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The myth of exceptionalism

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Two-time world champion bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor trains for four hours every morning. Once she’s finished in the weight room, she spends her afternoons in recovery — usually with a massage therapist or sports trainer. In the evenings, she meets with a team of specialists — including her psychologist and nutritionist — before settling in for the evening with her husband. Her diet is measured to optimize for energy, protein, and fueling her grueling physical routine.

Taylor is a career athlete at her physical peak. She optimizes many aspects of her life in service of her physical performance, which means that other areas — hobbies, social life, and family, for instance — might take a back seat. She is exceptional in a single endeavor toward which she chooses to direct the bulk of her energy.

Imagine if someone tried to attain the level of performance that Taylor has in her sport in all areas of their life. It seems impossible, doesn’t it? In their book Dreams of the Overworked: Living, Working, and Parenting in the Digital Age, authors Christine M. Beckman and Melissa Mazmanian explore what it would take for most people — in this case, working parents — to be at once a model employee, a perfect parent, and have the “perfect” body. It would amount, Beckman and Mazmanian conclude, to someone being an Olympic champion in all aspects of their lives. This is the myth of exceptionalism. “Achieving even one of these myths would be impossible, but achieving all three is ludicrous,” they write.

It becomes even harder to imagine when you apply this idea to women, who bear the brunt of childcare responsibilities and housework. It’s harder still when you consider how women’s work and home lives changed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. Suddenly, working women became work-from-home women who had to care for children who were no longer able to attend school. Family life collided with work-life like never before.

But now that we find ourselves working from home, women are more empowered than ever. Working from home during the pandemic has not only helped lessen the burden women simultaneously feel at home and work, but it’s also allowed us to admit we don’t have to be perfect in all areas of our lives. By stripping away the veneer of professional and personal expectations of perfection, women have become more present, more focused, and more successful.

Busting the myth of perfection

“Each part of our lives could take up all of our time, but instead, we’re expected to make all of them equal and knock every one of them out of the park,” says Melanie King, the PR Director at Lendio.

King’s experience is in line with what Beckman and Mazmanian found in their research: She, like many others, has been led to believe that she must be a perfect parent, employee, manager, and so on. But striving for perfection can instill a sense that we’re always falling short.

“There are legitimate reasons working parents strive for perfection,” author and clinical psychologist Alice Boyes wrote in a Harvard Business Review essay. “When it comes to raising kids, the stakes feel very high, and perfection is culturally expected of parents. In the workplace, parents often feel pressure to demonstrate that they’re just as career-driven as they were before they had kids. Those who’ve used perfectionism as a strategy for high performance and to feel in control can start to feel like their standards are impossible to maintain once they become parents, and this can cause tremendous anxiety.”

To compensate, many working parents — and especially women — feel the need to show just how career-driven they are. Not only are they trying to meet impossible standards and exceed expectations in all areas of their lives, but the burden of doing so often falls more heavily on women in the home. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, women spend about four hours a day on unpaid labor, whereas men only clock two and a half.

So women take on more responsibilities at home and are expected to achieve perfect results in all areas of their lives. That’s a tall order — even without a global pandemic underway. But it turns out, shifting to remote work has made women less overworked and more empowered.

A wake-up call

For King, the transition to remote work leveled the playing field in a way that has made it easier for her to manage the expectation of perfection in all aspects of her life.

“Before working from home, the idea of doing it all perfectly was a real challenge,” she explains. “Now that we’re entirely remote, we’re seeing each other in our homes, tending to our personal responsibilities and our family lives. It’s opened up a conversation — and many people’s eyes — to the reality working parents face.”

Working from home has also shed light on the fact that the many roles working parents play don’t fit neatly into specific categories, further blurring the lines between work and home. With digital communication replacing in-office conversations, how we live and work has changed drastically in a matter of months.

“Prior to all this, these communication tools allowed us to keep these worlds separate,” Mazmanian observes. Someone could slyly, under the table during a meeting, text their husband or their babysitter about needing to stay at work late.” But now, we see each other’s children running around on video calls, meet our coworkers’ kids as they come into the frame to ask when snacktime is, and there’s no table for us to slyly text anyone under. With this view into each other’s realities, employees and managers alike are seeing that our roles are overlapping — and our previous expectations have to change.

Excelling in — not overworking — different facets of our lives

King tries to break up her day to focus on one thing at a given time. “With a full-time job and four kids and other responsibilities, I try to prioritize exercise and my mental health in the mornings, and lunchtime is for family time — lunch with my kids or taking them to appointments,” says King.

By prioritizing areas of her life like family time and physical health, she’s noticed that she’s more focused. “It’s always been a challenge to compartmentalize all aspects of my life,” she adds. “But working from home has empowered me to give attention to the things that need it and do a better job at the task I’m working on. That helps erase some of the guilt of feeling like I’m not devoting enough time or energy to something, which has been a tremendous benefit.”

And it’s humanizing to see coworkers and managers interacting with their children, pets, and other bits of everyday life in the background. It dispels the fear many of us have that everyone else is the “ideal worker.”

To excel at anything, experts recommend letting go of the idea of perfection. When we recognize how parenting makes us better at our job, and vice versa, we do better at both. And by understanding our capabilities in each area of our lives and how they contribute to our success in other areas, we feel less of a need to divide everything. Instead, we can see how being a great parent makes us a good manager or how being part of a team can help us manage our household.

Formalizing personal and professional workloads

Embracing the human side of our overlapping responsibilities is crucial, but outlining those responsibilities matters, too. If we don’t lay out our goals or track our workloads, how will we ever feel like we’re achieving anything?

Many women now define their workloads at home, not unlike they might at work, to achieve better work-life harmony. Renee Fry, founder and CEO of Gentreo, says she uses calendars to set boundaries for her day and help family members keep track of their responsibilities. “We’ve identified our family responsibilities, which is something we’d never formally done before,” she says. “Treating our chores and family tasks as part of our workload has helped us juggle all aspects of our life and feel like we’re sharing the load — we just can’t play the game of responsibility tag anymore.”

Families are also using work software to manage these duties — a great example of bringing skills from work into the home. In fact, working parents have become more proactive by seeing the overlap between work and home and applying work skills in their personal lives.

And according to Alyssa Westring, author of Parents Who Lead: The Leadership Approach You Need to Parent with Purpose, Fuel Your Career, and Create a Richer Life, “Feeling proactive is another way of feeling powerful [instead of just responding] to whichever person, work, boss, spouse, child, puts the most pressure on you.”

A new reality — and freedom from the myth

These days, we no longer need to strive to meet unrealistic standards. We are finally free from the expectations that we can do it all (and have dinner on the table by 7 pm).

Instead, working women are taking control, embracing their strengths in all areas of their lives, and rewriting the script of working, parenting, and spending more time at home. Ultimately, it’s the freedom from the myths that Beckman and Mazmanian explore in their book that will set us up to succeed.


Read more on how women are thriving in their at-home work environments:

Chapter 8: The pandemic is making it easier for the “first” woman

Chapter 1: Why achieving work-life harmony is more satisfying — and achievable — than balance

Chapter 2: How our new habits can — and should — work for us

Originally published Feb 12, 2021, updated Feb 25, 2021

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