Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Mommy Wars Part 3

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.


kevin said...

My wife and I are 35 and 34 respectively and we now have a 3-month-old daughter. Having gone through chemotherapy I wasn't sure if I could biologically parent children and my wife, who had never attempted pregnancy, didn't know if she could at that age either. Obviously we're grateful now that we have procreated, but after having run the risk of infertility I no longer look scathingly at the young mothers I see. They likely once thought the few-weeks-late scare was one of the most startling alarms their biological clock would sound.

They likely won't ever know the running-out-of-eggs scare.

Redneck Nerdboy! said...

You are so funny and an excellent writer. You know that?

I'll bet you do!!


Melissa said...


That's what I'm doing. Right now. As in, you are writing about my actual life. So nice of someone else to point out the feminist sensibilities of my choices. I'm getting kind of tired of doing it all myself.

My husband said to me the other day, "Can you imagine trying to do this ten years from now instead? Where would we find the energy?!"

The economics of it are difficult, though, lattes and highlights aside-- a twenty-something "breadwinner" just doesn't (usually) have the earning power of a thirty- or forty-something.

Fresh Mommy said...

I think part of the problem with talented, ambitious women marrying young to have their children and then starting their careers when the kids go to school is that many of us just weren't ready at an earlier age (too busy dancing on bars and whatnot) and/or we hadn't met the right person yet.

I think a big part of the reason some women decide to stay home and slow down after they have children is that corporations work us too hard. We spend our 20's putting in overtime and traveling for business on weekends for a lousy two weeks vacation a year (oh yeah, and for a paycheck, too). I guess I'm just not that driven, but after awhile you start to think there's got to be more to life than your company's bottom line. Instead of feeling like I don't have the energy to run after a toddler (sometimes I don't!), I feel like I don't have the energy to jump back into my career -- they don't call it "climbing" the ladder for nothing!

Jill said...

I worry that the young women will get stuck marrying old codgers because, in my limited experience, today's young men are maturing at a much slower pace than they used to.

But maybe that's just the young guys I know. It sounds like Melissa found a good one.

Anjali said...

Not to sound like a broken record, but what a wonderful post. And I couldn't agree more with your sentiments. Depsite the fact that I was once a very career-driven attorney, one of my few regrets in life is that I didn't start having children a little earlier (instead of when I did start, at 28). Bravo, Staci!

toni said...

I just want to thank you for the Mommy Wars series as I sit here in guilt about taking the time to be on the net. Actually, these posts deeply moved me as I (as are so many others) am amidst much of this responsibility/image/career/finances/happiness/etc. quagmire currently (and have been for many years as have many other women). 7 years ago, my husband and I made a decision together to move halfway across the country so that he could go to medical school. Looking back, this was one of our easier decisions as a family without children. We had our first child during his medical schooling and my gradute schooling. Thus began a series of increasingly complicated choices for both of us. And, really, is it even possible for life to ever become less complicated? My husband and I accept responsibility for our choices while acknowledging that they may not have always been ideal, but we felt (after much research, debate, and emotion) they were best for us. This includes having to factor in unforseen events, such as the aftermath of Katrina and my life-threatening medical episode. One more child and two more moves from where we began parenthood, we're still fielding complex decisions while being equally satisfied and dissatisfied with the results for our family and for each of us as individuals, if that makes any sense.

To the point, I'm elated to hear others voice that they recognize the need for a woman to do what the heck is best for her and her family if a family is part of what she has decided is best for her (or if having a family was truly not a choice by any rational definition). Thanks again. I've added this blog to my favorites.

Food Mum said...

I think everyone has to find the right time for them. I was way too young and immature at twenty three to have found a good relationship, let alone have kids, but by my thirties it felt just right and I had found just the right man. But if someone is lucky enough to have found the right person young and have children then that's great too. No one solution fits all. It's great that you made that point though, a useful fresh perspective.

Mary Tsao said...

Staci, You had me at the first paragraph. Do you know me?!

Oh, how I long for salon highlights...

"...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." Yes, yes.

Interesting conclusion and suggestion.

I, for one, am grateful that I did not procreate with my first husband (the man I was with during all of my twenties.) Our relationship, in retrospect, was doomed to failure, and I knew then that I was not in any way, shape, or form fit to be a mother.

However, I understand your argument and have seen that model work well with friends and family. My sister, for example, is cruising along in her career after being out of the workforce for all of her twenties, while I am at home, jobless, wondering what career #3 will look like.

Food for though. Thank you for this well-written and thought-provoking set of pieces. All three were great!

Feminist Mom said...

Very well said. It's such a catch-22. You want to have kids when you're young and up to the challenge, but just when you're starting to get going with your career, that's when you want to start! Businesses need to learn to be more family friendly, we could start there.

Suzanne said...

I think you have a very interesting point. (My friend decided to have her kids now, and go to vet school when they are in school, which makes a lot of sense. She's pretty happy.) Since we women tend to live longer, we have plenty of time to fit in careers and kids with your plan. I like it.

However, I think that there is still a missing piece, and that is fathers. While it is great for mothers to be at home raising kids, I think fathers should have that option too. Maybe a lot of men are not interested in staying home with kids long term, but an increasing number of men my in age range (I'm 30) are interested in finding ways to be with their kids for at least some significant amount of time, like a year or two.

Parenting, like marriage, is a partnership, and I'm all for finding ways for both parents to spend important time home with the kids. It's good for the parents and for kids!

The Mommy (fka 3under5) said...

I think, maybe, part of the problem is the endless analysis of the issue. Being prone to pondering the same, A LOT, I still sometimes wonder if the right message for young men and women is much simpler: You are not required to get married. You are not required to have children. You are not required to break the glass ceiling. All this talk about the appropriate time-planning to 'having it all' suggests such a life is possible.

Kris said...

I haven't read the whole series but I definitely will. I struggle with this too. I went to college, got "established" in the workplace, then had kids. I always worried that I would have kids then get divorced or widowed, so I was hell-bent on having a way to earn money in case something like that happened. That's why I chose to do career then kids. But, now, because I waited, I came up one kid short of what I wanted, and I feel like in my late 30s I should be writing like crazy rather than doing laundry and getting snacks. Sigh. Thanks for the thought provoking post, and I will be back to read more.