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Ladies, stop trying to be perfect!

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 6:11 PM EDT, Wed October 2, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Modern women morphed feminism into perfectionism, according to new book
  • The book's author, Debora Spar, is president of Barnard College and a mom of three
  • Spar says women should "fess up" and admit they can't do it all perfectly
  • She also says we need to bring men into the conversation

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She's a mom of two girls and lives in Manhattan. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- I usually catch myself before I utter the p-word to one of my daughters, but every once in a while it comes flying out of my mouth and I cringe.

"You look perfect," I might say when one of them gets dressed up for a holiday.

After I say it, I immediately wish I had my own personal eraser button because I've been plagued by an intense perfectionism for pretty much my entire life -- and the last thing I want to do is pass along that horrible trait to my children.

It began with the quest to be the perfect daughter, then student, then news correspondent, then career woman, then wife and now mother. I consider myself improving based upon the fact that I didn't get up at 4:30 a.m. to write the perfect piece. I figured sleep is just as important.

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I know I am not alone. In her new book, "Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection," Debora Spar, who is president of Barnard College, talks about that relentless need that many of us modern women feel to be perfect in every aspect of our lives. For some reason, nearly 50 years after Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" and the women's movement, we morphed feminism into perfectionism, says Spar.

"I'm not entirely sure why but I think one of the things that happened without anyone meaning for it to happen is that as we generationally all got excited with these tremendous opportunities that were being created for women, we kind of built a myth and an illusion around it," said Spar, a mother of three, during a recent interview in which she got very personal. She revealed she had a breast reduction at age 21 because she felt her body would keep her from being taken seriously as a professional. (You can see the full interview here.)

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The media definitely played a role in our perfectionism, Spar said, pointing to commercials like one for Revlon's Charlie perfume in the '70s, which I still remember so vividly. It featured the model Shelley Hack, playing a sleek and sexy businesswoman with a baby who dazzles her husband and every other man who passes her by.

That's how life was supposed to be for the modern working woman, right? And it was supposed to be easy, too?

"I think that's really the kicker," said Spar. "We not only thought that we would have all of these things at once but that somehow we would glide into this life without really having to work very hard, without struggling, without failing, without getting depressed, and the result of that sadly is that when our lives of course become harder and become messier we somehow feel like we failed."

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While we've been at this perfectionism thing for several decades now, and habits are oh-so-tough to break, Spar offers some great tips on how we can slowly try to change, and also, perhaps most importantly, shares tips on how we can prevent our daughters from following in our not-so-perfect footsteps.

1. Fess Up -- Women who look like they have it all should start admitting the truth, says Spar. "And admit that even if I look like I'm keeping all the balls in the air, they're dropping all over the place," she said. It may seem like a small thing but the power of women talking candidly about the decisions they make and being more honest about the tradeoffs that "everybody's life entails" can hopefully take some of the pressure off women and girls, she added.

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2. Say No -- N-O. I am spelling the word because it is just so darn hard for me to say, and that's part of my problem, and the problem of so many other modern women. Spar says we should write down everything we are doing in our lives, cut out three or four responsibilities we can get rid of and then "say no consciously" to additional tasks. "I think where I get into trouble and I see lots of people getting into trouble is when you say maybe. 'I'll try to be there. I'll try to do it.' Just say, 'I don't do that. I don't travel on weekends. I don't go to conferences. I don't do bake sales,' whatever it is and just consciously say, 'I'm not going to do that.'" (My mother-in-law uses a fabulous expression: "Gee, that doesn't work for me." It works every time I have the courage to say it!)

3. Get rid of the guilt -- How many times do you say yes to a work event or a social outing because you feel like you should be there and not because you really want to attend? Spar says her son came up with a list for her. "Every time I was considering whether or not to go to an event, he would say, 'Is it good for your job? Do you have to go? And will it be fun? And if the answer to all those three questions is no, don't go.' And it's amazing how many things fall off your calendar if you run through that little list."

4. 'Satisfice' -- It's a term that comes out of economics and is often used by negotiators. It means not going for your first best option, said Spar, but it doesn't mean settling for less. It just means having a "whole array of options" to consider. "Because all too often I think we think in black and white terms. If I'm not secretary of state, I've failed. If I'm not running the corporation, I've failed. Well, what's the next step down, what's the third step down? And I think it's a useful concept to realize that just because you didn't get exactly what you wanted doesn't mean you didn't get something that's really good," she said. (Incidentally, Spar says her dream "was" to be secretary of state. I noted, "There's still time!")

5. It's about men, too -- We can't do this all by ourselves, says Spar. Our husbands, brothers and male colleagues need to be part of it, too. "Men obviously have to pick up some of the housework, some of the child care and women have to let men do that," she added. "I won't let my husband make the school lunches because he's not going to do it quite as beautifully as I will. He's not going to ask all of the right questions at the parent-teacher conference, so I always have to go, too. We have to move away from that and I think there are a lot of men who really want to be more involved in their kids' life and in their home life but sometimes the women are shutting them out because the men will do things differently."

Follow Kelly Wallace on Twitter and like CNN Living on Facebook.

Have you been struggling with that quest to be perfect at work, at home, with your kids and your husband? Tell us in the comments below.

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