Thursday, February 15, 2007

Smart Men Marry Smart Women 4: The Baby Elephant in the Room

The critical issue for high-achieving women is not so much whether they will ever marry, as whether they will ever have children.

As I noted yesterday, Christine Whelan is arguing, in Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women with Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Hewlett reported in Creating a Life that at midlife, 1/3 to 1/2 of the highest-achieving women had no children, vs. about 1/5 of other women. Whelan disputes that there is a gap at all, citing an article by Garance Franke-Ruta in The American Prospect. Franke-Ruta contrasts a Current Population Survey analysis with Hewlett's more focused National Parenting Association survey. According to Franke-Ruta, the CPS shows that married high-achieving women are just as likely to be mothers as other married women. The reason that other women have more kids altogether is that the high achievers are less likely to have kids out of wedlock than other women are.

So what does this comparison mean? Let us take it as given that high-achieving women do marry at about the same rate as other women, and the married women among them have kids at about the same rate as other married women. That is not quite the end of the story. Hewlett also reports that a large minority of the high-achieving women who did have a child wished that they had started early enough to have more. And even Whelan takes for granted that if high-achieving women have kids, nannies and day care are a "given." Yet most mothers would like to be home with their babies, even if they want to return to full-time work later. This, I think, is why Hewlett found that 1/5 of professionally trained women were not working in their professions – most were home with their kids at that stage in life.

That last point is a crucial one: Hewlett does not say that women have to choose either high achievement or marriage and kids – as Whelan charges her with. Rather, Hewlett says that women can have it all – education, marriage, kids, career – but probably not all at once. If they plan, they can have it all eventually, but some things have to come before others. And the most imperious item on the list is having kids. The biological clock is less forgiving than the timetable for any other item on the list.

I think Whelan, who is 30 and proudly announces her engagement in the Acknowledgements, has not had to deal with the tragic sense of baby hunger that Hewlett's 50-something high achievers have. Whelan quotes with approval from Ann, an unmarried 30-year-old medical resident:
"As a doctor, I'd advise women to think about having their kids when they are younger, in their early 20s. But this just isn't practical for high-achieving women. And it's a disconnect that lies in our biological challenge of reproduction."

As Hewlett shows, the brave reliance of younger women on medical technology (and wishful thinking) to solve the problem of finding husbands and having babies after school and career are well-launched is setting many of them up for heartache.

You can have it all, but not all at once. The main issue is not whether smart women will find smart men to marry, but whether both of them will find one another in time to have smart kids.


Unknown said...

Great post. As a "high-achieving woman" (I guess, according to the criteria in your posts) who will be 30 this summer, married to a man who is 32, it was crucial to us that we become parents early. I am 25 years older than my son and 27 years older than my daughter. I think that many high-achieving couples have the mindset of, "Oh, in a few years we will be ready for kids." Well, "ready" never arrives and then they are 45-50 with no kids. I am thrilled that we are young parents.

Gruntled said...

Amen. Mrs. G. and I started having kids when we were 28, with much less theory than we have now. When I went back to my 20th college reunion with teenagers, and were talking to 40-somethings with newborns, I felt blessed.

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of other issues here, one of which is that high-achieving men don't have to make that kind of choice. They can have a great career, marriage and kids all at once.

Secondly, there is a stigma attached to women who set out to be high-achieving, but had kids early. I had my daughters at 24 and 26. I was the only person from my Centre class I knew who had kids when they were born. I was in graduate school when my first daughter was born and felt very, very isolated. My college friends were totally shocked and, I felt, disappointed.

In theory, I'm glad I had my kids when I was younger. They take alot of time and effort that I can't imagine having at 40 - and I'm glad, at almost 29, that the pregnancy/tiny infant stage of my life is over. On the other hand, I worry that I won't have the career I might have had if I hadn't had to shift priorities from work to family so early.

Gruntled said...

You are right that men don't face the same choices that women do. I think that, at bottom, that is a true biological difference -- not just that women do the actual bearing of children, but that the hormonal ties between newborn and nursing mother are stronger and more consuming than father-child bonds. That phase does not last forever, or even very long in a long life, but it does take all the time that it takes. Yes, you would be further in your career without kids - but would you trade? And your friends may be further in their careers now, but if they get to 50 without kids, will they want to trade their lives with you?

Unknown said...

Gruntled wrote: "Yes, you would be further in your career without kids - but would you trade?"

I know this question was not directed at me, but my answer is certainly NO. It does suck that women have to make these choices. I've had church interview committees ask questions like "What childcare options do you have while you serve at our church?" I'm almost positive that male candidates are not asked these kinds of questions, or least much less often.

Anonymous said...

Great post! As a coach for women, I have a hard time sometimes convincing women they can have it all, but not all at once, and as a babyboomer who grew up with the superwoman role model, women today have greater support for a combination of choices.Men/father help out more, and better childcare, flexible working hours makes for happier mothers and children, in a perfect world! ha...

all the best