I often talk to audiences of professional women and men about how there has never been a better time to live as a woman – and how we want to open doors for our daughters. Women today have rights and opportunities that generations before could never have even imagined. We can work in whichever field we please, choose to limit our family size, invest in our education, earn for ourselves – all privileges our grandmothers could not as easily access. It was difficult to then reconcile these realities with a statement I recently read by Caitlin Lanagan, author of ‘Girl Land’ a book about the heavy expectations we have for our daughters and their fear of failure – largely inherited by us as working mothers.
In ‘Little Miss Perfect’ an article in the Sunday Times, Lanagan is credited with positing that ‘the modern world is absolutely the worst time to be living as a girl’ – a statement I recognise also has some validity. In an age of cyber bullying, tagged photos that are seemingly cached for eternity and the ‘creep’ of ever higher expectations for perfectionism, I have often commented to friends I wouldn’t want to be a teen again.
Like my generation, research suggests girls are still pressured to be nice, polite, modest and selfless which curtails their power and potential. To add insult to injury, modern teenage girls are also expected to be accomplished and highly driven to boot. Duke University calls this ‘effortless perfection’ and see it among teenage girls who are finding that living up to modern society’s feminine ideal is anything but effortless. We are entering the dangerous era of junior ‘Superwoman’.
At the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls Development, headed by Carol Gilligan, an esteemed expert in this field, they can even detect a key age when girls change from being ‘real’ to being ‘good’. They see the shift most noticeably at age 12, when a girl ‘makes the simple outward change of giving up a connection to her full range of feelings in favour of fitting in’. The researchers say these girls eschew self hood to garner favour from others because we thrive on connection and fear rejection. The kicker is that girls they interviewed fear this rejection and expectation to ‘play nice’ mostly from mothers – the same people who instill in us the perfectionism they also try to live up to.
When working with my female coaching clients, I often ask them – “How would you benefit if you could be satisfied with 80% perfect?” It’s a question that always brings a smile and a discussion about the relief they would feel. Perhaps a new follow up question should be: “How would your daughter benefit if she saw its okay to be 80% perfect?” How amazing would that be for both of you? If you are challenged by raising teens or ‘tweens you can listen to the recorded webinar “Parenting Skills for Busy Working Mothers: Raising Teens and ‘Tweens in the 21st Century”