Do the words we use steer the conversation or is the message the counts?
About a moth ago, I read an article on Harvard Business Review, that was titled ‘Ideal worker or Perfect Mom’ (by Alison Beard). After skimming the article, I had to take a break, check my ‘bias’ sparked by the title, then read the article once more to understand what the true message.
It was a personal article about the feeling of being torn between work and family, and the struggle to excel in both domains, the draining mental swing between wanting to be a star and balance all. As a working mom myself, her words resonated and what she described was familiar.
We absolutely need better policies and support, and a change of mentality in society and professional environment. I also agree with a more controversial point about the unintended consequences of social support. Living in Europe it isn’t uncommon to hear bias generated by a long maternity leave. Women are doubly hit, as they are expected to be the primary care givers if they have so much time off (and that status quo is hard to change), and encounter a higher hiring bias, as employees fear they might be out for years.
What I am still struggling with, a full month after having read the article, is the choice of title. Instead of hinting at the deeper message, it frames the article as being perfect in either one or the other domain. Perfect work vs Perfect life. But does either one of them even exist?
What is an ideal worker? In organizations that resemble a Dilbert book, the ideal worker is committed, workaholic, smart, young, with no family (or act like they didn’t) and more often than not, a man. The consequences of this old school thinking are well documented, lack of diversity, high burn out rates, disengagement.
On the other end of the spectrum, the ideal worker is engaged to the purpose of their work, leads a balance life, has a flexible schedule while accomplishing what needs to be done and supporting the community. This last one may seem a better version, yet for people that enjoy having work as their main focus (and dislike meditating) it can feel as stressful to not fit in with the environment or change themselves.
How about a perfect mom? Have you ever met one? Or better phrased, isn’t every mom that loves and cares for her child (no matter her situation) perfect just because she is? This is the age of easy judgment and mommy wars. The constant commenting on parenting styles, and any decision regarding family and children. Us women should support each other both in the professional sphere and in our family life, while in reality we feel judged by our male colleagues (and management) and by the other women we turn for support.
At the same time, even the corporate world is evolving. Every day on my own Instagram feed, there are a number of quotes on healthy lifestyle, and reaching balance and happiness. Some are shared by HBR social media team. They all circle the idea that ideal doesn’t exist and that Perfection is not attainable. Chasing perfection is quoted as the fastest way to unhappiness. As a recovering perfectionist, I tend to agree. As Tara Brach said imperfection is not a personal problem, is just part of existing. So why title a really interesting article about what institution and society should do to make feel working mothers less thorn, as a quest for perfection?
I wish we would move away from these words, and towards, happy, healthy and satisfied employees (whatever form that takes), and balanced parents. How leaders, employers, friends and community member we can change the environment to support balanced, engaged and supported women and pressure governments to catch up. What for me is Ideal, is women of any age and marital and family status empowered to go through the phases of their lives confident that they can fluidly integrate them with their careers. No pressure of being always on, proving themselves racing against their male colleagues and their one biological clock, striving to be perfect, never a bad day or a family commitment.
My intent is not to diminish what the author felt. I just find surprising that even working in an environment as openly supportive of working mothers and fighting bias, her experience and message was titled as if conflict is the only option, and perfection or being ‘ideal’ is the only way. Maybe this was just a case of clickbaity title, but I believe that change starts also with the words we choose.