The baby panic

Sylvia Ann Hewlett says young women should start husband-hunting in their 20s if they don't want to end up childless and sad. But she's as clueless about balancing work and family as the career-first feminists she decries.

Published April 23, 2002 7:36PM (EDT)

At 31, I felt like a teen mother in my Lamaze class, surrounded by San Francisco career women in their late 30s and 40s. This was 1989, but several were already veterans of the infertility wars. I listened, aghast, to the stories of what they'd endured -- the Clomid and Perganol injections, the miscarriages and the in vitro treatments -- just to wind up there, outsize and grateful and resting on pillows, learning to breathe through the pain of labor (an exercise that, like so much else we'd learned about motherhood, would turn out to be useless when it came time for the real thing).

After my daughter was born, I felt even more out of sync with my cohort: college-educated, career-minded feminists in their early 30s, few of whom had even married yet, let alone had kids. My husband and I used to drag our daughter to parties in a baby sling, where friends treated her like a little visitor from outer space, fascinating, awe-inspiring, intimidating. I occasionally envied my childless pals taking off on fabulous story assignments and exotic vacations, getting hot new jobs, or quitting said jobs to write a book or go back to school. But mostly I felt lucky: I had a sneaking sense that I could have been one of those women on the '80s T-shirts -- "Oh my God, I forgot to have a baby!" -- if I hadn't gotten pregnant out of the blue, when we were still a few years from officially trying.

Reading Sylvia Ann Hewlett's "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children," I felt lucky all over again. Career women like me, according to Hewlett, are suffering a "crisis of childlessness": a third of the 1,658 "high-achieving professionals" Hewlett surveyed over the Internet are childless at 40, as are almost half of the women at the very top of the ladder in corporate America.

I could identify with both sets of women. I'm a "high-achieving professional" who did the right thing, according to Hewlett (and believe me, there is a right thing in Hewlett's world), and got marriage and motherhood out of the way in my late 20s and early 30s. My daughter is the joy of my life. But I'm also a divorced Internet vice president who works too hard, has only one child and, at 43, lacks the cozy two- or three-kid nuclear family I wanted -- and which, according to the fertility and demographic data Hewlett assembles, I'll probably never have. Reading the book, I sometimes felt blessed, occasionally bitter.

But mostly I felt mystified by the glowing, almost uncritical reception the book has received from the media: A huge cover spread in Time, big segments on "The Today Show" and "60 Minutes," awed reviews (the New York Times called it "seismic"). She's the expert everybody's turning to for explanations about why so many accomplished professionals aren't mothers, about the pain it's causing them, about what is to be done to solve the problem.

So far, however, nobody has pointed out that Hewlett herself is downright eccentric on the topic of children -- she has five with the same husband (including one from his previous marriage), the last one conceived through nightmarish infertility treatments when she was 51. It seems clear that her own obsession with mothering has distorted the social science she's trying to explain, and exaggerated the problem she proposes to solve.

And yet despite her singular personal baggage, Hewlett gets some things right in the book. The chapter on the infertility industry is must reading for anyone embarking on that path, or anyone who thinks they can blithely postpone childbearing into their late 30s or even 40s. Some feminists complain about efforts to raise young women's consciousness about their relatively brief fertility window. "The implication is, 'I have to hurry up and have kids now or give up on ever having them,'" National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy told Time magazine. But that's silly. Most women are a little vague about the limits of their reproductive years: Time cites an iVillage survey of more than 12,500 women, answering 15 questions about fertility, in which exactly one woman got all 15 right. Only 13 percent knew their fertility began to drop at age 27; 39 percent thought their reproductive capacity was unchanged until 40.

And Hewlett is, as always, spot on when it comes to indicting the workplace and government policies that keep career-minded women from having children, and child-minded women from having careers -- the lack of paid family leave, subsidized child care, flextime schedules and other options that let European women better balance work and family.

I also think she's right to listen compassionately and give voice to the suffering of women who really grieve over never having become mothers; I know these women, and their pain is real. I would even give her credit for advancing the debate over how to combine marriage and motherhood with careers, with her controversial advice to young women that many feminists find frightening: If you want to get married and have children, you're going to have to make it a priority, early, and get ready to compromise, often. She's actually right about that, ladies. More later.

But she's wrong about so much more.

The very premise of Hewlett's book seems disingenuous. She was going to write a book celebrating women turning 50 at the millennium, she says, interviewing fabulous female luminaries and asking them about their success. But the list she compiled happened to contain exactly zero women with children. Television news queen Diane Sawyer, opera singer Jessye Norman, playwright Wendy Wasserstein (who later gave birth to a daughter), legal scholar Patricia Williams and a host of lesser-known corporate and academic standouts -- of the 10 women she talked to, none were mothers, and "none of these women had chosen to be childless." (There are a lot of these italicized emotional punch lines in the book.)

I found that unbelievable. Hewlett's own data shows that half of all 40-plus ultra-high achievers are mothers, but her list of 10 somehow didn't include even one? In the book's margin I began maniacally jotting a list of 50-ish overachievers who have children -- television news stars Jane Pauley, Cokie Roberts, Judy Woodruff and Barbara Walters; singers Patti Smith, Carly Simon and Tina Turner; children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman; social critic Barbara Ehrenreich; Sens. Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and several more; even Hewlett's editor at Talk/Miramax, the formidable Tina Brown. It was harder in corporate America, but I eventually came up with Goldman Sachs' Abby Joseph Cohen, e-Bay's Meg Whitman, Oxygen's Geraldine Laybourne. I even found an opera singer, Frederika Von Stade.

I have no evidence Hewlett deliberately chose childless celebrities, and I don't doubt her larger point -- that 50-ish female standouts are more likely to be childless than their male counterparts, and not because they chose to be. It's been well-documented through the years. But I do think she exaggerates the degree of the problem, as well as its impact on women, through her selective use of anecdotal as well as survey data that confirms her pre-existing prejudice.

For instance, one has to look hard to find the fact that 20 percent of all American women over 40 are childless, a rate that's doubled in just 20 years. There's a gap between them and their high-achieving sisters (women who earn more than $65,000), 33 percent of whom are childless, but it was frankly less than I expected. Likewise, the fact that one in four 40-plus male high achievers, compared with one in three women, are also childless got less attention than it deserved. I was enormously encouraged by the fact that the high-achieving female professionals surveyed who are "entrepreneurs" -- they work for themselves as sole proprietors or run their own businesses -- have childless rates (22 percent) almost identical to the overall population.

The book's most questionable piece of data has come in for some criticism, and that's her finding that only 14 percent of these childless high achievers actually chose not to have children. It's worth paying attention to the way she derived her number, because it shows the way her survey stacked the deck. She asked respondents whether they knew in college that they definitely didn't want children, and only 14 percent knew that then -- leaving the impression that the other 86 percent were sentenced to childlessness and lament it.

Of course, few of us knew what we wanted in college; if our lives were judged by what we wanted then, most of us would probably be deemed disappointed failures. (Oh my God, I forgot to write my novel!) Strangely, Hewlett's survey failed to ask a straightforward question about whether childless women are unhappy they didn't become mothers, or whether, looking back, they'd make different choices in order to have children. No doubt many of the childless women she surveyed would answer yes to both questions, but I'd bet it would be a whole lot less than 86 percent.

Likewise, she looks at women like me, who have children but would have liked more -- a quarter of all 40-plus high achievers with kids say that -- and sees in us "a mother lode of pain and yearning." Oy. That's the problem with the whole book -- Hewlett can't distinguish between an occasional twinge of loss, and life-darkening despair, when it comes to women's regrets about children.

Feminists have always had a hard time with Hewlett, but it's hard to find the feminist high ground in this debate. Hewlett says she's a feminist; certainly I'm a feminist, and I disagree with both Hewlett and some of the feminists who've trashed her books. I hated her first book, "A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation," but over time I found myself increasingly sympathetic to her indictment of American social policy for failing to provide the social supports European women take for granted, and of American feminism for failing to agitate for them.

Hewlett's passion for her topic was animated by personal hurt: Already the mother of one, she miscarried twins when she was teaching at Barnard College, and later didn't get tenure because, she was told, she had allowed "motherhood to dilute her focus." And Barnard's women faculty, she felt, were among the least sensitive to her plight. A straw-woman approach to feminism marred "A Lesser Life," but Hewlett was right about the ambivalence about children at the heart of American feminism: Most of the leading thinkers and agitators were childless women in flight from the claustrophobic domestic sphere, and feminism came to be all about independence. By emphasizing abortion more prominently than child care, the Equal Rights Amendment over the Family and Medical Leave Act, major feminist groups missed a chance to make a crucial social difference for the majority of women who will choose to be wives and mothers.

I found Hewlett's analysis even more compelling after I had a baby, and felt feminism had left me high and dry. I knew how to be separate, not engaged. I was great at independence, yet motherhood makes you dependent on a partner, at least for a time, and then forever interdependent -- even, I found, after divorce. Feminism had lots of advice for thinking about me, but none for thinking about "we," the bewildering realm of family, husband and children -- except not to think about it at all.

That's where "Creating a Life" picks up from "A Lesser Life": the realization that educated, ambitious career women are being blindsided by the compromises to identity and independence that marriage and motherhood require. But again, Hewlett's reasonable observations are distorted by her own psyche: The woman is obsessed with mothering. She spills it all in the book -- haranguing her long-suffering husband to have one last late-in-life baby, when their children were all but grown; then, after winning that argument, she loses the battle against time, and finds she can't conceive. Four years of expensive infertility treatments later -- she speculates that Wendy Wasserstein spent $130,000 but doesn't tell us the cost of her own -- she gave birth to miracle baby Emma, at 51. Now she's 55, mothering a preschooler and dispensing advice to the rest of us about how to arrange our lives.

My response has to be, "No thanks."

Since Hewlett holds up 50-ish childless professionals as sad bogeywomen to their scared younger sisters, let me say I'd be afraid of being like Hewlett: 50-something and unable to give up mothering small children. Given that she judges other women's choices, I think it's fair to suggest that hers represent a failure to reckon with growing older, with the end of fecundity, which sadly but inevitably corresponds with a decline in our attractiveness to men, hard-wired as they supposedly are to chase women who will give them babies (babies they then may not want or support, of course). She clearly can't imagine that many, if not most, of the childless women in her survey group have made peace with the loss of their capacity to become mothers, because she has been unable to do that.

And yet, just as she did in "A Lesser Life," Hewlett has identified a real social dilemma: the difficulty many ambitious career women have finding a partner with whom they can raise a family. Much of the hype about the book has focused on her alarming if anecdotal finding: Well-educated, accomplished, ambitious women are having trouble finding mates, because while they may be alluring to their male peers, they may not be marriage material, since many of those men are looking for a wife who will put her career second and put him first.

To be fair to her, Hewlett can't control what the media does with her book. She talks as much about the shortcomings of American family policy as she does about the shortage of marriageable men for professional women, but it's the Man Shortage that gets most of the headlines. And this is the part of the book that has the least science behind it: a few studies, some anecdotes from sad and angry women and the voice of exactly one man -- a Goldman Sachs project manager who says he expects his wife to put her career on hold to raise his kids, and that he's looking for a woman less successful than he is who'll appreciate the life he can give her. "I don't have much to offer one of these women," he told Hewlett, with disarming honesty, talking about high-earning professionals. "They have everything already. I mean, I want my success in the world and my earning power to matter -- and to be appreciated."

While her science may be sketchy, Hewlett's man crisis is getting attention because it feels true: We all know these women, we all know that man, and even the normally skeptical Maureen Dowd thought it struck a nerve, relating a recent conversation with a male friend who told her he'd once considered dating her, but her job made her too intimidating. "Men, he told me, prefer women who seem malleable and overawed," she wrote April 10. "He said I would never find a mate, because if there's one thing men fear, it's a woman who uses her critical faculties. Will she be critical of absolutely everything?"

Instead of telling him to shove it, Dowd gave him a whole column to share his verdict with the world. Something's wrong here.

I know there are men like the jerk Dowd quotes, but life is too short to think about them. And I worry about the extent to which the culture is fixated on this problem. It's fine to wonder about the issue Hewlett has raised, but I see women wallowing in it. I practice what I think is a healthy denial on this question. The alternative, I think, is to walk around exuding an off-putting combination of entitlement and bitterness.

I felt most sympathy for the African-American professional women the book profiled, who Hewlett says have it worst: They're all desperately seeking single black professional men, who "are scarcer than hen's teeth," in Hewlett's words. But I also found myself wanting to encourage those sisters to date Latino businessmen, Asian social workers, white carpenters, black UPS guys. For all women, not just black women, the obsession with finding a man just like them -- the right race, age, religion; the right college, profession and income; the right taste in music and movies -- is probably as big a barrier to their finding a mate as the preference, among many men like them, for women who won't be "intimidating."

That said, I think Hewlett is right to encourage younger women to think about what they're ready to give up to have a successful marriage and family -- with any man. It's all sort of simple; it should go without saying, but I don't think it does. Ambitious professional women don't make enough time for anything besides their jobs, including themselves. But it takes time and intention to have a relationship; even more than that, to make a man feel loved.

More to the point of this book, nobody talks enough about the identity crisis that accompanies becoming a mother. I wish someone had made me think more about the trade-offs having children entails, so that I could have chosen to put my career second, for a while -- and I think I would have chosen that, had it felt like a choice -- rather than feel that it was forced on me.

Marriage and children require a lot of yielding that doesn't come naturally to alpha females. Both are enormous power struggles, and our instinct is to prevail, but that doesn't work in a family. Americans talk about power about as badly as they talk about sex, but there's a book to be written about the power trade-offs that a good relationship entails. It's a lot like sex, actually -- you have to try a lot of positions, experiment with submission, sometimes take turns satisfying yourselves, and most of all, learn to communicate.

Reading Hewlett's book I found myself thinking: What will I tell my daughter about all of this? Would I want her to read this book? My 20- and 30-something women friends are horrified by it. "I won't read it!" shuddered my brilliant, adorable, newly married 30-year-old friend, who I always thought was enviably sensible about the compromise marriage entailed; who I even thought might make (at least temporary) peace with letting her husband's career come first, while she had their children -- until her husband was recently laid off.

I also found myself wondering what someone would make of Hewlett's data if they approached it with an open mind. A few things jumped out at me: The data on high-achieving female entrepreneurs, whose fertility rates are about the same as the rest of their age cohort, was good news that Hewlett almost ignored. Clearly, the worst problems are for women at the very top levels of corporate America, where roughly half of all high-achieving female executives are childless, while only 19 percent of their male counterparts have no children.

That's no doubt unfair and ought to change. But to urge all ambitious young women to make professional and personal compromises based on the troubles of an otherwise enormously privileged, fairly tiny group of women seems strange. The advice I'd give my daughter, thanks to the survey data, would have less to do with blunting her spirit and intellect so as not to intimidate a mate than finding a career path where she can work for herself, and steer clear of dreary corporate America, until corporate America cleans up its act.

And significantly, Hewlett finds that childless career women aren't the only ones who are unhappy: Professional women who left the workplace to tend their family are also dissatisfied with their choices, but she doesn't spend much time talking about them. Fully two-thirds would like to pick up their careers. Maybe most intriguing, Hewlett's survey of almost 500 high-achieving men found that only 7 percent believed men could actually "have it all" -- defined loosely as the happy combination of marriage, kids and career -- while their high-achieving female counterparts were actually more optimistic about their own chances: 16 percent thought women could have it all.

Hewlett sneers a little at the one man she interviews who laments what his career did to his relationship with his children. To successful men, having it all means not knowing their children, she observes; to women it means not having children at all.

But I think she's too cynical. The only hope for marriage and family as we know it is to end the zero-sum battle of the sexes, and develop models of interdependent relationships where men and women get to take turns coming second and being in charge; being the caretaker, being the one cared for. I liked that this book hinted at some of those taboo topics. But in the end, it was a lot like the breathing exercises in my Lamaze class: well-intended, but not what you'll need when you're faced with the real thing

By Joan Walsh

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