Why Women Should Stop Trying to Be Perfect

For Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Barnard President Debora Spar writes about the challenges of “having it all” and why women should stop trying to be perfect. An excerpt:

“To begin with, we need to acknowledge that biology matters—not that it determines everything, but that it’s one of those areas of life that probably shouldn’t be ignored. This isn’t to argue that women’s bodies condemn them to a particular fate, but really just to state the obvious: that women experience pregnancy and childbirth in a deeply physical way. Women are the ones who carry the child for nine months, and whose bodies leap instantly after labor to sustain that child through the first critical months of life. These are the physiological aspects of mothering that defy government regulation and corporate policy. And they are not going away.”

“But there are also attitudes and relationships that can make these facts of life infinitely easier—or more difficult—to handle. When my first child was born, I was lucky. I was still in graduate school, able to control my own schedule and surrounded by hordes of eager undergraduate babysitters. I was a young professor when my second son was born, though, and due to be back in the classroom less than three months after giving birth. I made one research trip in the intervening time, fervently pumping breast milk during an early-morning drive, much to the shock and consternation of my research assistant. I attended seminars—and heard for years afterward from one colleague how amused he was to see me “in your shlumpy clothes, like you’d just gotten out of bed!” (No, I just GAVE BIRTH, you idiot.) And I went back into the classroom with suits that barely fit and a body still physically committed to my son, not my students. Within weeks, it proved too much. I gave up nursing, gave up pumping, and tried diligently to avoid all the studies telling me how much healthier it was for a woman to breast-feed her child. When I survived—barely—the end of that semester, a colleague helpfully suggested that I end class by jumping out of a cake.”

“These are the pressures that are tougher to address. Of course, companies should strive to create generous maternity leaves and family-friendly workplaces and private pumping rooms for new mothers. And yes, governments should aim to provide more accessible and affordable child care. But at the end of the day, women who juggle children and jobs will still face a discrete and serious set of tensions that simply don’t confront either men (except in very rare cases) or women who remain childless. Women cannot avoid these tensions entirely, but they can make choices—and plans, if they’re lucky—that acknowledge them more carefully. Women can choose, for instance, between jobs in far-off cities and those that leave them closer to family and friends willing to help with the inevitable crises of child-rearing. They can choose not to breast-feed their babies for as long as they might ideally like, or to resist the lure of attachment parenting. They can choose whether to have children earlier in their lives or later, and indeed whether to have them at all. The point is that women need to make these choices and plans consciously rather than simply hoping for the best and trying to do it all. Because unless biology truly undergoes a revolution, the task of bearing babies will fall always on women. And having babies imposes consequences that cannot, and should not, be denied.”

“Meanwhile, if women are ever to solve the “women’s problem,” they need to acknowledge that they cannot do it alone. Men must help. This isn’t because women aren’t smart enough, or unable to garner sufficient power. It’s just the basic math. Women account for only 50 percent of the population and far less than 50 percent of the decision-making seats in any organization. If women want to change the world, they need to involve men as well.”

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