For every woman I know who never married and claims the reason is that it’s impossible to find a suitable mate, I know dozens of successful women who are happily married to peers. So if some women, emboldened by the visionary idealists of the women’s movement, ended up disappointed, was it really the fault of the feminist leaders who looked at the deprivations of women’s lives and argued that things could be better?

When influential women attack the core ideas of the women’s movement as some kind of hoax or failure, rather than taking responsibility for the consequences of their own individual choices, they lend credibility to the reactionaries who have always claimed that women shouldn’t, or couldn’t, enlarge their horizons. At the same time, those opposed to gender equity keep ratcheting up the pressure for women to conform to conventional feminine images and standards.

As a result, all too many American women are in thrall to increasingly deranged ideals of perfection. We live in a culture that constantly exhorts us to improve ourselves—and that assumes the perfectibility of virtually everything. If you don’t work at perfecting every aspect of your appearance, your family, your home, and your life, you feel like a slacker. But in order to maintain their sanity, working mothers have to be practical; perfection is an ideal you can use to berate yourself forever, but this takes a lot of energy that would be better directed toward more productive ends.

For me, one of the defining moments of my dual career as journalist and mother came many years ago, when my son was almost two and my daughter was about to turn five. Ever since having kids, I had struggled with feelings of guilt that plagued me no matter what I was doing. When I was engrossed in my work, I always worried that I was slighting my children. When I focused on them, I felt guilty about neglecting my work.

I finally asked the writer Anna Quindlen, who has three children and one of the more successful careers in journalism, how she handled the guilt. “I don’t do guilt,” she said firmly. End of subject.

At the time, the contrast between her crisp, no-nonsense attitude and my own hand-wringing sense of inadequacy made me feel that this was just another way I didn’t measure up—on a par with the fact that Anna roasted a Christmas goose while I struggled to get a turkey into the oven. It didn’t occur to me back then that the refusal to feel guilt was a trait that could be cultivated, like patience or good manners or kindness.

Then I had an unusual stroke of professional luck. Early in the first term of the Clinton presidency, the so-called Whitewater scandal was raging around Hillary Clinton, who initially responded by refusing to talk to the press. But the day before my daughter’s fifth birthday party, I landed an exclusive interview with the First Lady—a real professional coup. My time with her would be very limited, so I spent the flight down to Washington frantically preparing my questions to make the best possible use of our interview. When I arrived at the White House, I was escorted to the Map Room, where I was left to sit and wait for Mrs. Clinton to join me.

As the minutes dragged on, my mind wandered. After some time had passed, I suddenly realized with horror that my thoughts had drifted to the birthday party I’d been planning. Instead of rehearsing my interview questions, I’d been obsessively going over the party favors, children’s games, and birthday snacks in my mind, absorbed in the eternal have-Iforgotten-anything drill of the ever-anxious mom. What kind of reporter was I?

Despite my self-flagellation, the interview went exactly as I’d planned, the story worked out fine, and the next day I threw a wonderful birthday party for my daughter. As they picked up their children, the other mothers congratulated me. “You give the best birthday parties,” one said, “and you always have the best party favors!”

Planning ahead as usual, I had ordered the favors from a catalog months before the party, knowing that I might not have time for last-minute shopping, which of course I didn’t. As a mom, I had delivered a successful party—and, as a reporter, I had delivered a successful story. Maybe neither one was as perfect as it might have been if I’d had an unlimited amount of time to focus on every last detail, but the greatest satisfaction ultimately came from having managed both sets of responsibilities competently.

Indeed, it’s the combination of the two that has made my life so interesting. Yes, it can be stressful to keep all those balls in the air, but if I’m being really honest, I have to admit that it’s also an incredible thrill. There are few experiences more exhilarating than living up to every bit of your potential.

Throughout their lives, my children have watched me manage a wide range of demands, both familial and professional. They’ve seen me confront obstacles, get frustrated, make mistakes, figure out compromises, and ultimately meet whatever challenges were thrown my way. No doubt they’ve learned many things from my struggles, not all of them flattering to my self-image. But whatever my flaws, I know they know I’ve tried my best. On my last birthday, my daughter, who was then 16, made me a beautiful card. Inside she wrote, “I could never ask for a better role model or more loving mother, and I want to thank you so much for always being here for me.”

I’ve been a working mother for nearly 18 years now, and in all that time I’ve never once regretted the immeasurably rewarding life of a working mother. If combining work and family isn’t worth the hassle, you sure can’t prove it by me. >> (interview)

Leslie Bennetts CW’70 is a contributing writer at Vanity Fair. Excerpted from The Feminine Mistake by Leslie Bennetts. Copyright ©2007 Leslie Bennetts. Published by Voice, an imprint of Hyperion. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.

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