Monday, May 9, 2011

Had Enough

As a member of the From Left to Write online book club, I received a copy of this book for review. The following is a blog inspired by the book. All opinions are my own. You can read other members’ posts inspired by the book on May 10th here.

Becky Beaupre Gillespie and Hollee Schwartz Temple’s new book, Good Enough is the New Perfect: Finding Happiness and Success in Modern Motherhood, collapses privileged American moms into two categories: the “Never Enough’s” and the “Good Enoughs.” Less sociological study than an attempt to fashion a “new” ideal of motherhood, Gillespie and Temple tell us that there is a “new wave of mothers who are learning to let go of the little things and focus on what each really wants out of her career, her family and her life.”

Here we go again.

There is no transparency with regard to the analysis of their data or the psychometric properties of their instrument, so, as a psychologist I find it a little hard to trust the results, let alone the authors’ interpretation of them. Rather, I took the book to be a compilation of anecdotal advice on finding success and happiness, offered up by mothers who are also CEOs, Founding Presidents, Vice Presidents, professors, psychologists, lawyers and physicians. By using their values as a rudder, these women have found what works for them. And I am happy for them.

What I take issue with is the black or white, all or nothing, wrong or right, never enough or good enough split the authors make between modern parenting styles. It is a false dichotomy that does not encompass the broader spectrum of ways of being a parent, and it does not take into account the varied contexts in which parents are parenting.

Here’s what I mean by this:

Gillespie and Schwartz put together a survey of 905 working mothers born between 1965 and 1980. Question 22 reads as follows:

Which BEST describes your approach to juggling work and family?
 Family needs FAR outweigh work and almost always come first; I only work out of necessity
 Although my children are very important to me, my job must come first—I need to be a superstar at work in order to provide for my family
 I try to be a superstar at work AND at home, even if it kills me
 Both family and work are important, and I try to do a relatively decent job at both and accept that I am not perfect
 Both family and work are important, but I constant feel as though I am not doing a good job at either.

I found it impossible to answer this question. Where is the “none of the above” option when you need it? I wanted to write in my own item: my family is my priority and almost always comes first…I give my family my very best; I work just enough to meet my financial, emotional and professional needs…and I also give work my very best.

Not “relatively decent job.” My very best.

And someone else’s (aka my husband’s) might read: "I have to work very hard to support my family, and though I find this work deeply fulfilling and I give it my best, I wish I had more time with my family, to whom I give my best when I am with them."

And I can also imagine many, many other shades of gray:

“I have to work full time, but unfortunately, it keeps me from being able to spend time with the people who matter most to me. I give work my best, but I wish I was giving my family my best.”

“Although my family is important to me, “mother” is not my primary identity. I need to achieve at work because my professional identity is such a large part of who I am.”

And so on.

Splitting moms into two categories—one fairly denigrating, that a mother clearly would not want to be in, the “never enoughs” who suffer from “unrelenting perfectionism,” have “dizzying to do lists and heaps of guilt,” and whose biggest obstacles are “themselves” and the other presumably more desirable, the “good enoughs” who are more satisfied at work, have time to connect with loved ones as well as time for themselves, and “know perfection doesn’t exist” does not actually support the thesis that there is a “new perfect.” In fact, the authors tell us that the mothers were roughly split down the middle into these two categories—which is exactly what you would expect to happen if you had a full bell curve of behavior, split it down the middle, and decided people on one side fit into one category and people on the other side fit into another.

I believe that we’re talking personality traits, not “movements in motherhood.” There will always be those who are at one end of the continuum or the other…and perhaps, those who fall into the “never enoughs” category might actually have happier kids than the “good enoughs,” or they might enjoy closer relationships with their children, or their lows might be lower and their highs might be higher—none of which was studied.

And where, oh where do the majority of women—those who make up the middle and lower class fall? What shall we call their category? The “had enoughs”?

My fear is that this placing moms into the artificial category, “never enough,” has the effect of making those mothers feel guilty for feeling guilty. Another should, layered on to a life of well-stratified shoulds. They are being told they are not living in accordance with their values, when in fact, they probably are. Most people are doing the very best with what they’ve got at any given moment.

I know, as someone who would likely fit into the “never enough” category, that I am.


Thien-Kim aka Kim said...

You make very valid points about the book. Though I don't fit in the authors' demographic, I do feel the universal challenge of the work/family/self balance. I am fortunately that I can work from home, but there's many mothers who have no choice but to work 40+ hours outside the home just like my mom and MIL.

Hollee Temple said...

Very interesting take! We worked with a professional statistician to create the survey responses, and we tried to include a broad range of responses.

I think an important point is that there is some Never Enough and some Good Enough in all of us, and our point was that you should choose where to direct that energy. For example, I am a Good Enough in many aspects of my life, but in writing this book, I was way more Never Enough.

Also, I thought you would find it interesting that many of the women we interviewed actually took issue with being called a Good Enough! They did not like that at all, and would have rather been classified as "perfectionists." Go figure!

April said...

In the introduction, when they said the book was about women who didn't really have problems with money and had advanced degrees, I wondered if I should even read it! But I think there is also some value in telling women that they don't have to be perfect at everything. I think the main point (while at times it was muddled) was to help women feel okay with who they are right here and now.