Rejecting perfection

August 12, 2014

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave. This isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in." - Rachael Ellison

Breast pump

I’m thinking a lot right now about women's quest for perfection. Often this desire lies uninvestigated within us, unquestioned. It's simply part of who we are. A woman I interviewed yesterday for a future show talked about this: she mentors young women who feel they have to exceed every expectation out there, and they're exhausted. It was the main theme of my last show, Killing the Ideal Woman. And it came up in my conversation with coach Rachael Ellison, who gave such thought provoking insights in The Motherhood Factor.

This is my second blog post springing from my interview with Rachael earlier this summer.

She counsels working parents who want to achieve a saner life than they feel they currently have. 

For starters, she says, it’s hard for women who, until they had kids, had leapt up the career ladder two rungs at a time. Often these women are left reeling after they have a baby, faced with the possibility they may not be able to do everything - at home and at work - the way they'd like. One of her recent clients was a senior leader with a 10-month-old baby at home.

“She was really struggling,” Rachael says. “The hours at her job were very demanding. She was in a setting where she had to come in very early in the morning and leave quite late at night, so she really wasn’t able to spend time with her child.  She basically got to the point in our conversation where she said, ‘You know, I really don’t know if I can do this.'”

They talked through it, but ultimately the woman decided she should try to tackle her home/life problem the way her older female supervisor had. The woman had two children and had handled many major projects. Rachael's client admired her a lot. But what her client didn’t know at the time was that that woman also had a stay-at-home husband.

“There was no transparency,” says Rachael, “So she felt she had to follow the model of the generation prior.”

She felt immense pressure to perform and couldn’t let anyone at work see that she was flailing (that is flailing, not failing).

Society has enormous expectations for mothers. Essentially it wants us to be mothers above all else, no matter how much lip service it gives to our careers. That pressure to be supermom came up a few years ago when Rachael was running a new mothers group. One of the women in the group had been reporting back about her sessions with a lactation consultant.

This lactation consultant had the new (working) mom in quite a state. She informed her that if she pumped milk at 4p.m. on a given day at her office, her baby had to drink that milk at exactly 4p.m. the following day, or another day of the week. The lowdown: the milk that came out of her body at 4p.m. must be drunk at that exact same time for her baby to get the most benefit.

Talk about pressure.

“It is this horrible precedent, that this is what a good mother does,” says Rachael. “It’s so hard for mothers to pump at all at work. I’ve heard stories of mothers sitting up against a glass window, basically pumping in an open space. So people face a lot of challenges when pumping, and to be told you have to have your milk time correspond, it's just this impossible standard.”

In the end, the woman announced that timing her milk production and baby feeding to the same hour of the day was too hard. She stopped trying to achieve that particular feat. She resisted the consultant's advice.

We’re meant to be perfect mothers, perfect wives, and perfect workers. Few of us can possibly meet all those standards, but we still try, because the messages coming at us from the media, politicians, our families and other women tell us that's what we're supposed to be.

Finally, Rachael told me, part of her job is to let people know their everyday attempts to make it all work are echoed in others' lives.

“I normalize for people…that the systems aren’t very well set-up to meet their needs. We don’t have subsidized childcare [in the US], we don’t have paid leave – this isn’t a system they’re set up to succeed in. This is an uphill battle.”

You can read my last post with Rachael, on workplace flexibility, here.