On Rules and Doing It Wrong

Woman reads while baby sleeps - advertising image from c. 1949

At heart, I am rule follower. I can’t watch sitcoms because the social rule-breaking makes me cringe, not laugh. I never ever cut in line. I was the kid in school who had to do every assignment perfectly, and would fall apart if I missed the mark.

So when I had a baby, naturally I flipped the hell out. I desperately wanted someone to tell me how to raise this terrifyingly small human, to tell me how to do it RIGHT.

And boy howdy, I discovered that the world is full of someones who just couldn’t wait to tell me all the ways I could fuck this up. Every new mother I know has gone through this painful introduction to this endless stream of advice and fear.

Looking back, I can’t believe how much time I spend reading this stuff. I remember late nights where I would tell myself I’d just read through one more topic, one more post, and THEN I’d go to bed. (This is an unfortunate side effect of having a compulsion for completeness – online message boards are infinite, so you are never complete, so you had better just keep reading and reading until you fall asleep on the couch. Fun!)

I think my need to understand the rules is why I also have a need to buy every vintage etiquette book and how-to manual I can get my hands on. When I hold a Sunset Magazine’s guide to good hostessing (circa 1943) in my hands, I picture a young mother sitting at her kitchen table, flipping through looking for answers. She wants to be a good mother, a good wife, a good friend. And the advice she’s getting is both hysterically funny and heartbreaking, because it’s all terrible. It’s terrible advice, and she shouldn’t listen to any of it – because really, what did the editors of Sunset know that she didn’t. Nothing.

It makes me want to give that long-ago young mother a hug, then give myself (circa 2007) a kick in the pants, and then take out a billboard on Highway 101 that says THERE IS NO RIGHT WAY.

(Except when it comes to standing in line.)

(Featured image: Woman Reads as Baby Sleeps from Photographic Advertising Limited
Image source: Collection of National Media Museum on Flickr)

What I learned from Martha Stewart at BlogHer ’12

Martha at BlogHer 12

To set the scene: a ballroom full of women here to learn & be inspired, and on the stage is Martha. Martha! She’s friendly, she’s funny, she’s enthusiastic, she’s wearing fabulous orange pants.

And she delivered on the inspiration. The moment that made me want to stand and applaud was her reaction to this not-too-veiled snark during the Q&A.

Hey Martha, you are so good at so many things. Tell us something you’re terrible at.

Her response?

*thoughtful pause*
Well, I guess I’m terrible at things I haven’t tried yet.

She didn’t apologize. She didn’t giggle. She was handed an incredibly strong cue to put herself down, and she very politely declined to take it.

This resonated with me because I struggle with taking credit for work I’ve done. I can know perfectly well that I’ve done a great job, but I still have to fight the instinct to respond to a compliment with, “Oh, it was nothing.” And I have that instinct even though I know that by saying that I’m putting myself down. I know that I’m diminishing the value of my work in order to make the other person feel better, and that by doing that I’m diminishing my own value.

What made me crazy about that question is that if Martha Stewart were Matthew Stewart, nobody would ask him to apologize for being driven and successful. He would be admired for it, and so should she. In fact, I admire her more because I know she had to learn how to turn off those voices telling us to take that step back; telling us that making other people comfortable is more important than going out there, taking charge, and creating something amazing.

So Martha, you keep on being awesome. I will make it my homework to replace that put-down voice in my head with a new voice, one that keeps reminding me to NEVER apologize for being awesome. And the next time I get a compliment, I’m going to smile and say, “Thanks. I really worked hard on that.”