10/23/2013 02:41 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Forget About Controlling Your Thighs, and Other Wisdom from Debora Spar's Wonder Women

The damn pumpkins are out again. And the mums, skeletons and hay bales, too. Whenever a third-rate holiday approaches that showcases a woman's domestic and mothering skills, I feel my usual sense of inadequacy and regret. Not once during my children's young lives did I create a Halloween costume out of paint and cardboard, let alone dress up as Cleopatra or make homemade caramel apples. "Decorating" meant getting the pumpkins scooped out and cut up before the first trick-or-treaters arrived. Even worse, I failed to acquire UNICEF boxes so my children could learn a valuable lesson about sharing and human suffering. Instead, I offered them 20 bucks each for their whole stash to keep them from getting fat and sugar-addled.

Many women share this sense of inadequacy, according to Debora Spar's latest book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. Just when they should be enjoying the hard-won benefits of feminism, including more career and family choices, modern and educated middle-class women- - and Spar makes clear that she is talking about a narrow, relatively privileged cohort -- are wallowing in self-imposed misery. Spar is the President of Barnard College, and from all appearances something of a wonder woman herself. But in this thoughtful and often personal book, we get a glimpse into her own battle with perfectionism and develop a clearer sense of why so many capable women feel so rotten while doing so much.

For any woman who has grappled with competing identities over the years, Spar's book is a refreshing acknowledgement of the impossible expectations women carry around with them, starting in adolescence and extending into old age.

Chapter by chapter, Spar tackles the stages of a woman's life, exploring the themes that seem to follow (or shackle) most women, and highlighting the contradictory expectations many carry around. Young girls are encouraged to indulge their fascination with Barbies and princesses, but are also instructed to excel in school, go out for soccer and basketball and dream about changing the world. By adolescence, when they've become sexually mature, many girls engage in hook-ups with just as much frequency and enthusiasm as boys. The problem with all these expectations is that the girls are miserable: more depressed, more prone to alcohol and drug abuse and apt to starve themselves. "We told them to be smart, and then doused them with glittery body mist en route to the makeup party at Claire's," Spar writes. "The result is confusion, and an awful lot of guilt."

Ironically, the quest for perfection is an unintended consequence of feminism. Because while feminists argued that women should have the same freedoms as men to live the lives they desire -- be they wives, mothers, career gals, serial daters, entrepreneurs -- girls and young women have interpreted it as a mandate to be and do more. "This is the unanticipated double whammy that confronts women today: the unexpected agglomeration of all the roles that society has historically heaped upon them plus the new roles and opportunities created by feminism."

Spar hits her stride when delving into modern motherhood, where the pursuit of perfection is played out in the lives of kids at the mothers' expense. During the "Mad Men" generation, she writes, mothers were encouraged by child-rearing experts like Dr. Spock to set limits and show love, but not to fret too much over the details of their children's lives. Today, of course, middle and upper-middle class mothers are expected to account for every waking moment of their children's lives, by cultivating their intellects, honing or creating a musical/artistic/athletic skill, and staying on top of their diets, whereabouts, and friends. This total immersion into the lives of their offspring comes at a cost, as any mother with interests outside the home quickly learns. According to Spar, modern mothers have less time for themselves than Betty Draper and her ilk; they have fewer hours to sleep, read, or engage in civic organizations than their own mothers did.

The children on the receiving end of all this nurturing and maintenance -- so much of it designed to add zest to a college application -- don't do so well in this arrangement either, Spar adds. "As a college president," she writes, "someone who oversees the review of roughly six thousand carefully crafted applications every year, let me promise you: we don't care."

Spar is conversational and funny, and it's easy to imagine sharing a cocktail and talking into the wee hours about feminism, marriage and children. Her gift is an ability to relate to the reader in a way that feels relaxed and genuine, in part because she shares her own stories without layers of high gloss. Thus, we learn about her struggle with anorexia, her early dismissal of feminism, and her decision to have breast reduction surgery. Her personal stories never feel self-indulgent or forced, but add sparkle to a well-worn subject.

She is also comfortable expressing both uncertainty and strong opinions. With regard to women's obsession with beauty, for example, she refuses to take the easy route and point the finger at men or advertising. "We're doing it to ourselves," she suggests, perhaps because "beauty, like love or sex, ignites a desire that outruns reason." On why professional women, particularly those in banking, law, and consulting, leave their careers sooner than men, she proposes this: "They go because the kids are weary and the dinners are rushed and the job, after ten or twenty years of working, has ceased to deliver the thrill it once did." She also contends that women are by nature more collaborative and risk-averse than men, with predictable consequences at work.

In the final section, Spar offers some far-reaching ideas on how to restore sanity to women's lives. Tackling something this broad lends itself to sweeping recommendations, and her ideas for changing organizations aren't especially original; of course sexual harassment must end, more women need to make it to the tops of companies, and men should treat their female colleagues equally. Even so, she gets the broad strokes right, and sneaks in some practical advice that would rankle old-school feminists. Spar accurately asserts that children are not projects or assignments requiring short stints of attention, but rather lifelong beings that demand years of energy and care; ignoring the facts of biology and reproduction, she suggests, is folly. She also advises young women to understand the realities of fertility, especially how it declines with age, and to plan their professional and personal lives accordingly.

Spar is most persuasive when she calls on women to give up on perfecting their bodies, families, careers and homes, and to relax their standards on stuff that doesn't matter. "They need -- consciously, explicitly, and happily -- to take whole chunks of activities off their to-do lists and add still others to their to-do-less-well lists," she writes. Spar also urges women to engage in the public sphere and to seek empowerment rather than self-control. "Because in the end, the only thing you can really control is your thighs," she writes. "And they just don't matter that much."

Near the close of the book, Spar includes a section on tombstone slogans, where she attacks the oft-heard phrase that this or that organization "really needs a woman." I'd like to add another slogan that should be banished from the discourse: "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." No, I'm afraid some things just have to be done, period, and time spent perfecting the making of a bed or the shape of one's fanny might just be time wasted. Having happily given up the pursuit of outdoor holiday décor -- you'll find no hay bales at our front door -- I have a slogan picked out for my tombstone that's in keeping with Spar's advice. Worn-out modern women with too much to do may consider adopting it, too: "I just didn't get to it."