Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Ladies, stop trying to be perfect!

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
October 2, 2013 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Modern women morphed feminism into perfectionism, according to new book
  • The book's author, Debora Spar, is president of Barnard College and a mom of three
  • Spar says women should "fess up" and admit they can't do it all perfectly
  • She also says we need to bring men into the conversation

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- I usually catch myself before I utter the p-word to one of my daughters, but every once in a while it comes flying out of my mouth and I cringe.

"You look perfect," I might say when one of them gets dressed up for a holiday.

After I say it, I immediately wish I had my own personal eraser button because I've been plagued by an intense perfectionism for pretty much my entire life -- and the last thing I want to do is pass along that horrible trait to my children.

It began with the quest to be the perfect daughter, then student, then news correspondent, then career woman, then wife and now mother. I consider myself improving based upon the fact that I didn't get up at 4:30 a.m. to write the perfect piece. I figured sleep is just as important.

Opinion: Why is having 'having it all' just a women's issue?

I know I am not alone. In her new book, "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection," Debora Spar, who is president of Barnard College, talks about that relentless need that many of us modern women feel to be perfect in every aspect of our lives. For some reason, nearly 50 years after Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and the women's movement, we morphed feminism into perfectionism, says Spar.

"I'm not entirely sure why but I think one of the things that happened without anyone meaning for it to happen is that as we generationally all got excited with these tremendous opportunities that were being created for women, we kind of built a myth and an illusion around it," said Spar, a mother of three, during a recent interview in which she got very personal. She revealed she had a breast reduction at age 21 because she felt her body would keep her from being taken seriously as a professional. (You can see the full interview here.)

The work-life balance
Do men really have it all?
Facebook boss empowers women
Sandberg insults some women
Managing your work-life balance

The myth about balancing motherhood and a successful career

The media definitely played a role in our perfectionism, Spar said, pointing to commercials like one for Revlon's Charlie perfume in the '70s, which I still remember so vividly. It featured the model Shelley Hack, playing a sleek and sexy businesswoman with a baby who dazzles her husband and every other man who passes her by.

That's how life was supposed to be for the modern working woman, right? And it was supposed to be easy, too?

"I think that's really the kicker," said Spar. "We not only thought that we would have all of these things at once but that somehow we would glide into this life without really having to work very hard, without struggling, without failing, without getting depressed, and the result of that sadly is that when our lives of course become harder and become messier we somehow feel like we failed."

Sheryl Sandberg at BlogHer: Not everyone woman has to be a CEO

While we've been at this perfectionism thing for several decades now, and habits are oh-so-tough to break, Spar offers some great tips on how we can slowly try to change, and also, perhaps most importantly, shares tips on how we can prevent our daughters from following in our not-so-perfect footsteps.

1. Fess Up -- Women who look like they have it all should start admitting the truth, says Spar. "And admit that even if I look like I'm keeping all the balls in the air, they're dropping all over the place," she said. It may seem like a small thing but the power of women talking candidly about the decisions they make and being more honest about the tradeoffs that "everybody's life entails" can hopefully take some of the pressure off women and girls, she added.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

2. Say No -- N-O. I am spelling the word because it is just so darn hard for me to say, and that's part of my problem, and the problem of so many other modern women. Spar says we should write down everything we are doing in our lives, cut out three or four responsibilities we can get rid of and then "say no consciously" to additional tasks. "I think where I get into trouble and I see lots of people getting into trouble is when you say maybe. 'I'll try to be there. I'll try to do it.' Just say, 'I don't do that. I don't travel on weekends. I don't go to conferences. I don't do bake sales,' whatever it is and just consciously say, 'I'm not going to do that.'" (My mother-in-law uses a fabulous expression: "Gee, that doesn't work for me." It works every time I have the courage to say it!)

3. Get rid of the guilt -- How many times do you say yes to a work event or a social outing because you feel like you should be there and not because you really want to attend? Spar says her son came up with a list for her. "Every time I was considering whether or not to go to an event, he would say, 'Is it good for your job? Do you have to go? And will it be fun? And if the answer to all those three questions is no, don't go.' And it's amazing how many things fall off your calendar if you run through that little list."

4. 'Satisfice' -- It's a term that comes out of economics and is often used by negotiators. It means not going for your first best option, said Spar, but it doesn't mean settling for less. It just means having a "whole array of options" to consider. "Because all too often I think we think in black and white terms. If I'm not secretary of state, I've failed. If I'm not running the corporation, I've failed. Well, what's the next step down, what's the third step down? And I think it's a useful concept to realize that just because you didn't get exactly what you wanted doesn't mean you didn't get something that's really good," she said. (Incidentally, Spar says her dream "was" to be secretary of state. I noted, "There's still time!")

5. It's about men, too -- We can't do this all by ourselves, says Spar. Our husbands, brothers and male colleagues need to be part of it, too. "Men obviously have to pick up some of the housework, some of the child care and women have to let men do that," she added. "I won't let my husband make the school lunches because he's not going to do it quite as beautifully as I will. He's not going to ask all of the right questions at the parent-teacher conference, so I always have to go, too. We have to move away from that and I think there are a lot of men who really want to be more involved in their kids' life and in their home life but sometimes the women are shutting them out because the men will do things differently."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

Have you been struggling with that quest to be perfect at work, at home, with your kids and your husband? Tell us in the comments below.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
Not knowing exactly where her ancestors come from has always bothered Kelly Wallace, but she's heartened to learn about some of the famous cousins she never knew she had.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Many superstar athletes from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods were ultimately forgiven by fans and the public. Could Ray Rice also get a second chance?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using physical force to discipline kids.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
cara reedy
The world often treats little people like Cara Reedy as less than human. She's learned to stand up for herself and shout back.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
The unheard voices of domestic abuse spoke up on CNN iReport when Rihanna's story of abuse came to light. In light of the Ray Rice controversy, we decided to bring back these stories that are still just as powerful as the day they were told.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, and the damage can last a lifetime.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
As media outlets Monday circulated video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman -- now his wife -- could remain with him.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
The ways mother-daughter book clubs can help empower girls are the focus of a new book, "Her Next Chapter."
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1344 GMT (2144 HKT)
Colleges are working to prevent sexual assault by educating students on affirmative consent, or only "yes means yes."
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A mom questions if she wants her daughters seeing a "sado-masochistic relationship, dressed up as a Hollywood love fantasy?"
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
In 2014, why is society still so incredibly uncomfortable with public breastfeeding? Kelly Wallace gets to the root of the controversy.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught -- her two children were addicts.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0225 GMT (1025 HKT)
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0036 GMT (0836 HKT)
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1916 GMT (0316 HKT)
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she was working sparks debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cellphones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT