift." A wholly different job taking care of the family. I had this experience when I worked in a corporate management job after having my first child. I constantly struggled with meeting my professional demands while ensuring I tended to the needs of my family. After finally accepting that this obligation wasn't sustainable, my own work/life conundrum soon became a springboard to starting my company, Mom Corps.
Finding solutions and accepting our human limitations is a step toward taking back a little control. Here are a few of my own takeaways from Spar's book that I think are worth sharing:
1. Take back your moments. I find peace when I live in the moment -- it works for me, for my three kids and husband, and for my company. It's what allows me to enjoy all the aspects of my life. I'm not saying it's easy, quite the contrary. Sometimes insanity gets the better of me and I wear down fingernails trying to hold onto some element of control, but if I can recall most of the moments, I feel I've been successful.
2. Learn to say "No thank you." It's easy to recognize that you're saying "yes" to every request, but much more difficult to actually say "no" and walk away for fear of letting someone down. But just do it. Be honest and people will respect your decision, and may even be inspired by your self-monitoring abilities.
3. Fess up. From my own experience, it's important to recognize and acknowledge when our quest for perfection is in fact making nothing work. The power of sharing candidly with each other why we struggle to be and do everything will alleviate some of the pressure and those self-imposed expectations. Tell me you don't feel better after one of your girlfriend get-togethers.
I am active in a global women's network called 85 Broads which gives me the opportunity to connect and collaborate with other professionals who have the common goal of helping each other succeed. The power that comes from sharing stories is tangible with this group which makes it such a valuable resource. It's with that in mind that I share one final thought.
Spar writes that women must give up on the impossible idea of "having it all" offering caution against the idea that anybody can live a life without tradeoffs and imperfections. I believe women can -- and should -- define on her own terms what it means to be a superwoman, or a regular woman for that matter. Once we do this, we can help teach our new generations that they have choices and are in charge of their own destiny, even if like me, that destiny changes along the way.
How do you define your superwoman? Please share your stories.