Moving Beyond Perfectionism and Finding a Work-Life Fit: Lessons from Marissa Mayer and Anne-Marie Slaughter

Our responses to Mayer and Slaughter are holding up a mirror to us, reflecting some societal expectations and behavior that I think should be called into question.
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In the July 18th Wall Street Journal blog live chat discussing their article on Marissa Mayer, my opening line was "We are THE STORY." The story is less the fact that Yahoo! appointed a pregnant CEO, Marissa Mayer, or, for that matter, that Princeton's Anne-Marie Slaughter realized after taking a State Department job that "Women Still Can't Have It All." It's how WE are responding to these situations that is the most interesting story.

And we are responding in huge numbers. Anne-Marie Slaughter's article in the Atlantic has reached the highest numbers of readers in that magazine's history, and Marissa Mayer's story was up there in popularity with the hard news stories of the day.

Much of the public response is that these two stories are about very privileged women -- not about lower-income women who have always worked hard -- and not about men. Both groups absolutely need and deserve attention. But nevertheless, our responses to Mayer and Slaughter are holding up a mirror to us, reflecting some societal expectations and behavior that I think should be called into question.

The first issue is what's expected of young women. It was best described in a recent blog by Julie Zeilinger, a 19-year-old undergraduate student at Barnard College. She writes about "the pressure put on young women to be perfect." She quotes Courtney E. Martin, who said that by telling young women they could be anything, they heard that they had to BE everything.

Zeilinger continues:

The recent debate over "having it all" underscores the pressure women put themselves under to perfectly excel in all conceivable areas of our lives.

In my study of how we grow and change as parents, The Six Stages of Parenthood, I found that parents -- rich and poor, from all backgrounds -- begin by wanting to be perfect, but as our children grow, particularly as we deal with issues of becoming an authority to our children in the toddler and preschool years, we realize that we can't be perfect; we reconcile that expectation with reality and work on being "good enough."

It seems, however, that a number of us haven't given up the expectation of perfectionism for our children -- especially our daughters. For my book, Mind in the Making, I interviewed Carol Dweck of Stanford University. She talked about how parents were raising children, particularly in the 1990s:

It was the height of the self-esteem movement. The self-esteem gurus were telling parents [and] teachers, "You must praise your child at every opportunity. Tell them how talented and brilliant they are. This is going to give them confidence and motivation." We took a poll of parents: 85 percent agreed, "You must praise your child's ability to give them confidence and motivation."

No wonder young women heard that they had to BE it all. In our attempts to give our daughters self-confidence, to give them a boost in a world where women have disadvantages, in a world with an over-reliance on tests and with fierce competition for schools and jobs, we may have over-praised them and pushed perfectionism.

The notion of having to BE it all spills into the words we use about work and family, particularly the word "balance." Balance connotes a scale, where we are giving equally -- 50/50 -- to our work and our families. The scale is balanced; we are in harmony.

But that isn't the reality of our lives. We are making decisions all day long about what to prioritize and why. That's why I prefer the term that Cali Yost uses: "work-life fit." It moves us beyond that perfectionism of perfect balance and reinforces the fact that we are always in process of figuring out how to prioritize our lives at work and at home.

The notion of perfectionism also bolsters the idea that there is one right way to do things. In response to Anne-Marie Slaughter, I heard people say: "You can have it all, but just not at the same time." In my studies, that may work for one person, but not another. Or I heard people respond to Marissa Mayer by saying, "You need to take a long maternity leave," rather than the short maternity leave she is planning. There is no magic bullet that works for us all, given the differences in our lives, our incomes, and our job responsibilities.

Another thing strikes me about the public responses to these two stories -- the vitriol; the harsh, at times, abusive criticism we throw at others who manage their work and family lives differently than we do. I call that being "parentist." If you substitute the words "person of color" in some of the statements made about Mayer or Slaughter, they would be seen as racist.

None of this is happening in a vacuum. We are living in a world without adequate child care supports and without adequate flexibility for most people. Our studies show that only about one in four employees has access to high levels of workplace flexibility.

Whether you agree or disagree with Mayer's or Slaughter's life decisions, we can't change things about their lives, but there are things in this world we CAN change. Rather than pushing perfectionism or resorting to being parentist, we can ban together to work for the supports that would help each of us find the right fit between our work and family lives.

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