How to Be Perfect (Not)

Debora Spar’s probing—and witty—analysis of sex and power is the latest book to ask that thorny question, Can women have it all? And Spar, the dynamic president of Barnard College, answers, “Nope.”

by Judith Newman
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More: Why do women still lag behind in top corporate jobs and earning power?

Debora Spar: Remember, we’re still relatively early in the evolution of women’s rights—if you think of it, it’s only been 50 years, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. But anyway, making it in the workplace is not just a question of the workplace; it’s making it in life. Many women leave the corporate world not because they’re failing at their jobs but because their lives become too complicated once they have a family. And they’ve bought into the idea that they have to be perfect.

More: Explain. Do you think we’re being told that anything less than perfection is inadequate?

DS: Yes, and it’s not just the media that gives us these messages; we do it to ourselves. I think that for whatever reasons, too many women can’t give up on making the cookies or looking like they’re 17 well into their sixties. Men do a better job of making trade-offs. I mean, when you read about successful businessmen, is there ever anything in the article that says, “He’s a great father—and he’s great at barbecuing, too!”?

More: Right. There are approximately zero books for men asking the question, Can you have it all?

DS: Exactly! I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think women are more judgmental and guilt-ridden than men. I may judge you on your pleasures and also simultaneously feel guilty about mine. It’s a double whammy of badness.

More: Feminism has given us so much choice in how we live our lives. But you seem to suggest there’s a downside to choice.

DS: It’s not that exactly. Choice is a fabulous thing, but just because you have all these choices doesn’t mean you have to take them all. Like, I love to know there are a million different kinds of candy when I walk into the candy store, but I’m not going to eat all of it. And also, you and I may choose different candy, but we shouldn’t judge each other for what the other one likes best.

What I’m saying to women is, you gotta learn to make choices, which means taking certain things off the table. You can’t be a powerhouse at work and be making handmade Halloween costumes. You just can’t.

More: Despite your cautions against our tendency to try to have it all, I’m sure you still have your moments. What’s the nuttiest balancing act you’ve engaged in over the past few months?

DS: On the day my husband was undergoing shoulder surgery, I had a meeting with my publisher, an interview about this book and then three parties to attend in three different corners of the city. I abandoned my poor husband and did all these things and then came home and collapsed in a puddle.

My daughter, 17, is my verbal conscience about things like this. Every now and then, she’ll see me running around crazily, maybe worrying about my outfit or hair or just trying to do too many things, and she’ll say, “Mom, didn’t you just write the book about this? What kind of example are you setting for me?”

No woman, no man, no human being can have it all. We really need to step away from that phrase. It was a bad one to begin with.

Click here to buy Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection

Next: The Paradox of Women Business Owners
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First published in the October 2013 issue

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