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Ideal, Perfect, Ultimate: What Drives Parents to Seek the Unattainable?

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Your research found that devices — particularly phones — have expanded our ability to get things done across multiple areas of our lives, but they’ve also increased our expectations for how much we “should” be getting done at work and at home.

Beckman: Technology helps us do more in the moment. We can now juggle all of those things, but the challenge is that as everyone starts to do that, we then expect other people to be available to us all the time. The strings get tightened between us. More people are more reliant on us, we’re more reliant on other people. And then this sort of pivot happens where if you don’t respond to me, it’s, “Well, why aren’t you attending to me? Do you not care about this relationship? Do you not care about this work?” It ratchets up the need to be engaged all the time. It makes it even harder to be a good worker or be a good parent, because we now expect more.

Mazmanian: It’s very easy for society to blame technology. The technology allows us to engage differently and makes us more available, but how we use that capacity really depends on what we value, what we care about and who we’re trying to be. So if a “good colleague” is someone who’s responsive, they’re really just enacting that value with a new tool. We have developed a society where being on top of things, being responsive to each other, being at the ready is coded as respect and love and care.

One of your interview subjects tells you regularly that this is the most stressful time in her life, and as soon as she gets through it, she’ll be fine. But that lasting place of calm never really arrives. The other interview subjects talk about the satisfaction of those fleeting moments when work is good, the kids are good, and it feels, just for a second, like they’re doing it all right. As momentary as the satisfaction of a perceived “win” is, we still consciously opt in to this exhausting race. What’s that about?

Mazmanian: We expected people to be like, “Ugh, I want to do less.” But we didn’t actually hear that very often. What we heard was, “I want to do it all better.” The idea of doing less is just not coded into high-achieving people’s sense of self. And they were also doing a pretty amazing job of living these incompatible myths. That made us really dig into how even limited success was possible, given that these goals are fundamentally incompatible.

That’s when we started to look at the idea of scaffolding — all of the layers of support that people rely on in order to approximate these myths.

Beckman: The perfection these families are striving for — and I recognize myself in many of them — sounds pretty exhausting. It doesn’t feel perfect, in the sense of perfectly sustainable. What drives these efforts? Is it a sense of dissatisfaction with life? Is it a fear of poverty, or of their children going off the rails?

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