Every so often, I read something that makes me take a deep breath and reconsider my life choices, like “Judging Women” in the latest New York Times Magazine http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/magazine/23FOB-wwln-t.html?ref=magazine.
In that piece, writer Lisa Belkin points out that, if Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time – and two will be single and childless.
Many people are ranting about this being a bad decision on the part of the Obama administration, their rationale being that we need a mother on the Supreme Court to truly represent our population. That’s an interesting argument, but not the one that stopped me.
No, the bits and bobs that jumped out at me in this piece were the statistics gathered from author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, whose studies show that half of all high-achieving career women (those making at least $100,000) reach that age without having children.
Can a woman really have it all, as in marriage (or a lifelong partner), children, and a “high-achieving” career? That’s what I’ve been thinking about today. You see, I have two college-age daughters, both of whom are driven academically, but also prone to falling in love. Oh, and they both adore kids.
What do I tell them about a woman’s choices?
I came of age on the skirts of the women’s liberation movement. My mother stayed home with us despite her college degree; in her day, a diploma was simply better bait for a better brand of husband. Nonetheless, my parents expected me to 1) get that college diploma, 2) marry, 3) have a career, and 4) give them grandchildren. All of which I’ve done, yet none of it turned out quite the way I thought it would.
I had already earned a master’s degree and was working as a public relations director for a California school district when I met my first husband and got pregnant. It was a big job with big hours, yet I fully anticipated rushing back to the office after my 12-week maternity leave. I loved my job. I loved making money. Plus, what in the world would I do if I stayed home all day? Didn’t babies sleep all of the time?
Ha. Within two months of becoming a mother, I recognized two truths: 1) Because my husband was in sales and traveled three weeks out of four, there was no way both of us could be gone all day, every day, without going broke on day care; and 2) I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this 8-pound person in the hands of anyone else. At least not yet.
After discussing our dilemma for weeks, we made what seemed like a rational decision: My husband earned three times as much money as I did, so he would continue working. I’d stay home for a year, maybe two, then get another full-time job.
We both breathed a sigh of relief as we fell into the roles we knew so well from our childhoods, since both of us had come from families with stay-at-home moms and fathers who traveled for business. In the meantime, I started working as a freelance writer, thinking I’d try to get a job in publishing. As a writer or editor, I reasoned, I could have more control over my work hours than I’d ever had in public relations. That would be a more compatible schedule with mothering. I was adjusting my sights, but still career-bound.
Again, fate bitch-slapped me with an unexpected wake-up call. My husband was promoted and traveled even more just as I got pregnant with our second child. Now day care costs would be even more astronomical. We decided that I should keep working part-time until the kids were in kindergarten.
Fast forward eighteen years. Husband #1 and I are divorced (but still friends). I have, for the most part, continued to raise our children while he has traveled. He rose through the ranks of his company to become a Really Big Cheese. Meanwhile, I kept freelancing. I took more jobs as the kids got older, but I was still the one on call for snow days and sick days, school vacations and summer, juggling what needs to be juggled by mothers everywhere.
I put motherhood before my career. That was my choice. Little did I know that, just by having a baby, I was jeopardizing my career and putting myself at risk for poverty, as so many studies around the world show (http://www.weawomenatwork.org.uk/topic-June-08—motherhood-and-poverty-g.asp, http://apps.olin.wustl.edu/macarthur/papers/gender-gap-SociologicalPerspectives.pdf
I am not complaining. I consider myself one of the luckier divorced mothers: I am now remarried and my second husband and I are happy. I love being a writer. But, damned if I didn’t do it all over again and have another child with Husband #2.
Between us, my second husband and I have five children – two of his, two of mine, one of ours. He has a steady job as a software engineer. I have continued working as a freelance writer rather than go into another demanding public relations job, simply so somebody is here to manage doctor’s appointments, school schedules, grocery shopping, cooking, laundry, whatever.
Husband #2 is a wonderful domestic partner when he’s at home. He’d be a better stay-at-home parent than I would be in many ways. However, again the reality is that he makes more money than I do, and he has the health benefits. So, when somebody has to take a day off to meet the appliance repairman or take a kid to sports practices, it’s me.
It’s me, and it’s most working mothers, who – even before we get to our desks every morning – have to wake kids and get them dressed, make breakfasts and lunches, throw in loads of laundry, bake for the PTO sale, fill in the permission slips for field trips, schedule haircuts and oil changes, figure out summer camp and day care and dinner. And, oh yeah, try to get to to our desks on time to meet deadlines. Maybe even while wearing matching socks.
Recently, as husband #1 and I were discussing college tuition expenses for our oldest child, he threw up his hands in frustration when he saw my tax returns and discovered how little money I made last year. “It was a tough year in publishing,” I told him.
“You could have been in sales like me,” he shot back.
He was right. I could have made more money if I’d seen less of our children. And I know he regrets having missed out on so much time with them.
On the other hand, I’m right, too: If I could just waltz out the door every morning and stay gone for eight-to-ten hour work days like the men in my life (and like the men in the lives of most other women I know), I could make a hell of a lot more money. I might have become president of my own PR firm or a New Yorker staff writer. Hell, I might even have become an astronaut or a Supreme Court judge. That would have been a fascinating, fulfilling life. But that wouldn’t have been the right choice for me.
The way our society is currently structured, with so little parental leave and no subsidized child care, and very little support in the home by relatives, women can’t have it all. Neither can men. All we can do is make our best choices, sacrifice what we must, and hope that we’re doing the right thing for ourselves and for the people who depend on us.
That’s the answer I’ll give my daughters.