My daughter Abby went through a difficult period when she was about thirteen. I like to blame it on the kids she met at the performing arts magnet school she attended at the time (divas!), but the girl she mainly got into trouble with was her good friend from Country Day, Brooke. The two of them were adorable devils, hiding behind my car in the driveway smoking and thinking I wouldn’t see the plumes of smoke emanating from the far side of my Saturn. They also started wearing big, baggy jeans and tiny tee shirts with rude sayings on their chests (Pimp Gear). Abby was sneaking out her bedroom window late at night going God-knows-where and was spotted by Bart Noonan, my insomniac neighbor. She would come home past curfew madly chewing gum to cover the smell of alcohol on her breath. She was a wild one, thankfully for only a short period of time until she went back to normal and became an angel again.
One morning, though, after a bad night we sat down to have a talk. I explained that I was disappointed in her behavior and wished that her bad behavior would cease. She glared at me with her arms crossed across her Pimp Gear shirt. “You expect me to be perfect!” she spat.
“No I don’t!” I replied.
“Okay,” she said. “Tell me what I don’t have to be perfect at.”
“That’s easy,” I answered. But as I sat there I couldn’t think of one thing she didn’t have to be perfect at. Not school grades, not eating habits, not dress, not appearance, not manners. Nothing. She really was expected to be perfect. I had to admit that I really did expect her to be perfect in every way. There was no way I could explain my way around it. She was right. My expectations were ridiculously high. Then we talked about compromise, but in my heart of hearts I continued to expect perfection from her. And still do.
Why? I had different standards for my sons. I was much better at accepting them for who they were. Their rooms were a mess, their grades were so-so, and their curfews were later than hers and frequently violated. So why was that?
Was it because I favored the boys? I was accused once by a fellow teacher of favoring male students. She had observed my class when she started teaching at Country Day, and she noticed that I encouraged to boys to talk more than the girls. I was shocked at that observation, but explained that I called on the boys often because I could sense that they were losing interest and I was struggling to keep them engaged. I could see that the girls were still with me, so left them on their own. I so regret what amounted to silencing the girls in order to keep the boys interested. But she was correct. I gave the boys more attention and encouragement. I expected less from the boys, so I neglected the girls.
So why do I hold girls to a higher standard than boys? What I finally realized was that I hold myself to the same ridiculous expectations that I held Abby to. As a product of the Women’s Movement of the early 1970’s, I was a victim of the rhetoric. I attended Consciousness- Raising Groups, burned my bra, stopped shaving my legs, and wore unflattering clothes and Birkenstocks. Those things were harmless, but the bit that continues to get me into trouble is the notion that women can do it all. And do it all well.
My mother believed that her job was to stay home and play canasta. She had no desire for a career and carried no guilt about it. My generation, however, bought the message from early feminists that women can do anything and do it all at the same time. I have this image in my head of me nursing a baby, cooking a meal, and grading student papers at the same time. It all had to get done and it had to be perfect.
Shortly after we first moved to Charlotte and Abby was born, I invited my husband’s boss and his wife to dinner. I was teaching full time, had an infant and a toddler and a nine-year-old son and no household help. The bedrooms and playroom were downstairs so in anticipation of this dinner, I cleaned the main living area, ignored the downstairs, and cooked a great meal for the guests. All went well until Mr. Ivey decided to take a tour of the whole house. He came back upstairs with a shocked expression on his face. “Jean! You wouldn’t believe the mess down there!”
Jean Ivey was very embarrassed and told George that he was being rude and that I was doing the best I could. That memory, though, of being discovered as a failed housewife still stings. I have long forgotten the great meal and the amazing juggling act I was doing then. All I remember is the disgrace at having a messy playroom and being outed by my husband’s boss.
I am grateful for the woman’s movement and all it has accomplished for generations of women, but the burden of perfection is hard to bear.