• Wed. Oct 21st, 2020

Ideal, Perfect, Ultimate: What Drives Parents to Seek the Unattainable?

— Melissa Mazmanian, an associate professor of informatics and organization and management at the University of California, Irvine


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In 2012, scholars Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian set out to examine the lives of overstretched middle- to upper-middle-class working parents. Prior studies on so-called work-life balance, they noticed, tended to treat working families’ days as if they could be neatly disassembled into tidy blocks of time: family time here, work hours there, a few minutes of household chores or personal care scattered in between.

But the more time they spent with their research subjects — nine Southern California families, all with children under 12 and at least one parent employed full-time — it was clear the average day didn’t operate like that at all.

Equipped with devices that allowed them to be accessible to all of the people in their lives, all the time, working parents toggled constantly between competing commitments: discreetly texting the babysitter during work meetings, reading over spreadsheets on the sidelines of soccer games, ordering dinner on the rushed commute home. Women — and to a lesser degree, men — did everything, all at once, in ever-increasing amounts, and were exhausted from the stress of chasing an unattainable ideal of perfection.

Beckman and Mazmanian examine the beliefs that fuel these efforts in their book, “Dreams of the Overworked,” published in June. Their thesis is framed around three core myths that tend to influence parents’ choices: the myth of the ideal worker, the myth of the perfect parent, and the myth of the ultimate body, which in this context refers less to the pursuit of Barbie-type proportions than to attentive stewardship of one’s own health. (If you’ve ever been exhausted, yet also convinced that you “should” use a moment of downtime to fit in a run or another form of exercise, you have dallied with this myth.)

Yes, it’s possible to achieve goals in any of these areas — but simultaneous perfection in all three of them, all the time, is a fantasy.

Those who pull off even the outward appearance of success on multiple fronts do so because of what the authors call “scaffolding” — the underlying systems that support their aspirations, such as paid child care, outsourced home maintenance or administrative tasks, a network of friends and extended family to help out, or a spouse who takes on a majority of household labor to further a partner’s career. All of these support mechanisms, they argue, undercut yet another fiction: that success is an individual achievement.

In Her Words spoke with Beckman, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern California, and Mazmanian, an associate professor of informatics and organization and management at U.C. Irvine, at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is stripping away the “scaffolding” holding up the lives of working families across the United States while the demands upon them continue unabated. We wanted to know what drives parents to seek the unattainable, and what the alternative to ceaseless striving might be.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your research found that devices — particularly phones — have expanded our ability to get things done across multiple areas of our lives, but they’ve also increased our expectations for how much we “should” be getting done at work and at home.

Beckman: Technology helps us do more in the moment. We can now juggle all of those things, but the challenge is that as everyone starts to do that, we then expect other people to be available to us all the time. The strings get tightened between us. More people are more reliant on us, we’re more reliant on other people. And then this sort of pivot happens where if you don’t respond to me, it’s, “Well, why aren’t you attending to me? Do you not care about this relationship? Do you not care about this work?” It ratchets up the need to be engaged all the time. It makes it even harder to be a good worker or be a good parent, because we now expect more.

Mazmanian: It’s very easy for society to blame technology. The technology allows us to engage differently and makes us more available, but how we use that capacity really depends on what we value, what we care about and who we’re trying to be. So if a “good colleague” is someone who’s responsive, they’re really just enacting that value with a new tool. We have developed a society where being on top of things, being responsive to each other, being at the ready is coded as respect and love and care.

One of your interview subjects tells you regularly that this is the most stressful time in her life, and as soon as she gets through it, she’ll be fine. But that lasting place of calm never really arrives. The other interview subjects talk about the satisfaction of those fleeting moments when work is good, the kids are good, and it feels, just for a second, like they’re doing it all right. As momentary as the satisfaction of a perceived “win” is, we still consciously opt in to this exhausting race. What’s that about?

Mazmanian: We expected people to be like, “Ugh, I want to do less.” But we didn’t actually hear that very often. What we heard was, “I want to do it all better.” The idea of doing less is just not coded into high-achieving people’s sense of self. And they were also doing a pretty amazing job of living these incompatible myths. That made us really dig into how even limited success was possible, given that these goals are fundamentally incompatible.

That’s when we started to look at the idea of scaffolding — all of the layers of support that people rely on in order to approximate these myths.

Beckman: The perfection these families are striving for — and I recognize myself in many of them — sounds pretty exhausting. It doesn’t feel perfect, in the sense of perfectly sustainable. What drives these efforts? Is it a sense of dissatisfaction with life? Is it a fear of poverty, or of their children going off the rails?

Mazmanian: If you dig underneath the surface, there’s a lot of unexamined anxiety. Some of that anxiety is warranted, especially right now. But, I do think that a lot of people get in that rat-race mentality, and if they actually were to tell someone, “I’ll email you back tomorrow” instead of today, they wouldn’t lose their job. From the parenting side, I do think there’s a sense that it’s a really competitive world out there. And if we don’t do it all — have the enriched family time, have the 10 activities — that somehow we will fail our children.

Beckman: It’s easier to believe that if we do the enrichment activities, if we have quality time, if we monitor the children’s behavior, it will all be OK. And the truth is that those things don’t ensure that that will happen. That anxiety that Melissa referenced is real, and it’s deep, and people are scared. They want the best for their kids. As we all do.

We’re living through a time when many sources of support have been stripped away, and yet many parents are still holding on to these incredibly high expectations for themselves. How have you seen families cope these past few months? How will this play out in the months ahead?

Beckman: Our scaffolding has been decimated. There’s no real end in sight when this is going to all of a sudden go back to normal. The working parents are really struggling. And if organizations don’t ratchet back their expectations, I think people are going to be squeezed out of the work force and it’s going to have devastating long-term ramifications. Our hope is that by talking about how unrealistic these ideals are, we might be able to let them go. I think that’s the only way we’re going to survive in the short run.

Mazmanian: It’s really important to think about this at different levels.

On the individual level, we might ask ourselves, “What can I give up?” Which of these myths can I do without? But we shouldn’t put all of this on individuals.

At the organizational level, are we going to have a lost generation of workers — which is anybody with children at home right now, especially children under the age of 10? The idea that you can be 100 percent or even 120 percent productive with little kids at home who aren’t in school is just ludicrous.

Are our organizations really going to understand that, or is this generation going to be skipped over for the promotion two years from now? What will be the longer-term consequences?

And at a society level, as a country, we could do more to support families — all parents, all families, all children. We are one of the most underresourced countries in terms of support for families, in everything from universal child care to quality after-school programming.

It really takes all these levels coming together. We can’t put all the burden on the individual families; our country is too used to doing that.


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