Sippy cups spilled all over laptops. Fenders crumpled between board meetings and ballet recitals. Breast milk pumped in a business suit in an airport bathroom.
Debora Spar paints such harried modern scenarios in her new book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, where she argues that the current female manifesto of "having it all" is taking its toll. "Feminism was never supposed to be a 12-step program toward personal perfection," writes Spar, a mother of three and president at Columbia University's Barnard College, a liberals arts school for women.
Younger generations of women have mostly turned away from the struggles that previously united feminists – think marching for pay equity. Today, Spar argues, women have narrowed that vision to micromanaging their own lives, a "mistake" that began with boomers who treated new-found choices as a self-directed challenge. But feminism was intended to free women from unreasonable standards, and so the author is agitating for a "social ratcheting down" of the unrealistic professional, parental, marital and personal beauty standards that are leaving many white collar women spent and unhappy.
"Women want a much wider range of things than their grandmothers wanted," Spar said in an interview. "We grapple with wanting to have a successful career, wanting to be financially independent, wanting to look like a model throughout the course of one's life, wanting to be athletic – which is really quite new in the list of things that women are expected to do – wanting to save the world, wanting to be philanthropic. All of these new wants are great aspirations for women to have, but the problem is we never got rid of the older expectations."
Beyond more actively involving men in the juggle, Spar advocates for a shift in expectations, away from the perfection myth toward more flexible dreams. One way out may be a tactic known in economics as "satisficing," which, in the context of women's lives, means picking some areas "where they strive for greatness and others where they settle comfortably for less." In her own life, Spar found shortcuts, dropping out of PTA meetings and forgoing breakfast and lunch prep with a focus on family dinner instead.
While some professional women featured in Wonder Women "satisfice" by trimming out conferences and work travel, others deal with infinite demands by getting off the career hamster wheel altogether for a time, a decision that does not come lightly for the women who make it. When Louise Gleeson quit her job writing health policy for non-governmental organizations to write and edit freelance from home for the sake of her family, she felt "derailed" by her own decision – and judged by several women in her life.
"It's hard to be at home and not have the acknowledgment of the working world, and it's hard to be in the working world and feel you're not pulling your weight as a mom," said Gleeson, an Oakville, Ont., mother of four who blogs at LateNightPlays.com. "There is no perfect."
Asked what she has let go in her still-busy life, she fires it off: "Order. Cleanliness." The trade-off? She actually feels fulfilled now: "I'm working and providing for my family by being here when they need me to be."
Along with her husband and two young daughters, Karen Green left Toronto and a marketing job to freelance from a cheaper home in Chatham, Ont., two years ago. "I wanted to be more involved in my children's lives – and in my own life," said Green, who blogs at The Kids Are Alright. She said a supportive husband helped her step away from the corporate world, at least for now.
"Women and mothers in particular, we are really motivated by fear and guilt. I wanted to shed both of those things," she said. "The pursuit of perfection is a really dangerous and futile game to play. We decided that it was just not worth it."
Spar traces the misguided female quest for flawlessness back to the 1970s, when images of glamorous, effortless careerism started showing up in pop culture. The seventies saw a seismic shift with characters who embodied the new ideal, from Mary Tyler Moore to the stunning businesswomen prancing through Charlie and Enjoli perfume ads. "This new woman was a mother, and sexy, and making money. We just fell for it," Spar said. Later, it was The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable and Murphy Brown; today, it is women like Yahoo! president Marissa Mayer and maven-of-everything Gwyneth Paltrow.
"Women tend to take responsibility for more things. It may be an uphill struggle and it's partly self-inflicted," says Alison Wolf, author of The XX Factor: How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World.
Wolf agrees that social advocacy efforts dominant during the feminist revolution have been traded in: "Now it's all become inward looking, about our own careers at an individual level."
"Sisterhood," she argues, has also gone by the wayside. She stresses that highly successful women got there much like men did before them – with backup. For today's elite women – and men – that means an outsourced army of (mostly female) housecleaners, nannies and care workers for elderly parents – women who are paid for traditionally female work and suffer their own acute work/life-balance struggles.
Still, Wolf believes the really oppressive juggle may not be a persistent norm for long. As life expectancy rises and more women go childless or opt for only one child, that "busy busy" period of working with toddlers in tow will shrink in proportion to the sum of people's professional years.
Today, the most consequential fallout for many ambitious women is that "they're feeling guilty way too much of the time," Spar said. Even as feminism and its choices were envisioned as a liberating force, "the joy fell out of this equation."
"If somehow as a result of all this opportunity, we're feeling badly, judging each other harshly and not participating in more collective action, I think we've turned the wrong way," she said. "In an ideal world women would make choices and enjoy them."
An abundance of choice is a good place to be, as long women don't feel socially discredited when they make a move, Green said. "Most women worldwide do not have these options. We're very privileged to have these problems. I try to maintain that perspective."