In a Perfect World
I'm sure some people would look at me and never guess that I am a perfectionist. I don't keep a perfect house, I'm overweight, and my career path is bumpy, to say the least. I am always looking for another job, something more challenging and better paying, something that is more rewarding. I have had a rough time getting to a place where I could perform my best and enjoy what I do.
I think my attitude stems from the perfectionist ideal I was raised with. My mother was very concerned with outside appearances--house, clothes--while Dad focused on his accomplishments. I take after him in that respect. When I was in school, it was imperative that I receive straight A's. If I got an A-minus or, heaven forbid, a B, I would be very upset with myself. In graduate school, I got sick and was hospitalized shortly before midterms. I felt awful and didn't do well on one of my tests. I got a B for my final grade. It was the only B that I received, but I still think about it.
I have always been overweight. Even though I try to talk myself into not worrying about what society thinks, I am still always thinking about it, trying to diet, and feeling disappointed that I can never get the weight off. My mom has always been a pain about my being overweight. She has always been thin, and I take after my dad, who is also heavy. It bugs me less as I get older, but like most children, I want my parents to be proud of me and feel that they did a good job raising me. Now, at age forty-seven, it has become a health issue, which causes even more stress.
I suffered from postpartum depression when I gave birth to my third child--I was completely overwhelmed when she was born. We were moving to another state. My husband went ahead without me, and I had to take care of my two older children and sell the house. It was an extremely stressful time, and I was not happy about being pregnant because I had planned to go back to school after we moved. My husband loved his new job and was not home much. I was lonely and unhappy. I slept only a few hours a night. The PPD came upon me a few days after giving birth. It felt like the world was ending. After some rest and some meds, I was OK, but it took me a long time, about six months, to feel like myself. I hope I never go through something like that again.
When it comes to making decisions, I am the regret queen. I still think about mistakes I made when I was nineteen, and I wish I could do things over again. This is a problem I have dealt with for years and have had many long, expensive talks with my therapist about. My number-one decision that I regret is getting married when I did. I grew up in a very religious family and when I got pregnant, my mother and father felt the best thing for me was to get married. I am still married to the same man, but maybe my life would be different--better?--if I had married someone else, or if I had married him at a more convenient time.
I like to feel like I'm in control of things. That's why I don't drink much alcohol, because I don't like being at all out of control. I hate to drive with anyone else, too. I feel that I am the best driver, although I suppose that has to do more with control issues than with driving.
Hoping everything will be perfect is an insane way to live. There is nothing perfect in this world, and continually trying to attain perfection leads to so many problems. I never quite feel that everything is OK, and I think that stems from my unreal perception of how the world should be.
A hundred years ago, a woman's job was clear: Have children, keep them alive, get meals on the table, and take care of the house. If your house was clean and your kids were fed, people thought you were doing a good job. Now, in addition to those responsibilities, today's women have numerous others. Many work outside the home. We worry about our jobs, the quality of our relationships with our husbands, how our kids do in school, how our homes look, how we look, how much volunteer work we do, how much money we give to charity, how well our kids behave, and so much more. We're even responsible for our kids' social lives. A generation ago, our mothers didn't arrange play dates. Mom booted you out the door and it was your job to find someone to play with while she did her housework (or invited a neighbor over for coffee).
No wonder we're unhappy! We want to excel at everything. But with so much to do, that's unattainable. It is impossible to do a great job with your marriage, your home, your kids, your career, your body, your friendships, your health habits, and everything else. Yet that's our goal--to do everything well. And when we can't, we feel like failures.
Remember my patient Kim, whom I mentioned in the introduction? She had almost everything going for her, but she felt depressed because her house was cluttered. That demonstrates the sinister nature of perfectionism. When Kim reflects on her life, instead of listing the many things she's got, she looks at herself and says, "You're a failure because your house is cluttered." If you can't learn to let go of a feeling like that, unless you can get the perfectionist monkey off your back, there's always going to be something wrong in your life.
A Perfect New World?
In many ways, perfectionism is a uniquely American phenomenon. In 1620, the first American colony was established by Puritans who had such strong ideas about how to practice their religion that they sailed all the way to a new continent to do things their way. Ever since the Mayflower brought this idealistic group to America, immigrants have flocked here hoping to find the freedom, opportunity, and happiness that had eluded them in their home countries.
By the early 1800s, American Puritanism and its angry God began to give way to individualism, with its emphasis on people's power to determine their own salvation through good works and proper behavior. "By the turn of the nineteenth century, Americans became rampant reformers with a certain righteous pride" that came from creating the largest democracy since the Roman Empire, writes Laura Schenone, the author of a fascinating book called A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove. "American politics would be fairer than those of England. American people would be superior. Even the food in the new republic would taste better."
To reach these heights, reformists turned their attention to American women. They found much that they wanted to reform. Until that time, most women couldn't read. But America needed strong, principled men to build the new nation, and for women to raise such men they would have to be educated. For the first time, large numbers of girls were taught to read; the number of literate white women skyrocketed.
As female literacy grew, so did the publishing industry. The 1800s brought a wave of cookbooks, women's books, and pamphlets that pointed out women's many failings and urged them to use the discoveries of the exploding field of domestic science to improve their lives, their homes, and their family's health.
In 1829 a writer named Lydia Child published a book, The Frugal Housewife, which became the bestselling standard of its time. This classic example of nineteenth-century women's books provided firm guidance on a wide variety of tasks, including keeping house, devising home remedies, dyeing clothing, cooking, educating daughters, and enduring poverty. Child touched all of the domestic bases: She taught women how to make full use of a slaughtered cow (mix its brains with cracker crumbs and boil in a bag for one hour), cure constipation (drink dried huckleberry tea when the "digestive powers are out of order"), care for the eyes ("do not read or sew at twilight"), and arrange children's hair ("do not make children cross-eyed, by having hair hang about their foreheads, where they see it continually").
Like many other writers of the time, Child had rigid ideals about how moral women should run their homes and their lives, and she wasn't shy about offering dictates. For example, she warned that public amusements such as steamboats, taverns, and vacations would lead to a "luxurious and idle republic" that was destined to plunge the country into ruin. The message to women was loud and clear: They were responsible not only for their familys' well-being, but also for the welfare, morality, and success of the entire nation. Talk about high expectations.
Food = Health
In the kitchen, nineteenth-century women were taught that perfection wasn't just a goal, but a matter of life and death. "The person who decides what shall be the food and drink of a family, and the modes of its preparation, is the one who decides, to a greater or less extent, what shall be the health of that family," wrote Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe in a book titled The American Woman's Home, published in 1869. "It is the opinion of most medicinal men, that intemperance in eating is one of the most fruitful of all causes of disease and death. If this be so, the woman who wisely adapts the food and cooking of her family to the laws of health removes one of the greatest risks which threatens the lives of those under her care."
The Beecher sisters urged women to perfect their skills in making bread, butter, meat, vegetables, and tea. "If these five departments are all perfect, the great ends of domestic cookery are answered, so far as the comfort and well-being of life are concerned." Bad butter in particular aggravated them. Not ones to mince words, the Beechers condemned most of the butter in America as being "merely a hobgoblin bewitchment of cream into foul and loathsome poisons." They preferred the butter in England, France, and Italy--in fact, they extolled the superiority of French cooking so enthusiastically that American women must have felt the culinary deck was stacked against them simply because they were not French.
Nineteenth-century women embraced these books and mind-sets and applied their characteristically American energy toward following them. They raised generations of healthy, well-fed, well-educated sons (and daughters). They helped build a nation, one healthy, moral child at a time.
But some of them wanted more.
Voting for Power
As home economists and cookbook authors rallied for change in the kitchens, the fledgling women's rights movement sought change in the polls. In 1848 the first women's rights convention took place in Seneca Falls, New York. Participants called for equal treatment of men and women under the law and voting rights for women. Susan B. Anthony inspired women to wage state-by-state campaigns to allow them to vote, and in 1920 Congress amended the Constitution to give women voting power.
Meanwhile, in 1916 Margaret Sanger opened a birth control clinic in New York. Doing so, she took a first step toward giving women the reproductive freedom that would allow them greater than ever control of their childbearing.
The actions of home economists and women's rights activists moved in two very different directions--one leading into the kitchen and one out into the world. Each revolutionized a part of female life, and American women would continue to feel their effects for centuries.
In the 1940s, World War II drew women out of their homes and into the workplace. Millions of women inspired by Rosie the Riveter did their patriotic duty and took jobs in factories and offices across America. Not only did women discover that they could do the work their men had left behind, but many found they liked it. Working outside the home gave women a taste of the financial and personal freedom that had been a mostly men's-only world.
Like it or not, most American women trudged back to their kitchens when the men returned from war. It was the 1950s, and America expected its women to have large families and comfortable houses that their G.I. husbands could come home to after a long day at work. Women's magazines bombarded them with images of perfection, and their brand new televisions showed June Cleaver and Donna Reed gliding effortlessly through a world where women ran the house and raised the children (in skirts, stockings, and high heels, no less!), but father always knew best.
A Recipe for Everything
Magazine articles in the 1950s and '60s told women exactly how to dress, clean, cook, raise their children, and care for their world-weary husbands. A November 1956 issue of Good Housekeeping, for example, advised women on everything from manners to architecture: How to eat awkward foods (peel bananas by hand, then place on a plate and cut and eat with a fork), how to soften hard water (lease a water softening system for $3.50 a month), how to get rid of door-to-door salesmen who interrupt you while you're doing the wash (install an intercom system in the laundry room that "makes it possible to say a polite but firm no to salesmen without even opening the door"), the quickest ways to learn French, how to help your house plants grow ("rain water is especially good for all plants"), how to recognize the seven basic types of roof, how to spell the thirty most "mis-spellable" words (from "abbacy" to "therapy"), and how to recognize the words "no smoking" in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, and nine other countries. Articles on the proper way to set the table, restore chipped appliances, choose a spring hat, and launder a man's wash-and-wear suit appeared in other issues.
As for appearance, Good Housekeeping gave this advice to a woman entering her thirties: "The price of a lifelong good figure is a lifelong good diet. And the tab for an eternally comely face and coif is daily care. Pay both, no matter what. You cannot be an ill-groomed, gone-to-seed woman and keep your self-respect."
Meanwhile, advertising promised women that the only thing separating them from happiness was the latest labor-saving device ("many wonders are yours with a Ben-Hur Chest Freezer"), cleansers ("it's fun to cook with shiny pans"), personal care products (Veto Deodorant--because you are the very air he breathes), food (a Jell-O salad makes the meal), and lingerie (Maidenform: "the bra that makes your curves look more curvaceous").
In 1963, Betty Friedan popped the balloon. Her book, The Feminine Mystique, described the dissatisfaction that percolated among middle class women forced into the narrow roles of mother, wife, and homemaker.
From the Hardcover edition.