Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Magical Motherhood for the Upper Middle Class

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.


ancho and lefty said...

Sorry to rain on this parade Beau, but there's a big white elephant missing from all this---- the potential sperm donors/husbands. We have to locate suitable ones and that's taken me nearly ten years since my bachelor's. My point--- it's not just professional women's decision-making that puts off having kids, another problem is finding suitable mates. In a recent piece you argued that mainline churches might be great places to promote healthy marriages, but that they shy away from that role for mutiple reasons.

I would argue that private, liberal arts institutions and other institutions of higher education might make good places to learn about healthy relationships, but as a (now distant) college graduate and current university instructor, I can say that the majority of men's and women's relationships (if one could call them that) seem destined for eventual disease and certainly don't look like good bases for family creation.

More work should be done to explore men's and women's experiences with (long-term) mate-seeking in college--- I think that would shed light on well-educated women's AND men's tendencies to delay family creation as well. Just a thought.

What I am trying to say is that it sometimes sounds like people think that for us young, educated women that there are these lines of eager, responsible, faithful, and potential mates as soon as we exit university---- and that's just not the experience that I had (nor many of my friends for that matter). There's my ten cents

Gruntled said...

Fair enough. Mate selection is always difficult, and I am convinced that men are more reluctant to commit than women. A strategy that most college graduates try to reduce the risk of a bad marriage is cohabitation. But it turns out to be a self-defeating strategy. Cohabiting men are already getting most of what they want out of marriage. Women think that cohabitation will lead to marriage, but really it makes men less likely to propose.

I agree that college could be a much better place to teach about mate selection, and I do so consciously. I find that teaching the facts about cohabitation is the idea most likely to get women to change their plans. I don't know yet if these changes will lead to better marriages, but I think they are likely to lead to more proposals. Men don't propose when they have a woman, they propose when they think they might not keep her.

Kerri said...

potential husband/seed-planters aside, i do think the biggest issue with ladies coming out of centre-like experiences is that we don't realize how little time we have (or, at least our eggs have) in which to squeeze our many ambitions. the thing that struck me though... is that all those women in Hewlett's book were so set on impregnating themselves. what about adoption? admittedly, i don't know a lot about the process, and it's the route i envision myself choosing should i ever decide to want to forever mold and influence the lives of other little people. maybe my hormones just haven't kicked in yet, but i don't understand the urge to birth a baby (though i do understand the raise-a-baby urge). oh, and back to the first comment left on here: "sounds like people think that for us young, educated women that there are these lines of eager, responsible, faithful, and potential mates as soon as we exit university- and that's just not the experience that I had..." i think that this is both unfortunate and accurate, because men as they are typically conditioned don't really stand to gain anything practical from marrying an overly successful wife. i think the issue is that it's difficult for both members of a marriage to be extremely successful, and that at this point in our culture the men are used to being the successful ones, and so choose (i don't know how purposefully?) less-successful ladies as a balance. so, we successful women-folk can either hope to marry guys that will either be wonderful intelligent doting dad types and take on the traditionally female roles in a household/marriage, or we can try to do the single mom thing (a noble but bad idea, i think), or all of society can just revert to a sort of hunter/gatherer village structure where EVERYONE raises the kids and material possessions are a strange concept (not to mention loin cloths!!). the latter is my personal favorite. anyway, beau i'm sure you're glad to see that fam soc 103 left its impression (except for that hunter/gatherer stuff, that was ant110). --kerri

Gruntled said...

One obvious advantage to men of marrying a successful woman is, um, your wife is successful. She is smart, ambitious, and achieves things. Your family income is larger. Your kids will be smarter. Now, I know that I notice in those times in our marriage when my wife has made more than me, and it does seem to make me subconsciously seek ways to make more on the side. But still, as a rational person, having twice the family income is much better than not having that income.

As to breeding versus adopting -- adopting is a great and noble act. I believe in sociobiology enough, though, to think that your natural kids are more likely to have traits you value. If you, smart woman, marry a smart man, together you are likely to increase the world's supply of smart kids.

roxfish said...

I think what we're looking at here, is that women must start multitasking early! We need to work on careers,finding a mate, figuring out where/how to live, and figuring out how many kids to have and how to have them all at once. None of this serial problem solving business, we just can't afford to completely ignore one aspect of our lives like men can. I teach at a women's college and we talk about things like this with my students often. The solution which worked for me, is make lots of friends, one of them might have a nice brother (or sister). There really are not men lining up waiting for educated women to marry, so we need to keep busy on all fronts all the time. We've go to live with the opportunities that we have in hand, not wait around for what might be.

Gruntled said...

I will have to work on men more in my discussions of mate selection. I do tell them to pick their wives for their brains first. Whether they take this advice readily, slowly, or not at all is almost an IQ test in itself.

Doc Merlin said...

Part of the problem with choosing a mate in college has to do with when the mate gets older. Men experience midlife crisis and often go looking for another mate when their mate reaches pre-menopause.

It would prevent a lot of divorces if men married women a lot younger than them, and waited to marry.
Also it would allow women to achieve education and career and family goals, if they married much younger. Marry first and have kids, THEN get an education once you have how many you want.