Waking at 5:30 a.m., Nancy Huron drags herself out of bed to take a shower. After weeks of trying (with some success) to get up at 4:30 to walk on her treadmill in the garage, she has finally given up and let herself “sleep in.” Work email kept her up the night before. The treadmill will have to wait. By 5:45 she is showered and wrapped in a thick bathrobe. Wandering down the hall to the kids’ rooms she gently shakes her sleeping six-year-old daughter, Melody, and eight-year-old son, Dylan, murmuring, “It’s time to get up. You get to see all your friends at school!” As she dries her hair and gets dressed, Nancy walks back into each of their rooms. She repeats various encouragements with increasing firmness: “Come on. It’s time to get up. Time to get up now. You can do it. I know you can. Your clean clothes are folded outside your door. Pick out something to wear.” The kids slowly emerge and get dressed. Dylan bounces into her room smiling and says, “I’m ready mom. I even have my socks on.”
Making their way downstairs at 6:17, Nancy sets breakfast on the table: Kix cereal, vitamins, and a banana. She reminds them to stay focused. At 6:26 she repeats, “Okay, no playing with your napkins. Eat your food. No paper airplanes. Come on.” Frustration mounts as she glances at the digital clock on the microwave. Somehow in the next twenty minutes she braids Melody’s hair, clears the breakfast dishes, and puts on a necklace and a touch of lipstick. Nancy wears her daily outfit of slacks, pumps, and a sweater set. A single working mom, she doesn’t have time to shop. She stocks up once a year at the Ann Taylor outlet store.
Nancy reminds each kid to put on shoes and makes sure they each have their backpack, sweatshirt, and homework as they file out the kitchen into the garage. She remembers to grab the kids’ snacks waiting on the kitchen counter and makes her way out the door. She is vigilant about packing snacks at night before she goes to bed. “I have to push through and pack them even if I’m tired . . . because otherwise it doesn’t get done.” They are all out the door at 6:46. The morning went relatively smoothly with the kids, and Nancy breathes a sigh of relief. Although school doesn’t start until almost 9:00, Nancy drops her children off at early care as soon as it opens at 7:00. “It’s just one of those things that breaks your heart,” she says.
After dropping off her kids, Nancy heads to Starbucks for a skinny vanilla latte before hitting the road. It’s a regular stop: “I don’t care if I’m late. I have to. I’m completely addicted.” Today she is driving sixty minutes to corporate headquarters. As a senior director at Silver Lake Hospitality (SLH), Nancy splits her time between corporate headquarters and the multiple hotels for which she is responsible. Her closest property is about forty-five minutes from her suburban home.
While she is in line for coffee, her fingers fly over her company-provided smartphone. Head down, inching forward, Nancy spends the time in line replying to emails. She answers a question about finding a lost contract and accepts several meeting requests. Her smartphone is key to a successful day: “I have all these people that need something. But they’re all things that I don’t need my computer to do; stuff I can get off my plate so when I’m sitting down to work I can actually work. Otherwise I’d be up until 2:00 a.m. every night just answering emails.” A typical day might find Nancy dealing with over a hundred emails and numerous text messages. Back on the road, she glances down and taps a quick response while at a red light: “I would not be able to do the job if I didn’t text and drive.”
Fast forward to the evening. Today is one of the two days a week that Nancy leaves work at 4:00 p.m. so she can have dinner with her children. She picks up the kids from after-school care, and they are home by 5:00. She leaves her smartphone on the kitchen counter, changes into her pajamas, and makes dinner. By 6:15 one child has showered and the three of them are enjoying leftover cupcakes after a meal of chicken nuggets, tater tots, green beans, and watermelon. Nancy desperately needs a trip to the grocery store. Thankfully, before rushing out the door this morning she looked in the freezer and realized she could pull together some dinner. Finding time to stock up on groceries is always a challenge and, really, after work she just wants to go straight home.
After Nancy shepherds the kids upstairs to finish showering and brush their teeth, the three of them make their way back downstairs. It is 6:46 p.m. Nancy confirms that each finished their homework in after-school care, and Dylan takes this as an opening to beg for some time on Nancy’s tablet to play “Angry Birds.” She firmly says no, but offers to let him play tomorrow when they meet the neighbors for dinner. Dylan reluctantly pulls out a giant box of mismatched Lego pieces. Melody puts on a CD of her favorite dance hits and starts wheedling Nancy (who is now splayed out on the couch) to dance with her. Making silly gestures she dances around her mom, teasing, “Don’t be a party pooper. Don’t poop on the party. Come be a good sport.” Sighing with a wan smile, Nancy eventually gets up, and a full-on dance party ensues—complete with jazzercise moves and floor spins. Even Dylan gets involved. The kids pull out a box of musical instruments, and everyone plays along to Kidz Bop. At 7:16 Nancy flops back on the couch. Soon after she takes a quick phone call in the kitchen with her long-distance boyfriend, Ken, while the kids continue to play.
At 7:50 Nancy declares, “Okay, it’s time to start cleaning up.” They begin to pick up the cars, Legos, and instruments that are strewn around the living room. By 7:59 they are cuddled together on a futon in the upstairs landing, reading bedtime books. By 8:15 the kids are in bed and Nancy is back downstairs checking her phone. She sighs and says, “I could do so much tonight. I really should, but I just can’t.” Nancy could be working on the property budgets, finishing a contract for one of her hotels, or answering emails. She received twenty-two emails since leaving work at 4:00 p.m. and has been checking them subtly throughout the evening (glancing as she ducks into the laundry room or while the kids are in the shower). But she is tapped out. After putting two Tupperware containers on the counter to remind herself to pack snacks before she goes to bed, Nancy pours herself a glass of wine, tucks her feet up on the couch, and flips open a People magazine. A moment for herself.
FIGURE 1.1. Nancy Huron Braiding Melody’s Hair in the Morning
NANCY HURON’S DAY includes moments of joy, stress, productivity, and exhaustion. Nancy has a good job, happy children, close friends. At a fundamental level, she is privileged—and she knows it. Nancy feels like she “has it all.” And along almost any metric, she does. But her life is still a nonstop and intense grind.
Nancy’s life is driven by love for her children and her pride in her work. She tries to exercise and eat healthy food while maintaining a home. She craves downtime with friends, family, or occasionally just a People magazine. Nancy’s desires don’t seem unreasonable: work, parent, stay healthy, with a little bit of time to relax or socialize. So why does her life feel relentless (to her and us)?
The answer is that Nancy’s life feels relentless because impossible dreams—shaped by the particular place and time in which she lives—leave Nancy and her colleagues, neighbors, and friends all living with unreasonable aspirations. In this book we tease apart the different and compounding expectations that motivate Nancy (and others like her) to strive for the impossibility of perfection. We examine what helps her get through the day—from the mobile devices that keep her in the loop, to the caregivers who watch her children so she can work a full-time job. The expectations—or myths—of perfection that haunt Nancy pervade current U.S. society, and create an image of the kind of person we all should strive to be.
The threads of expectation that anchor Nancy’s life in cycles of satisfaction and guilt, and tie her to others, emerge from the overriding narrative of three dominant cultural myths1—the Ideal Worker, the Perfect Parent, and the Ultimate Body.2 Striving to be an Ideal Worker, Nancy drops off her kids at 7:00 a.m. every morning so that she can grab a coffee, catch up on email, and get to work prepared and on time. Nancy’s phone and laptop are her conduits to work during her “off hours,” and she uses them to show her colleagues that she is dependable, accessible, and at-the-ready. For example, when her boss emails her on a Sunday afternoon asking about the status of a project, she uses her phone to immediately tap out a quick reply—commenting wryly, “Well, good thing I got that done this morning.” Her devices allow her to keep up with incoming emails, stay on top of tasks, and maintain a sense of competency and control.
Nancy carries the satisfaction of acting like an Ideal Worker alongside the guilt of not being a Perfect Parent. A single mother, she adores her children and constantly asks herself how to give them the childhood she feels they deserve—comparing their lives to the “great” childhood she had with her mother, who stayed home. She makes a conscious effort to put down her phone and play with or read to the kids in the evenings. She monitors how much TV and iPad time they get and makes sure their homework is done. With the help of babysitters for transport, both kids engage in after-school enrichment activities. Several nights a week a babysitter will pick the kids up from school and take them to karate or gymnastics. Nancy usually checks the refrigerator before running out the door in the morning and texts the babysitter about what to do for dinner during a break in her schedule of back-to-back meetings. Nancy expects the babysitter on duty to monitor homework, feed the kids dinner, and try to get them bathed before she gets home between 7:00 and 7:30 p.m. Some sitters are better than others, and she works hard to stay in the good graces of those who can keep her children on schedule. Nancy measures herself against the ideals of the Perfect Parent, and she pieces together what she can.
After experiencing a major health scare, Nancy struggles to fit in regular exercise. When she responds to requests from colleagues in late-night emails, her hopes for early morning exercise are dashed. She has to decide whether to trade off sleep for exercise. Whichever she chooses, the result is a feeling of guilt. Nancy also works hard to provide healthy meals for herself and her children. Once a week she gets together with her neighbor to prepare a home-cooked meal. These nights are about more than a healthy dinner. Both families look forward to these nights as a time to relax and socialize. But such nights take planning—and rely on the neighbor being a stay-at-home mom who can make the last-minute run to the grocery store. For Nancy it is hard to find time to shop, much less cook. She wants to care for her body but simply cannot fit any more into the day. The myth of the Ultimate Body is often a reminder to Nancy of where she’s falling short.
Nancy’s life is hectic. The pressures are constant. At multiple points over the three years we spent with her, Nancy declared that this was the most stressful time she had ever experienced. If she could just get through the next two days, or two weeks, or two months, things would calm down. Like the conductor of an unruly orchestra, Nancy is forever trying to bring into synch the yearly rhythms of work (quarters, annual budgets, the holiday sales season), school (summer camps, new teachers, holidays, standardized testing), and her body (sleep patterns, medical treatments, hunger, pressure to exercise) with the inevitable and unexpected snafus of everyday life (an unhappy client, a child breaking an arm, the supermarket reorganizing where they keep the cereal).
How does Nancy strive for these three myths of perfection? She relies on her phone, tablet, and laptop to get through the impossible days. With the help of her devices, Nancy expects to do more than a day’s worth of work, be available to more people than those she is with physically, and handle more demands than one person reasonably can. She expects this of herself and others expect it of her. And while technology might help in the moment, over the course of weeks, months, and years of using it to do more, it only intensifies the pressures.
The real answer as to how Nancy manages can be found in the people that she is connected to through her devices. We can see it in the time and energy she spends fostering supportive relationships with babysitters and teachers. We can see it in the relationship she has with her neighbor, who texts her multiple times a day: saying “hi,” offering to pick up something at the store, or sharing a recipe. This network of human support is often masked by technology’s emphasis on individually managed lives, but it is the thing that keeps people going, no less striving.
Nancy’s colleagues and counterparts in this book have similar dreams of perfection: from single parents to families with a stay-at-home parent and dual working couples. Each family does their best to manage the complications of everyday life, and each feels incredibly lucky. But nearly everyone is bone tired, overwhelmed, and frequently stressed. They rarely feel like they have done enough. The idealized expectations for work, parenting, and the body are unrelenting and always in the background. The real story in this book is the ways in which they rely on the support, or scaffolding, of others, so that they may get up each morning ready to do it all again.
The specific contours of a myth are different depending on one’s background or location. Take being a Perfect Parent. In lower-income households this ideal may be lived through everyday challenges such as getting enough healthy food to make home-cooked meals. For higher-income households, it may be breastfeeding children and buying local organic food at the farmers market.3 We focus on the myths as represented in nine middle- to upper-income families in Southern California. But the act of striving is not unique, and the reach of these myths extends to many different types of families in the United States.4 Even when a person rejects aspects of these myths of perfection, everyone lives in terms of these ideals. The myths manifest as expectations that shape everyday actions. Nancy and other working parents across the country may not ever feel they have achieved the status of Ideal Worker, Perfect Parent, or Ultimate Body. But still, people’s inadequacy according to the myths is likely to bleed into their sense of self.5 The feelings of guilt, responsibility, and rationalization that run through their heads at night suggest that even when such myths aren’t upheld, they wield power. These myths are so ingrained in the conversations of middle- and upper-class Americans that it is difficult to imagine work, parenting, and health in any other light.6
Nancy’s colleague Teresa Davies pokes fun at the fundamental impossibility of the myths, posting an article on Facebook about invisible work7 and commenting, “If you add this to our shift at work, and the fact that we’re also trying to care for our health and bodies, it’s really a miracle we’re not in the looney bin . . . or are we?” While recognizing that the myths make her crazy, Teresa does not attempt to stop following them. Like those around her, she feels pride and joy in the moments when she is, in fact, living her dreams.
1. We use the language of myth to invoke how valorized ideal types act as guidelines for everyday action. Mary Blair-Loy’s discussion of “cultural schemas” is a similar construct, but we felt that myth has a broader resonance as a term. That said, we find Blair-Loy’s definition of cultural schemas helpful in defining what we mean by myth. Cultural schemas are “cultural definitions of the conceivable, the moral, and the desirable [that] help sculpt the capitalist firm and the nuclear family.” According to Blair-Loy, schemas are generally unquestioned and socially shared, and they “shape social structure, the patterns and activities of groups and individuals in institutions, firms, and families. They are also subjective and partially internalized, thereby shaping personal, aspirations, identities and desires” (Competing Devotions, 1–5).
The Merriam-Webster definition of myth also aligns well with our use of the term: “A popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. “myth”). More broadly, myths act in similar fashion to Michel Foucault’s term discourse, including the practices, histories, and broad networks of association that inform how cultural objects are approached and understood. Another similar construct is James Gee’s “figured worlds,” or the taken-for-granted stories about how the world works that people use to code what is “normal” and “abnormal.” See Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge; Gee, Introduction to Discourse Analysis.
2. Ideal Worker was termed by Joan Williams. Perfect Parent is a variant of intensive mothering and concerted cultivation discussed by Sharon Hays and Annette Lareau. Blair-Loy talks about the tensions between the work and parent ideals. We coined Ultimate Body on the basis of sociological work in body studies, notably the work of Chris Shilling. See Blair-Loy, Competing Devotions; Hays, Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood; Lareau, Unequal Childhoods; Shilling, The Body; Williams, Unbending Gender.
3. For an analysis of how displaying wealth and privilege has evolved in upper-class families, and often centers around practices of intensive parenting, see Currid-Halkett, Sum of Small Things. For a view of how the Perfect Parent is understood and realized in lower-class families, see Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott, Pressure Cooker.
4. Other scholars have focused explicitly on how these broader pressures (what we call myths) influence families across the economic spectrum. See, for example, Bowen, Brenton, and Elliott, Pressure Cooker; Cooper, Cut Adrift; Pugh, Tumbleweed Society; Ishizuka, “Social Class, Gender, and Contemporary Parenting Standards.”
5. Anthony Giddens discusses the reflexivity that characterizes “late modern” life at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. According to Giddens, the erosion of traditional forms of social order provided the opportunity for human beings to break free of traditional delineations of status and hierarchy. However, in so doing individuals are now more fully responsible for establishing a “lifestyle” through which they can find a sense of purpose, identity, and ontological security. In other words, “The self is seen as a reflexive project, for which the individual is responsible. We are, not what we are, but what we make of ourselves” (Modernity and Self-Identity, 75).
From this perspective, the myths explored in this book are created relationally and reflexively; what we see others doing, what we think others are doing, and how we relate this understanding (accurate or otherwise) to our expectations of ourselves. Critical to establishing and making sense of our lifestyle choices is the reflexive project through which people attempt to make sense of the world around them in service of establishing a place in a shifting social order. Put simply: “What to do? How to act? Who to be? These are focal questions for everyone living in circumstances of late modernity—and ones which, on some level or another, all of us answer, either discursively or through day-to-day social behavior” (Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity, 70).
6. In this book we broadly speak to the experience of middle- and upper-class heteronormative professionals in the United States. We believe that the strength of the myths is widespread, but we do not claim to speak to everyone’s experience.
7. Teresa points her Facebook friends to Hartley, “Women Aren’t Nags.”