I met Hollee about a year ago on Twitter. Since then I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her speak and meeting her face-to-face at the Blissdom Blogging Conference. I just started reading Hollee and Becky’s new book, Good Enough Is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood – and here’s the two of them talking about it.
Are you telling moms that it’s OK to slack off?
HOLLEE: Absolutely not. The first line of the book makes that clear: This is not a book about settling. But it is a book about the challenges that this generation of women is facing, and how they can find a way to Have It All if they’re strategic in their choices. Good enough sometimes has to be good enough.
BECKY: Perfectionism can be a huge liability. In fact, in our data, that “constant need to be the best at everything” emerged as the single greatest obstacle to juggling work and family. It outweighed financial pressures, inflexible bosses, husbands who don’t contribute enough at home and more. Many of the most impressive and successful women we interviewed found their greatest success when they learned to let go of perfect. They weren’t slackers, believe me — we’re talking about CEOs, doctors, lawyers. They just weren’t spinning their wheels trying to achieve things that didn’t mean something to them. They’d made conscious choices and accepted that they could do, and be, everything.
Why is this generation of working mother so obsessed with perfection?
We grew up being told, “You can do anything.” And many of us took that to mean, “You must do everything.” Many of the entry barriers faced by previous generations of women were gone when we entered the workforce, and we felt obligated to make the most of that. But even as we excelled in our careers, the barrage of messages about what was expected of us at home continued. The standards for maternal excellence were rising, and to lofty heights.
Our generation of moms was the first to professionalize motherhood. There would be no mistaking the contributions of at-home moms who approached their leadership in the home the same way they have handled their Ivy League educations and Wall Street power jobs. Moms who returned to work saw the standards set by their at-home peers, and a new power struggle emerged as we tried to make the “perfect” choices. It wasn’t the Mommy War we’d expected.
What are the “New” Mommy Wars?
HOLLEE: The “New” Mommy Wars are the latest development in the country’s evolving work/life story. In the previous Mommy Wars, at-home mothers were pitted against working mothers, and careers were considered to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Briefcase or stroller — you had to pick.
But with the changes in technology and the shift in mindset toward increased work/life balance, the Mommy Wars have found a new battleground — this time inside the minds of today’s mothers. This generation, groomed from birth to believe they could Have It All, obsesses and overanalyzes and overthinks every parenting and career-related decision. With our unprecedented access to information, we often feel overwhelmed by our ample inheritance, fretting over what’s the “right” or “best” thing to do for our children and our careers. This internal battle becomes even more complicated because there are so many different ways to work and parent today. We have work-at-home moms, freelance moms, hybrid moms … the lines aren’t as sharp as they used to be, and that’s very hard on women. Moms want to be validated and they want to belong. Instead, one of our most surprising findings was that many women said they felt utterly alone in their work/life choices, that no one else was quite like that them. And that made the self-questioning, that new Mommy War, even more difficult to fight.
BECKY: This loneliness was particularly apparent in some of my early reporting. One week, I did a string of interviews in which every woman issued the same complaint: “I’m the only mom in this town who works.” It was funny because these women all lived in the same town. Later, the same thing happened in a different town, too. I pointed this out to one of the women, and it didn’t make her feel any better. She still felt like the odd one out because her jobs, her work arrangement and her attitude differed from the other working moms she knew.
Another book by a working mom, Amy Chua’s, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has garnered a lot of attention in recent months by advocating a rather extreme approach to motherhood. What do you make of this philosophy?
BECKY: You could call us “anti-Tiger Mothers.” We embrace a completely different approach to motherhood — one that allows women to succeed by accepting their imperfections and using that as a springboard to greater success. Amy Chua writes about demanding perfection from her daughters: no grade less than an A, practicing musical instruments for hours each day, never being anything less than the #1 student in every class, except drama and gym.
We think this is too narrow a view of success — and, frankly, we think it’s a bit lazy. Knowing our own passions, shrugging off other people’s ideas of success, figuring out exactly where to spend our energy — that’s hard work. It requires critical thinking instead of single-minded focus. The New Perfect requires constant recalibration, the ability to read cues and understand other people’s talents and viewpoints, and the ability to balance a bunch of goals simultaneously. It means knowing ourselves. Yes, Perfect requires the ability to prioritize, but the New Perfect requires something even harder: the ability to re-prioritize.
HOLLEE: Frankly, I felt disgusted when I first read about Prof. Chua’s approach in the Wall Street Journal. I remembered her darling girls from when I was a student at Duke Law School, and my heart ached for them. Having high standards is one thing, but conditioning love on performance and modeling perfection as the only option — those aren’t prudent choices.
You interviewed more than 100 working moms over two years. What did you learn from them?
BECKY: Grace, humility, courage — and that there are a lot ways to be successful. I often found myself drawing inspiration from the women I’d interviewed; getting to know them was a great gift.
Jen Canter, the child abuse pediatrician and toy company founder, is an expert problem solver. She’s not afraid to try new things because she’s not afraid of failing. She knows that she has ability to problem-solve her way through a “failure” and turn it into a success. This attitude has allowed her to accomplish a huge amount.
Kim Holstein, who founded Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels, has this amazing ability to let go and prioritize. And she’s so conscious, so present, in her journey. It helps that she’s deeply passionate about both her work and her family. But it also helps that she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. She makes it look easy, but she’s the first to admit that her life is a “work in progress.” I loved interviewing her because her attitude was contagious; I always felt calm, confident and inspired in her presence.
Jen Pate, the co-executive producer and co-host of the wildly successful webseries, Jen and Barb: Mom Life is optimistic and genuine and totally willing to let her viewers see her imperfections. She’s courageous in that way — she lets it all hang out. She truly believes that women need to come together to support each other, and that belief has guided her vision for her show. I admire that about her.
HOLLEE: The subjects of our book became close friends, and I learned something different from each of them.
I really enjoyed reconnecting with Elizabeth “Libby” Windsor. Libby and I were friends when we sang and danced together as kids, but we hadn’t been in touch for almost 15 years. We had so much in common — we had always been very driven, but we weren’t sure how to put the pieces together after we became moms.
What I really like about Libby’s story is that she’s been able to stay in a very demanding legal position while finding happiness at home. She struggled — as all of us do — but she wasn’t afraid to ask for help when she needed it. That was a real lesson for me.
I also had a great connection with Nikki Adcock Williams — we were introduced by a mutual friend. Nikki and I had so much in common, but we were just at different points in the maze. When I first started interviewing Nikki, she felt very stuck. I related to that – there was a time when I also wasn’t sure how I would find my way out of an unhappy work situation. But Nikki just needed to see herself the way that others (like me!) saw her. I thought her transformation was quite inspiring.
Good Enough Is the New Perfect is available at bookstores nationwide and at Amazon.
Becky and Hollee are the work/life balance columnists for the ABA Journal, the nation’s premiere lawyer magazine. Both graduates of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, they first worked together in the early 1990s, when Becky was Hollee’s first editor at The Daily Northwestern. Like so many of the working mothers they interviewed, they forged non-linear career paths, taking detours in their quests to balance work and family. They blog about work/life and parenting issues at TheNewPerfect.com.
Becky is an award-winning journalist who has written for the Chicago Sun-Times, The Detroit News, USA Today and the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, N.Y. In 2001, while on staff at the Sun-Times, she co-wrote a groundbreaking investigative series on “failing teachers” that led to statewide reforms in teacher testing and a crackdown on teacher quality in the Chicago Public Schools. The three-day series, which began one week after the birth of her first child, gave Becky her first experience at balancing motherhood and career. She lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood with her husband, Pete, an employment litigator, and their two daughters.
Hollee is a journalist-turned-lawyer-turned-professor at West Virginia University College of Law. After graduating at the top of her class with a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Hollee headed to Duke University School of Law. She graduated in 1999, and then began a four-year stint as a litigation associate at an international law firm. After her first son was born in 2002, Temple returned to her firm on a part-time basis before joining the WVU faculty the next year. Hollee lives in Morgantown, West Virginia, with her husband, John, an author and journalism professor, and their two sons, Gideon and Henry.
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