Poor teen mothers in the slums choose to have their babies now, and hope that someday they will marry – and while they are at it, have a good job, a house with a picket fence, and a personal unicorn. See these earlier blogs for the details. William Galston rightly calls this “magical thinking.” It is of a piece with other poor teens telling researchers that they plan to be doctors and lawyers – while flunking out of high school. Galston’s solution would be to provide some kind of middle class mentors to give the kind of guidance and reality check that middle class kids get at home.
I teach middle class kids. They have a realistic understanding of the connection between school and careers, which they pursue diligently and well. They have a clear understanding of the value of marrying before having kids, and definite plans to do so, someday.
Some of the women I teach, though, show a different kind of magical thinking. They believe that they can finish college, then get professional training, get their careers well launched, start to look for a husband, get married, get their two careers coordinated, and then start to have children – all before their eggs get too old. This is the problem that Sylvia Ann Hewlett described so well in Creating a Life. The very high achieving women she studied had made a “creeping non-choice” which left them in their fifties with no children, or fewer than they wanted.
From the perspective of the teen mothers, the fifty-somethings who have just figured out the fertility cycle seem amazingly naïve and benighted in their thinking. They trusted in magic, too.
The most effective treatment of this kind of thinking is the one Hewlett recommends: ask these young women to describe what they want their families and work lives to be like at 45, then plan backwards to their current age. When they see what milestones need to be reached by when, and in what order, they are usually shaken, then moved to new action. I often get to see and share in the wonderful spectacle of smart people reordering their lives on the basis of true understanding and critical thinking.
Ultimately, the solution to magical thinking about work, marriage, and children at both ends of the social structure is the same: truth and critical thinking. And the sooner the better.