There is something deeply ingrained in the tiny threads of my DNA that has me constantly struggling for a carrot that dangles just in front of me but is out of reach. No matter how hard I work, what I accomplish, the many ways I overcompensate, nothing I do ever feels quite enough. I find that the women I know -- a combination of beautiful, smart, well accomplished, generous, amazing mothers -- all overcompensate for their perceived shortcomings.
I was raised by first generation Greek American parents; they spoke another language, we ate different food, attended a different church, and celebrated our holidays differently. The pastors and priests I saw on TV looked like they belonged on the Brady Bunch. Our priest had a long pointy beard that at times rivaled a small feral animal. During an era of baseball, apple pie, and Ronald Reagan politics, in our home it was soccer, baklava, and any Democrat on the ballot. American enough--I was not.
It is difficult in this day and age of über ultra-airbrushing for any women to feel pretty enough, when images from our glossy magazines stare back at us with their perfect features, lithe bodies, and perky-perfect breasts. For me, it all began in the 70s, during an era where Farrah, her feathers, and blue-eyed platinum blondes defined American beauty. I grew up with the deep insecurity that I could never be defined nearly as beautiful as the blond haired blue eyed nymphs that enveloped the media and popular culture. My long thick dark hair, olive-colored skin, and dark brown eyes were the antithesis of what defined beauty. No amount of hydrogen peroxide and fresh lemon juice could get my hair anywhere near the wheat-colored hue I so desperately desired. I would reverentially study fashion magazines: Christie Brinkley with her incredible mane, Farrah with her blinding white smile, Cheryl Tiegs with her ocean blue eyes. I remember taking great solace that Charlie made at least one of his Angels brunettes. Nothing about me emanated the beauty that poured from fashion magazines. Pretty enough--I could never be.
Cultural and social messaging constantly reinforce that no matter how hard women work, they will not achieve the same status in the workplace as their male counterparts. When we are passionate at work we are emotional, when we are assertive it is either "that time of the month" or we are just a ball buster. Women have made enormous strides in the workplace. We stand up, we reach out, we speak up, we even Lean In, but we still aren't as valued in the workplace as men. We are smart, just not smart enough.
When I was eleven years old, my father took a look at my first less than perfect grade and said, "You will never get into Harvard with grades like that. You'll end up with a bunch of dummies." I remember hot tears stinging my cheeks as I swore to myself I would never disappoint him again. But alas, it happened again in college, my senior year I vowed to get straight A's just like my father did when he was a senior in college. Graduation day, I could hardly contain my excitement. My father was solicitous and bursting with pride as I walked down the aisle. After the ceremony, I handed him my report card, he opened it up, pulled his glasses down his nose and said in his brusque tone "Bravo!....You got straight A's, but.... you are on the quarter system. Daddy was on the semester system and everyone knows that, academically, semesters are far more difficult." And, it didn't end there. Most recently my father was having a conversation with my youngest son about how hard he worked for his PhD. He went on and on about it until my son finally asked "Papou, what is a PhD?" His response, "It's that thing your mother never got." I did well in college, excelled in graduate school, was the youngest adjunct professors in my department at 26 years old, but still, I felt that I fell short. Smart enough-- Close but no cigar.
And finally, there is motherhood. The reality of having a career while raising a family shattered any cherished idyllic fantasies I once had about being the picture perfect mom. I can't enumerate the ways in which I feel inferior. Recently I picked up my kids from school. It was Friday, so I surprised them with Root Beer and Starburst. (No judgement please, I provide my kids with plenty of healthy choices. My entire generation ate candy until our teeth stuck together and somehow it didn't kill us). I was set to meet another mom so that we could get together for a playdate, which I must digress for a moment and state that I hate the word "playdate." This mom waited for our children, hair perfectly blown out, designer jeans, a Hermes scarf and a smart pair of heeled boots. I stood there in my jeans and baseball cap and peered inside her cooler filled with cold pressed juice, Fiji water, and homemade gluten-free cookies for the kids. My younger son took one sniff of the pulpy brown juice and gagged to the point of almost vomiting on her. Feeling completely inadequate, I crumpled the brown paper bag with the soda and candy and prevaricated apologetically that I was too busy to pick up snacks. When we arrived home, her boot got stuck in our uneven driveway, our dog jumped on her, and I had nothing gluten-free to offer her child.
Movie themed birthday parties, pony rides, 4 tiered cakes, for children so young they won't even remember them. The competition these days is fierce, from birthday parties to report cards, to whose child plays in the best sports leagues. Good enough as a mother--not by a long shot.
My father, popular culture, the media all contribute to a tightly held set of beliefs that have had a grip on me so fierce I have been unable to celebrate the things I am really good at. This belief system set the pattern for me to work harder, be better, go longer and ultimately suffer more. As women, we overcompensate in so many ways because, for whatever reason, we feel like somewhere deep inside we aren't enough. It's ironic that women start feeling most secure in our 40s. It takes us that long to finally give up on the notion that perfection exists. As women, we need to stop comparing ourselves to some ideal that just doesn't exist-- it's fantasy that other women are a perfect combination of happy, smart, successful, skinny, and perfect as mothers. We all have our strengths, we all have our weaknesses. Instead of compare ourselves, we should celebrate the things we are good at AND the fully support the things other women are good at. We should look in the mirror and be happy with what makes us beautiful rather than all of the things that make us feel inferior.
Recently, I was at a birthday party for my older son, complete with dunking machine, a cake as tall as the kids, and live entertainment. As I looked over at one of the moms, beautiful, blond and blue-eyed, she looked back at me and said, "You exotic women are so beautiful, mysterious, and interesting. I am so boring American vanilla. I would do anything to look more like you." It was a moment that again made me realize that we are all truly alike; looking for an ideal of beauty, intelligence and perfection outside of ourselves, when in reality being good enough exists deep within us all.