A long time ago I dated a 28-year-old man who told me the first time we went out that he wanted to have seven children. Subsequently, I was involved for many years with an already middle-aged man who also claimed to be eager for fatherhood. How many children have these now-gray gentlemen produced in a lifetime of strenuous heterosexuality? None. But because they are men, nobody’s writing books about how they blew their lives, missed the brass ring, find life a downward spiral of serial girlfriends and work that’s lost its savor. We understand, when we think about men, that people often say they want one thing while making choices that over time show they care more about something else, that circumstances get in the way of many of our wishes and that for many “have kids” occupies a place on the to-do list between “learn Italian” and “exercise.”
Change the sexes, though, and the same story gets a different slant. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, today’s 50-something women professionals are in deep mourning because, as the old cartoon had it, they forgot to have children–until it was too late, and too late was a whole lot earlier than they thought. In her new book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, Hewlett claims she set out to record the triumphant, fulfilled lives of women in mid-career only to find that success had come at the cost of family: Of “ultra-achieving” women (defined as earning $100,000-plus a year), only 57 percent were married, versus 83 percent of comparable men, and only 51 percent had kids at 40, versus 81 percent among the men. Among “high-achieving” women (at least $65,000 or $55,000 a year, depending on age), 33 percent are childless at 40 versus 25 percent of men.
Why don’t more professional women have kids? Hewlett’s book nods to the “brutal demands of ambitious careers,” which are still structured according to the life patterns of men with stay-at-home wives, and to the distaste of many men for equal relationships with women their own age. I doubt there’s a woman over 35 who’d quarrel with that. But what’s gotten Hewlett a cover story in Time (“Babies vs. Careers: Which Should Come First for Women Who Want Both?”) and instant celebrity is not her modest laundry list of family-friendly proposals–paid leave, reduced hours, career breaks. It’s her advice to young women: Be “intentional” about children–spend your twenties snagging a husband, put career on the back burner and have a baby ASAP. Otherwise, you could end up like world-famous playwright and much-beloved woman-about-town Wendy Wasserstein, who we are told spent some $130,000 to bear a child as a single 48-year-old. (You could also end up like, oh I don’t know, me, who married and had a baby nature’s way at 37, or like my many successful-working-women friends who adopted as single, married or lesbian mothers and who are doing just fine, thank you very much.)
Danielle Crittenden, move over! Hewlett calls herself a feminist, but Creating a Life belongs on the backlash bookshelf with What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, The Rules, The Surrendered Wife, The Surrendered Single (!) and all those books warning women that feminism–too much confidence, too much optimism, too many choices, too much “pickiness” about men–leads to lonely nights and empty bassinets. But are working women’s chances of domestic bliss really so bleak? If 49 percent of ultra-achieving women don’t have kids, 51 percent do–what about them? Hewlett seems determined to put the worst possible construction on working women’s lives, even citing the long-discredited 1986 Harvard-Yale study that warned that women’s chances of marrying after 40 were less than that of being killed by a terrorist. As a mother of four who went through high-tech hell to produce last-minute baby Emma at age 51, she sees women’s lives through the distorting lens of her own obsessive maternalism, in which nothing, but nothing, can equal looking at the ducks with a toddler, and if you have one child, you’ll be crying at the gym because you don’t have two. For Hewlett, childlessness is always a tragic blunder, even when her interviewees give more equivocal responses. Thus she quotes academic Judith Friedlander calling childlessness a “creeping non-choice,” without hearing the ambivalence expressed in that careful phrasing. Not choosing–procrastinating, not insisting, not focusing–is often a way of choosing, isn’t it? There’s no room in Hewlett’s view for modest regret, moving on or simple acceptance of childlessness, much less indifference, relief or looking on the bright side–the feelings she advises women to cultivate with regard to their downsized hopes for careers or equal marriages. But Hewlett’s evidence that today’s childless “high achievers” neglected their true desire is based on a single statistic, that only 14 percent say they knew in college that they didn’t want kids–as if people don’t change their minds after 20.
This is not to deny that many women are caught in a time trap. They spend their twenties and thirties establishing themselves professionally, often without the spousal support their male counterparts enjoy, perhaps instead being supportive themselves, like the surgeon Hewlett cites approvingly who graces her fiancé’s business dinners after thirty-six-hour hospital shifts. By the time they can afford to think of kids, they may indeed have trouble conceiving. But are these problems that “intentionality” can solve? Sure, a woman can spend her twenties looking for love–and show me one who doesn’t! But will having a baby compensate her for blinkered ambitions and a marriage made with one eye on the clock? Isn’t that what the mothers of today’s 50-somethings did, going to college to get their Mrs. degree and taking poorly paid jobs below their capacities because they “combined” well with wifely duties? What makes Hewlett think that disastrous recipe will work out better this time around?
More equality and support, not lowered expectations, is what women need, at work and at home. It’s going to be a long struggle. If women allow motherhood to relegate them to secondary status in both places, as Hewlett advises, we’ll never get there. Meanwhile, a world with fewer female surgeons, playwrights and professors strikes me as an infinitely inferior place to live.