The most important right for modern women: To not be perfect

Whenever I read about women’s rights events, my thoughts, at first, are of gratitude for all the advocates, past and present, who have progressed these rights. From the struggle for the right to vote, to current struggles for equal pay and equal representation, I gratefully stand on the shoulders of some driven women.

Then my thoughts always drift to an acquaintance of mine. Several years ago, this acquaintance (friend is more the right word, but I have to be opaque) and I were having a conversation about being working moms. As is the way with working moms, the conversation was happening at the grocery store.

My acquaintance is someone I’ve long admired, even on some levels, envied. Right out of college she found a perfect job that suited her to a T, and she’s been successful at it for decades. She’s married, and her family, like her job, seems ideal. And when she talks, you can tell she sincerely loves and values both her family and her career — they are that ideal.

But while we were talking, she disclosed a deeply personal regret related to working motherhood. Regret really isn’t quite the right word; it was more of something she had been reflecting on in a emotionally challenging way. I immediately admired her more — for this level of honesty.

What woman, what mother, working or other wise, doesn’t have some “regretful-like” thoughts about one thing or another? How many of us admit to them?

Haley Regent, left, shows her frustration while doing her math homework with her mother, Debbie Regent, in this 2012 file photo. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/MCT)

Haley Regent, left, shows her frustration while doing her math homework with her mother, Debbie Regent, in this 2012 file photo. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald/MCT)

I replied to her disclosure by saying, “Don’t you wish, back when we were young and starting out, that someone had told us that we weren’t going to be able to have it all?” She totally agreed and affirmed that she had started her career thinking that she was going to be able to have the perfect career and the perfect family — that’s the perception since the rise of feminism. That’s the sales pitch we give our daughters.

But it’s just not true. We are lucky we can lead more diverse lifestyles than any generation of women before us, but we have to pick and choose and shape that lifestyle carefully. Modern womanhood is complicated, and the expectations are demanding.

Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our daughters — I don’t have one myself — is to change the sales pitch. The idea of being able to have it all, combined with our culture’s obsession with over-sexualizing everything, especially young women, sets women up to fail. It sets us up to feel inadequate for not meeting this impossible, imaginary, post-feminist standard.

As my friend observed, this sense of being able to have it all created an expectation, a standard that she now realizes in hindsight she was never going to be able to meet.

We need to tell our daughters that the lives of working women and working mothers are full of critical crossroads. Decisions at these crossroads take thought and prioritizing and an understanding that priorities at one time in one’s life may not look the same as time passes — so choose carefully and accept what follows, with confidence in your decision. There aren’t a lot of stories about dying people wishing they had spent less time being true to themselves or less time focused on loved ones.

The trick is to find a balance that works on an individual level, and it may not look the same as the balance that works for someone else.

We need to tell our daughters it’s OK to feel overwhelmed at times by modern womanhood or motherhood. It’s normal, not failure. We need to instill confidence, so they can face their complications and challenges with strength.

And, we need teach them to look for all the fulfillment that can be found in not trying to have it all or be perfect.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.