Part Three: One possible, partial (and politically incorrect) solution to helping women accomplish both answering the call to marriage and motherhood AND achieving a greater presence in elite social, political and economic policy-making positions.
If you haven't already, you can read The Mommy Wars Part One here, and Part Two here.
Am I the only thirty (or forty)-something mother of a young family wondering what I did wrong? I supposedly did all the right things: went to college, went to the office, and then got married and had children just under the biological-clock wire. It’s precisely what my mother always told (begged!) me to do. And yet, here I am trying to make sense of just how, exactly, I’m supposed to be a good mother and get on with my other goals and ambitions.
About a third of women with young children continue to work full time without missing a beat, but that figure includes the countless women who don’t have an economic choice. Some women who are very driven can make that work (and some who aren’t have to do it anyway), but most of us feel a need to slow down when a baby comes along. And when, in mid-career, is there really a good time to “slow down?” Better that you never got going too fast in the first place… or at least simpler. Not to mention, better that you hadn’t spent more than a decade living comfortably on two incomes and then suddenly try to convince yourself that salon highlights and lattes really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be anyway.
It’s not just that I’m doing the math and fantasizing about the missed possibility of helping my kids choose a college in two years instead of choosing a kindergarten. Women nearing forty who want both children and to further their career face a veritable quandary. On one side we’re being rallied to demand better options for part time and flex time work so we aren’t completely knocked out of the professional loop. From the other side, we’re told to enjoy our very important work as mothers, embrace Barney, and even believe that a life of cleaning toilets and talking with stuffed animals is really great, because it was our “choice.” I’m all for choices, but neither of these options help women participate in high-level political and economic positions. Most women in high profile positions either have grown children or no children at all. More than fifty percent of career women aged thirty-five have no children and forty-nine percent of those in top corporate jobs have none.
What exactly is the perceived benefit of encouraging young girls to get their educations and careers in order first and marry and have kids later? So young women go to college, they start working on their careers, then they get married and by the time they’re ready for one of those big, important jobs that we can’t seem to figure out why only white-men-married-to-housewives ever land, they realize if they want children, they’d better do it now. And then they’re faced with the grim “choice” of leaving all they’ve worked so hard for behind and hoping they’ll be able to get back in where they left off in several years or leaving this precious, tiny person who’s just turned their world upside down in daycare for fifty plus hours a week.
About two thirds of women either subordinate their career to family life (work part time) or scrap it altogether for several years. It’s not that they wake up one day and decide that economic independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all, or that changing diapers really is “fulfilling.” Rather, they discover that it’s nearly impossible to get anywhere in any career and also spend as much time as they’d like meeting the (incessant) needs of a young family.
This would be a moot point if talented, ambitious girls (who knew they wanted children and knew they had career goals) would just marry young, have the number of kids they want to have, take care of them until they’re ready for preschool and then start (or finish) their educations, and go to work with a reasonable schedule to start gaining some experience and contacts. When the kids are older, and not so needy, they’ll still have plenty of time to climb the career ladder full force. This method worked well for Madeleine Albright, for example.
I mean, let’s face it, it doesn’t matter how smart or fabulous you are, no one is going to hire you to be the CEO of Microsoft when you’re twenty-five. And if you have children at home, and therefore only want to work thirty hours a week, no one’s going to hire you for that job at forty-five either. Recently it was suggested that all of the things that we imagine would make life better for mothers will continue to harm their professional potential in that things like increasing maternity leave and part-time work options (which I, nevertheless, support) will make women of child-bearing age less attractive job candidates over all. Not to mention, we won’t be electing a “part-time” president of the United States any time soon (George Bush’s controversial vacation schedule notwithstanding). Maybe all this waiting around to have children is actually a detriment to women’s overall chances for corporate and political achievement.
This says nothing of the health benefits of bearing children sooner rather than later. In addition to being a protective factor against breast cancer, the older the mother the riskier the pregnancy… particularly if it’s her first pregnancy. Two different midwives advised me to “at the very least” have the first baby by age thirty, because apparently it’s well known (among those who would know such things) that if the uterus hasn’t expanded and the pelvis separated once by then, it will have a much harder time doing it down the road. That’s not to scare older mothers, just to point out that if you’re married and you know you want children, there are few practical reasons to put it off.
We can whine and complain all we want about the fact that men with children are able to continue working like crazy and women with children are not. But it’s wrong to blame that solely on social conditioning when biology is clearly at work here too. Now I’m not suggesting that once a girl hits puberty she should just pair up with the nearest warm body and procreate, but maybe we should stop suggesting that intelligent, creative women are “wasting” their lives and talents if they marry and have children young. Maybe they’re wasting the potential to use their talents for something “big” by waiting.
As an afterthought, Kelly recently shared her experience of young motherhood (younger than anyone -including me -would recommend, in fact). It's such an inspiring story with a beautiful outcome that I just wanted to point it out and this seemed like a good place to do it.