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Op-Ed: Women, Stop Trying To Be Perfect


No woman can have it all, words that may come as a surprise from the president of one of the country's premier women's colleges. In an article in Newsweek, Deborah Spar, president of Barnard, says women's liberation created incompatible expectations: the perfect wife and mother who breastfeeds and whips up sachertorte for the bake sale and puts in a 60-hour week in a high-power job. Women, she argues, need to acknowledge biological differences, stop striving for perfection and start recruiting others, men and women, to build happier lives.

So, women, do you find yourself striving for perfection as a daughter, wife, employee, sister, friend, mother? Which part suffers when you fall short? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Debora Spar joins us now from a studio at Columbia University across Broadway. Nice to have you with us today.

DEBORA SPAR: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And some people might say, hey, wait a minute, you're the president of a women's college? You have three children of your own, a husband you describe as lovely and look - it looks like you do have it all.

SPAR: Well, I certainly feel that I've been incredibly lucky in my own life, but I think it's important, particularly for women like myself who have been so lucky, to make it very clear that there's not a person alive, be it a man or a woman, who really has it all. We all make choices in our life, and I think it's important to recognize that we make these choices and critically, we make trade-offs too.

CONAN: What kinds of trade-offs did you have to make?

SPAR: Well, as my children will probably point out pretty readily, you know, if you're working a big job as I have for most of my life, you're not around for your kids as often as you might ideally like to be. That's been true for men for a long period of time, for all of history perhaps, and it is true for women who work. And I think that's a reality that has to be said and put out there. It doesn't mean that working mothers are bad mothers by any stretch of the imagination, but it does mean that they have to make trade-offs and compromises both in their working life and in their home lives.

CONAN: And you gave a couple of examples in your piece about women who seem to be - have it all together on the outside and who confess that they go home and cry.

SPAR: I think that describes most people, at least at some portion of their lives. It's been really interesting to me. I've gotten tons of emails since the piece came out. And to a person, people are just describing, both men and women, the craziness of their own lives. And I think part of this is just a function of modern society. We're all crazy busy. We're all running around. And I think somehow we've all become convinced that we can't acknowledge that there's pain and there's craziness and there's just a fair amount of sloppiness and chaos that affects all of our lives.

CONAN: And unavoidable. And interesting you say that much of it, as it affects women's lives, is no longer the result of government policies.

SPAR: Well, I mean, I say this - I make this point carefully because clearly in an ideal world, there's many more things that the government could do, that employers could do, that social programs could do to make lives easier for working families. But I'm a realist at heart, and I think particularly in the current economic climate, it's just unrealistic to imagine that we are going to be getting wonderful, federally subsidized day care anytime in the immediate future even if we'd like it. So people have to deal with reality that we've - that we're facing and that means acknowledging we won't have perfect day care, we won't have perfect flex time and different kind of work options. So we just have to work our way through the reality we have, which means having busy jobs for most of us, 40-hour weeks or 60-hour work weeks or even 20-hour work weeks, and trying to juggle everything else along with that.

CONAN: And one of the comparisons you drew was to women you met in Mumbai, in India, who had other networks available to take up some part of the slack.

SPAR: Yeah. This is a really interesting piece of the women's problem, I think, and more broadly of the societal problem. If you look at sort of current generations, we've all - in the United States, or most of us, at least, have moved away from the places we've grown up. So we've divorced ourselves, not legally, but just geographically from our parents, from our childhood friends, from the churches or the synagogues we attended in our childhood. And by doing that we've robbed ourselves of a very important measure of social support that ironically existed in prior generations when women weren't trying to juggle both work and families.

So just at the moment, arguably, that we need these social structures the most, we've let them evaporate. And at least at the moment in India and some other countries, those social structures still exist. And I've been really intrigued to hear women from those parts of the world talking about how important it is to live close to your parents, to live with your in-laws, to live among your childhood friends. I don't think most Americans, particularly Americans who are living in major urban areas, have those social supports anymore.

CONAN: Because so many of the women whose lives you're describing are not only trying to be the perfect wife and mother, the perfect law partner, but do it alone.

SPAR: No, that's right. And one of the ironies I talk about in the piece is that we've sort of up the expectation that we're going to do everything alone at the same time that we've robbed ourselves with these social structures. And we've just set out another whole tier of expectations.

And trivial example I've used - but it seems to a ring a bell - is elementary school bake sales. There's a lot more bake sales than there used to be when I was growing up. And there seems to be an increased expectation that someone in the family is going to bake these elaborate concoctions, which are also vegan and nut free and hypoallergenic. And it's, you know, it's just a lot of work on an evening when you've just come home from a long day, and you really just kind of want to plop on the couch and be with your kids.

CONAN: We want to hear from the women in our audience about these conflicting expectations and how you reconcile yourself to the fact, well, you can't have it all. 800-989-8255. Email: Heidi is on the line with us from Chicago.

HEIDI: Hi. My - thank you for taking my call. And just generally, my story is, I'm on my way to teach our graduate class, having just made a slow cooker pot roast for our daughter and dinner for our high school son. And my solution this morning to a conversation that was not going well with my husband was basically just to say, I've got to go, I've got to give a test, I'll see you later, we'll talk about this when I see you next, tomorrow, whenever it is. So the stress that's there I manage, I guess, by, you know, explaining to my husband that I can't deal with that stress right now. And he needs to set aside whatever it is he is doing so that I can have some piece of mind and have closure.

CONAN: And do you think that's going to work out based on past experience?

HEIDI: Oh, based on past experience - I mean I actually have a pretty cool husband, who only insists on continuing the conversation if I don't leave. If I stay, the conversation has to take place. But if I leave the room or the leave the house, then we're all good. But you know, whatever works.

CONAN: Whatever works. And, Debora Spar...

HEIDI: Whatever works.

CONAN: ...that's a pretty good guideline.

SPAR: You know, I think the whatever works metric is very useful. And I think we all have to come up with our own versions of whatever works, and it means cutting something short or cutting some out, and, you know, just doing what you need to do.

HEIDI: Well, and the other thing I think is I actually have moved to this (technical difficulties) in a relative state of imperfection, and that's OK, you know?

CONAN: That's OK.

HEIDI: I'll never be perfect, but my perfect and my imperfect is pretty good.

SPAR: That's a great realization.

CONAN: Heidi, thanks very much for the call...


CONAN: ...and good luck with the test.

HEIDI: Thank you so much. Yoo-hoo. OK.

CONAN: Debora Spar, in fact, you wrote about somebody wondering at one point that you see me wearing casual clothes, and you pointed out you'd just given birth.

SPAR: Yeah. That was one of those bad working mom moments. But, you know - I just faced that - I was at that point in life that if I was going to show up for work, I would still going to kind of have to wear maternity clothes and deal with it. But there was a lack of recognition among some of my colleagues at the moment.

CONAN: Let's go next to Susan. Susan is on the line with us from Cape Coral in Florida.

SUSAN: Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

SUSAN: Great. I have a bit of a disagreement with the statements that the guest is stating. I'm a mentor to high school students through the Foundation for Lake County schools. And one of things I've encouraged women to consider - young women to consider, is that, yes, they should get an education. Yes, they should be able to provide for their families. But when they make a partnership with an individual, that person should also carry some of the load, and you should be not as materialistic as this generation has become.

One of the reasons that the single-income family worked was because we didn't have to have everything immediately. And as a college education person that had a degree and made more money than my husband until I had children, I found it very difficult to adjust to being a stay-at-home mom. But when I did go back to work after having two children - and (unintelligible) 15 months apart - I took a job that was going to be conducive to supporting my children and my family.

We worked out a schedule where we had someone come into the home when I was working very early in the morning for the airline business. As my children grew and after I had taken care of an elderly mother-in-law who passed away, I then went full-time into a crazy career. But I think it's important that we solicit more participation from men. I think that men feel so disenchanted with relationships because they - we don't need them. Pretty soon we're just going to create our own babies.

If we just would allow men to take more responsibility, we wouldn't feel so stressed. If we had a decision in our families that we weren't going to live on both incomes or we were going to save at least 50 percent of the second income, it would be so much easier for us to survive as a family network. I believe that women can have everything, but they must time it correctly and they must not make their children sacrifice for the fact that they want to have fulfillment or monies or the big flat-screen TV. And that is my opinion.


CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the phone call. Debora Spar, I think you would probably agree that men need to be part of the package.

SPAR: Yeah. I entirely agree that men need to be part of the package, and I'm actually pretty optimistic about this. I think most men really want to be part of the package. They want to support their wives or their partners or their sisters. They want to support their girls and their boys. And as one of my students was saying to me the other day, I think part of the problem is that men feel that they can't be part of this conversation, that they somehow have been boxed out of it, that they don't necessarily have the language. They're very worried about saying the wrong thing.

And so I think one of the things that we need to do, moving ahead, is to really bring men into the conversation in a way that's not antagonistic, that's really focused on problem solving and being practical. And bearing in mind, as the caller said, that, you know, different people are going to want to work or not want to work for different reasons. Their preferences may change over the course of their lives. And I think if we look at these issues practically rather than polemically, we'll get a lot farther along.

CONAN: Susan, thanks very much for the call.

SUSAN: Oh, OK. Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with Debora Spar, president of Barnard College. She wrote an article called "Why Women Should Stop Trying To Be Perfect" in Newsweek. There's a link to it at out website. Go to, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Debora Spar, I suspect this starts early. You're really writing about somewhat older women. But the competition to get into a place like Barnard is pretty fierce, and I suspect some of your incoming first year students think they had to be perfect to get in.

SPAR: Well, I think you're exactly right, and I - one of the things that worries me most about our society is the pressure we're putting young girls under, I mean not even middle-aged women or young women. I think the pressure to excel really hits both boys and girls, but particularly girls by the time they're in high school. These kids are under incredible pressure to get into college. That pressure now starts as early as ninth or 10th grade. What it takes to get into college these days is no longer just good grades. It's good grades plus good SAT scores, plus a whole range of extracurricular activities, plus summers that have been spent doing something worthwhile, which...

CONAN: A Nobel Prize wouldn't hurt, yeah.

SPAR: A Nobel Prize is always good. It's the icing on the cake. And it's tough. And for girls, what also exacerbates it is that on top of everything else, they are still supposed to be female and feminine and pretty. And it creates this cascade of expectations that I think is really hard for any human being to deal with. And so I think it's very important for young women, for girls to hear, yes, be ambitious. Yes, be aggressive. Yes, pursue your dreams. But nobody can do everything. If you really want the Nobel Prize, something is going to have to give elsewhere in your life.

CONAN: But I assume you've heard those speeches too, probably from commencement speakers.


SPAR: That's right. Although, you know, I think there's always an inclination on the part of older folks, including myself, to tell young people to strive, to never give up, and I think that's true. But I think what young people also need to hear is by definition if you are going to excel at any area of enterprise, you are going to have to be non-excellent in some other areas. Something's got to give. And I think men have intuitively, over the years, figured that out, that if you're going to be CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, you're not going to be doing any of a whole other range of things you might otherwise wanted to do.

CONAN: Let's get one more caller in. Let's go to - this is - excuse me just a second. This is Anna. Anna calling from Nashville.

ANNA: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

ANNA: I just wanted to say that I think the other part of the - the ugly side of the coin of perfection is this somehow overinflated sense of importance that we all seem to have, and that that makes - that puts another pressure on things. People talk about this, as Ms. Spar said, oh, everybody's crazy busy because they feel like their life is so important, and they're doing such important work. And that's great. And for many of us, we are. But for some of us, we are just getting by.

And I think it's time to maybe step back and go, look, I'm providing for my family. I am picking the kids up from daycare. And that's good. And I think that we tend to think that our work is life and death when maybe it really isn't. But is it certainly important to our family.

CONAN: Anna, thanks very much, and we're going to give you the last word. We appreciate the phone call. Debora Spar, thank you very much for your time today.

SPAR: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Debora Spar is president of Barnard College. Her piece ran in the Daily Beast, and we posted a link to it at out website. Again, that's at She joined from Columbia University. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be there. I'm back on Monday in Washington, D.C. Thanks to everybody at OSU. I'm Neal Conan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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