Recently, in the NYT, slightly conservative columnist David Brooks muses on the fact that:
“Over the past 30 years, the fraction of women over 40 who have no children has nearly doubled, to about a fifth… And it is part of a large pattern. Most Americans still tell pollsters that the ideal family has two or three children. But fewer and fewer Americans get to live in that kind of family…For some, it's a question of never finding the right person to have kids with. Others thought they'd found the right mates, but the relationships didn't work out. Others became occupied with careers, and the child-rearing part of their lives never got put together… But there is also one big problem that stretches across these possibilities: Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives.”
Well yeah. I'm 43 and it was very clear to me when I was 22 what the trajectory of my life was supposed to be. I was to graduate from a good college, either spend one to three years raising my profile in the career of my choice or go straight to graduate school, get out, and then spend the next 20 years knocking the world’s socks off, professionally speaking. I knew I was supposed to do that because the beginning in the latter half of the 70s, bright young women like me had to have careers. I mean, sooner or later a woman had to run IBM, be governor of California, or find the final cure for cancer. It was our destiny, our responsibility. It was what good college educated girls did.
Now, what I really wanted to do when I was 22 was find Mr. Right. From the time I was very young, I wanted to have children, lots of them! I thought six was a good number. Now don't get me wrong, finding Mr. Right wasn't all I wanted to do. I also wanted to pursue a career. I want to knock the world’s socks off. But I didn't want to do it, if it meant not being with Mr. Right.
Now I know, and I knew then, all of the reasons why women need their own income, need their own professional lives. Currently, I have three close friends who have had dickhead husbands who have pimped them for money after leaving them for other women. I have seen the statistics that show the plummeting of women's financial worth post-divorce.
But still, at 22 and at 43, I put marriage and children first. I was careful how I did it. I did get a graduate degree, albeit one I've never really used. When I married my husband, I took over all the responsibility for our finances. I made sure my husband carried a lot of life insurance! I have made all of the financial choices for my family. I now make them for my husband's business. But when I got married at 27, I set about trying to have children as fast as I could. By the time I was 35, I had four children, and no career. Now that I'm 43, I still have four children, I’m still married to Dr. Right, I am a part of my husband's career, I'm active in my community, I occasionally write for the local paper, and I make virtually no money making and selling jewelry and really still have no career.
There have been dark days in my marriage I've worried that my husband and I might not make it, might get a divorce. And those days are darker because I don't have a career, I couldn't support my children and myself. And it's likely that I'm less likely to get divorced because I don't have a career, I need the partnership my husband and I have. But I know I work hard, managing our home, our children, our money, and our business. I don't think my husband could manage his professional life if he didn't have me. We need each other, emotionally and financially.
David Brooks ends his piece with this idea:
“It might make sense, for example, to give means-tested tax credits or tuition credits to stay-at-home parents. That would subsidize child rearing, but in a way that leaves it up to families to figure out how to use it…. I suspect that if more people had the chance to focus exclusively on child rearing before training for and launching a career, fertility rates would rise. That would be good for the country, for … we don't have enough young people to support our old people. (That's what the current Social Security debate and the coming Medicare debate are all about.)”
To me, that idea is at best a place to start. I think we need to refigure the very fabric of women's lives. The truth is, no matter how much feminists—in whose ranks I number myself-- hate to hear it, most women want to grow up, get married, and have babies. And it's a hell of a lot easier both to conceive and raise children when you're under 35. As far as conception goes, that ticking clock is a reality. And while fertility drugs have helped so many women get pregnant after 30, 40, 50 and counting, the process of using them is bruising. I know-- by the time I was 30, I needed them and I owe three out of my four children to them. I have no regrets about having used drugs to get pregnant, but I wish I hadn't had to. I wish I hadn't had to experience so many months of sadness because I just didn't know if I could ever have that family I had wanted since I was a little girl.
Ultimately, I feel lucky. At this stage of my life, I'm excited about going back to some sort of professional life. I feel like the next 40 years are so open to me. And I know that because I have waited until my children were older and my bank account bigger, I have freedom to carve out the kind of work and home life I want. I don't feel limited by the choices I made, by giving up the professorship I always dreamed of. It doesn't feel too late to me. I think I'll be able to have my children and have a viable professional life. And if I'm wrong, and can't have that professional life, I'll still have my children, whom I love more than I could ever love any job.