Martha Syndrome: Effortless Perfection

martha stewart
I found this summary of a study through a series of things I was reading online, and this just hasn’t left my mind. So I guess it’s time to get it out.

In an interview in 2003 with Donna Lisker, the director of the Women’s Center at Duke University, says this (of their findings in a research project on undergraduate gender issues):

Q: Participants describe the undergraduate Women’s social environment as being defined by a quest for “effortless perfection.” Would you elaborate?

A: This phrase described the perceived expectation that Duke women should excel in everything. They should be great students, with exciting summer jobs and internship opportunities; they should join high-status sororities and be popular with their peers; they should be campus leaders; and they should have physically fit bodies and high-fashion wardrobes. Just reading that list is exhausting — who can live up to expectations that high? Many young women we spoke to said that not only did they feel they had to live up to those expectations, they felt they had to act as if doing so was easy and required no effort whatsoever. The result is stress and a constant feeling of inadequacy. They think all of their peers are excelling with no effort, so why do they struggle?

Wow, that’s pretty fascinating. It’s a perceived expectation. One that these girls hold in their conscience. No one told them to ‘pack their life full and make it look easy’ … someone added that part. And then another thought she needed to be just as ‘together’ and another, and another, and now there is a campus full of girls who keeps eyeing each other to see how ‘easily’ life is done at full speed and capacity. How did we get here? Are these students all walking around like the great pretenders? I suspect many of them are presenting “I can handle it” on the outside and crying in their pillow at night from the pressure to stay on top and keep from cracking.

In my mind this is pretty accurate, not only for college students say of their peers at school, but for me as a housewife. I, (as do all households) have tasks of a different nature than most of the Duke girls. I have meal planning, shopping, preparation & cleanup, home organizing, decorating & maintenance, house cleaning & laundry, car stuff, doctor appointments, kids to play with, bathe and entertain, trails of toys to pick up, wardrobes to maintain and plan or shop for, phone calls to make & return, friends and family to consider, call, write or visit. These things are not ‘chores’ to me, and (aside from ironing) I love doing every one them. But not one bit of it is effortless and I can assure you – or some of you can confirm – that it is far from perfect! I do my best at what I can, but I am no pretender. If you hang around me more than 15 minutes, I will probably blurt out some kind of statement that will affirm my need for help! I am blessed to have a husband who does most everything with me when we are home together.

Side Thought: I have such admiration for single working parents! My mom was single much of my childhood and worked three jobs many of those years so that I could be in Christian school and have a comfortable life. She worked jobs that allowed me to be with or near her and she still managed to keep our home looking neat and nearly spotless, our clothes always clean and pressed and food – yes, cooked great food for just the two of us. I admire her and I’m grateful to her to have set the example for me that she did.

I realize this study is 4 years old, but this is not just happening at Duke University. In my opinion it is everywhere at some level, occuring on every campus, in every office, every church and quite possibly every mom’s group. When I visit the homes of friends of mine, I don’t “look around” to see if they have piles of clothes waiting to be ironed or stacks of *whatever* to be dealt with. I don’t have eyes for what white gloves would find, but I have them for myself. Perhaps I am my own worst critic.

Seems to me that much of it is about perception, and so we put the pressure on ourselves. Martha Stewart used to get me thinking down that trail. She appears to be the hostess extrairdinaire, elegant chef who also manages the most extensive of vegetable and flower gardens. I bet her closets and drawers are the most organized humankind has ever laid eyes on. She is skilled at making beautiful arrangements of food, flowers, furniture, you name it…it just looks ‘right’ if she has touched it. Special even. I used to wonder why I couldn’t be or do those things and make every part of my life seem a little extra special. And so I gave it my best shot. And I was exhausted, and even a little irritable and I felt a bit less than because it wasn’t so effortless after all. And then one day in passing, I heard someone say, “Well, even Martha Stewart has a staff of (how many?) to do it for her!” And so it ended. My preoccupation with being Martha’s imaginary apprentice. Yes, my perceived expectation of how life was meant to be lived, was meant to be done with a support staff of hundreds.

But of course, as I sit here, I think, I can always do better. Push harder, accomplish more, probably in less time than the last and do it all with a smile on my face. And I can. I owe it to my family, and especially my husband to be more organized and have a smoother running household. But I have to remember that no one wakes up to life that just ‘works’ and requires no effort. Anyone who imagines such does so with a naivety, or a really great house staff!


~ by hthr on May 28, 2007.

One Response to “Martha Syndrome: Effortless Perfection”

  1. Yes, well Martha makes great flower arrangements, but she did go to jail.
    The challenge is to make your household run relatively smoothly without it stressing you out and turning you into a total witch (I write ‘you,’ but I mean ‘me.’) Let me know if you figure out how to do it; my family would appreciate it.

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