Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Quest to be Mother Martha Cleaver Mayer

About two months ago, a friend and I were engaged in a conversation about all of our perceived shortcomings. We both agreed that we wanted to be our own versions of Superwoman (my version: 5’9” tall, sings like a nightingale, speaks all the major languages, knows how to quilt), but often aren’t. She hadn’t lived up to her expectations of herself that day and was feeling inadequate. My “pep talk” included a detailed list of all the ways I had performed inadequately that day and in general, and some theories about how, as women, we are almost automatically destined for failure. In the quest to have it all and do it all (and, worse, to do it all well), we put so much pressure on ourselves to be June Cleaver/Martha Stewart/Marissa Mayer/Mother Theresa that, no matter how good we are, we never feel good enough.

In response, she started a blog called The (Im)Perfect Truth Project, celebrating the little things that don’t go according to plan, which are a much larger part of the day than the triumphs and things that go right. As for me? I had good intentions about a timely, introspective blog, but all I’ve accomplished in two months is lots of thinking-about-it. But in this period of mental marination, I think I am really on to something. I’ve decided our self-perceived inadequacies come straight from our genes. It’s all right there in the chromosomes...XX says it all. We’re just “wrong”…twice. It’s in our nature. So let the second-guessing of ourselves begin.

I think a hypothesis is supposed to be followed by some evidence (science was my weakest subject). And what better evidence to support my theory about all our self-perceived inadequacies than the Dove experiment that’s all over social media? In brief, a sketch artist listens to Woman A describe herself, and then draws her from her description (he never sees her). Then Woman B enters and describes Woman A to the artist. He draws Woman A again. Two pictures are made; then we see the pictures, as well as the face of Woman A. The sketch of the woman drawn from her description is always a homely distortion of herself, while the sketch drawn from the second woman’s description is fairly accurate. Woman A recoils at the image of her self-description, as well as her realization that her self-image is completely skewed.

On a small scale, I proved it myself just the other. I looked in the mirror and thought to myself, “I look lovely today,” which should prove that I am not insecure. And then I was inspired to do some affirmations, because I think it’s important to remind oneself some of the things that aren’t always verbalized. The next thing I came up with was: “There are many far-worse parents than me.” Talk about a backhanded compliment. Even when I am embracing the positive, it’s tainted with subliminal acknowledgement of not-good-enough.

Roseanne Barr once said something like, “If the kids are still alive when my husband gets home, then, hey, I’ve done my job.” And that, I think, was the standard for a while. There was no parental micromanagement and constant involvement. Was it worse for kids? Maybe. Maybe not. There’s probably a fine line between neglect and healthy laissez-faire. But then things changed. First it was societal – women’s lib and equal opportunity and you-can-do-everything-a-man-can-do-and-just-as-well – and then it was self-inflicted – a genuine need to justify the equal opportunity by excelling at all things. Self-worth became measured on much higher standards. Merely keeping the kids alive was no longer good enough.

I am by no means anti-equality and I don’t advocate a return to a 1950s ideal, but I do recommend low(er) standards in the quest for self-worth. It’s much easier to meet a goal when the goal is modest. Sometimes, it is even possible to surpass expectations regarding a modest goal. But when the bar is set high, it frequently won’t be met at all, and all that results are feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.

It’s not that I have or recommend no standards, it’s just that the high(er) standards I used to embrace have fallen by the wayside over the years, either due to time restraints, other priorities or a certain not-giving-a-crap that seems to have developed with age. Very small examples: I used to consider being ‘on time’ as being a few minutes early. Now, if I am less than 15 minutes late, I consider that as being early. I used to consider something clean when it was disinfected, shiny and cat-hair free. Now, clean is a relative term defined by very vague parameters. I actually ate something off the floor in front of company recently. The other day, I wiped Liam’s nose with a sock (which had just been removed from my foot). A cleaner parent would’ve certainly gotten a tissue, but I’ve framed it as a resourceful parent using the tools at hand. I don’t think the event necessarily made me a worse parent, though it likely made me a grosser parent. But, at the end of the day, Liam’s nose was clean and he was still alive. So I did my job, right?

Repeat after me, ladies: Expect less, want less, pressure yourself less, have less, do less. Thanks to the XX chromosomes, I quite possibly may be wrong. But thanks to my low standards, I don’t really care if I am. 

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