September 20, 2005

Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood

Here is a rather bizarre article in the Times. Apparently, many women in ivy league colleges are planning on sacrificing their careers to be full-time parents. In itself, that's not necessarily a bad thing: third-wave feminism is, in many respects, about being much more open to people choosing traditional gender roles than earlier incarnations of the feminist movement. Of course, that word 'choosing' is doing a lot of work there: feminists of all stripes have always opposed the assumption that woman = stay-at-home mom.

The article tries to play it up as a choice, saying that these women "don't want" carreers, but there really isn't much here to justify that. There are some quotations from some Yale sophomores, but they don't really sound like people who are all excited about giving up careers to be at home with the kids:

"My mother's always told me you can't be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time," Ms. Liu said matter-of-factly. "You always have to choose one over the other."


Ms. Ku added that she did not think it was a problem that women usually do most of the work raising kids.

'I accept things how they are,' she said. 'I don't mind the status quo. I don't see why I have to go against it.'

After all, she added, those roles got her where she is.

'It worked so well for me,' she said, 'and I don't see in my life why it wouldn't work.'"


This next one was particularly shocking:

Sarah Currie, a senior at Harvard, said many of the men in her American Family class last fall approved of women's plans to stay home with their children.

"A lot of the guys were like, 'I think that's really great,' " Ms. Currie said. "One of the guys was like, 'I think that's sexy.' Staying at home with your children isn't as polarizing of an issue as I envision it is for women who are in their 30's now."

Sure, it's not polarizing for men. It's NEVER been polarizing for men. It's been prestigious, convenient, and a boost to one's perceived masculinity to have a wife to take care of your kids and clean your house for fifty years now. I really have to wonder if Ms. Currie has ever read The Second Sex or The Feminine Mystique, books that started off second-wave feminism by challenging the premise that what women should want is what men like.

Of course, there's also some actual evidence that these young women are enthusiastic about their future as homemakers. Or, I should say, "evidence", because it doesn't actually support this claim in any way whatsoever.

While the changing attitudes are difficult to quantify, the shift emerges repeatedly in interviews with Ivy League students, including 138 freshman and senior females at Yale who replied to e-mail questions sent to members of two residential colleges over the last school year.

The interviews found that 85 of the students, or roughly 60 percent, said that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely. About half of those women said they planned to work part time, and about half wanted to stop work for at least a few years.

Two of the women interviewed said they expected their husbands to stay home with the children while they pursued their careers. Two others said either they or their husbands would stay home, depending on whose career was furthest along.

Yes, a large percentage of the self-selected sample of 138 students said they expect to be stay-at-home moms. Also, many more women than men with advanced degrees ended up dropping out of the workforce. Hence, young women today don't want careers!

I think the way these women seem to just blithely accept the status quo is what annoys me most about this. Older feminists (meaning anyone over about 25 or 30, older than these college students) use "you can't have it all" as a rallying cry, adding on "but we should be able to!" and calling for a revolution in the form and assumptions of the white-collar career (which came about in a time when educated men were expected to leave the childcare and household management to their wives). See, for instance, Wifework, The Way We Never Were, and The Price of Motherhood. These young women just seem to shrug and pretend they don't care.

23 comments:

Colleen said...

There is nothing really new about this decision. All things come around, you know, and nature will not be denied. One of the things that grabbed my attention in this post of yours is your semi-obligatory reference to Betty Friedan's book. In the first edition (don't know about the later ones) she bemoaned the fact that women were choosing to stay home with their children, even though all professions were open to them.

Fast forward to the first years of MS magazine and its call for universal no-fault divorce as a mechanism for forcing women into the workplace; it was quite open in its opinion that women were parasites unless they brought home a paycheck. The idea that traditional marriage was elegant prostitution did more to demean women than the "patriarchy" ever did.

Women have, by and large, never wanted careers instead of families. Of course, there are exceptions; there always have been. I am one myself.

But neither women nor children (and by extension, men) have been well-served by the current regime. Every once in awhile voices have been raised against it. The true anti-Friedan may be F. Caroline Graglia, a law school classmate of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose book "Domestic Tranquility" is a real polemic and worth reading for that reason alone.

No, this article did not surprise me. I am very glad to see young women taking back their lives and making decisions that reflect what they really want.

Drew said...

"No, this article did not surprise me. I am very glad to see young women taking back their lives and making decisions that reflect what they really want."

What article was that, because the quoted article doesn't seem to have much to do with what the quoted women really want. In fact, that was the whole point of the post. We've got a woman who was pressured into staying at home by her mom, one "old-fashioned" woman who accepts the old paradigm, and one who is trying to please men. What a load of crap.

If women really want to stay home and raise kids, good for them. But to the extent that society is pushing that decision on women, that's a problem that needs to be addressed.

MosBen said...

Yeah, I don't have a problem with a woman wanting to stay at home, but those quotes certainly didn't sound like women that wanted to stay home. It sounded like women that were blithly accepting what they viewed as a status quo. Again, choosing to stay home is fine (though personally if it were *my* wife I'd think there should be a rather lengthy discussion about that choice), but it's not ok if women feel pressured to stay home because that's what they're "supposed" to do.

Colleen said...

Drew, MosBen: It's funny how differently we are reading this. I wonder if it is a gender thing? What I am seeing, seems self-evident. Women today know what we in my day didn't want to know-- that we couldn't have it all. I don't see them accepting the "status quo", the status quo changed a long time ago. I see them returning to reality and making the choices that they want to make. Cynthia is not being pressured by her mother, at least nothing here supports that. It seems very clear that she weighed what her mother said against what she wants to do and made her choice.

MosBen, interestingly, you demonstrate something that I don't think you intended but which I have seen over and over--men pressuring their wives to work. In fact, a colleague of mine just dumped his wife because she did not want to work but wanted to stay home with their young children. They do not need the money she would earn. But he sees a professional wife as a trophy. Not a stay-at-home wife.

It has been a very long time since women were pressured to stay at home. That is a "Women's Studies" myth. I can well believe that the older generation is in hysterics about these young women. They gave up a lot. And they have lived to see the younger generation say no thanks. It is no wonder that there is a whole subgenre of 40+ women bemoaning the fact that they let their child-bearing years pass them by. They really did give up a lot and for many, it just wasn't worth it.

Drew said...

Colleen, I'm curious as to what you meant in your first post when you said "nature will not be denied".

As for the rest of your comments, to the extent that a woman cannot both raise a family and pursue a career, that's a social problem that needs to be addressed. We don't just throw our hands up and cry about it. Why is it so hard to balance work and family? Day care too expensive? Let's look at that. Employer doesn't adequately accomodate maternity leave? Let's take a look at that. And so on...

The bottom line is that women should be able to make whatever decision they want. If a woman (or a man, for that matter) wants to stay home and raise kids, that's fine. But to the extent that society pushes women into that choice (by insidious means such as the wage gap, the negative career-woman stereotype, etc.), it's a problem. I think we should continue to work to make it easier to balance career and family.

In the article, Cynthia's mother told her basically that she can't be a mother and have a career. I think that's wrong, but to the extent that it's true, we need to change that. Sure, Cynthia's free to choose either option, and that's great, but there should be more options.

Drew said...

Nathan Newman at TPM Cafe makes the excellent point, in reference to the same article, that we're only really talking about a tiny subset of women: upperclass women. The vast majority of women don't have a choice whether or not to work. Very few families have the luxury of getting by on a single income.

With that background, it becomes even more crucial that society (including government) take active steps to make it easier for women to balance families and careers. Yes, if you're lucky enough to have the option of not working, then the difficulties of balancing career and family may lead you to opt, quite reasonably, to stay at home. But for the vast majority of women, there is no choice.

It's not feminists or men like MosBen and me that force women to work, it's simple necesity.

MosBen said...

As as far as the feasibility of raising a family and working, both of my parents worked full time, proffessional jobs for the overwhelming majority of my childhood and both my sister and I ended up as well adjusted, happy, and educated people. Certainly, it's not as easy for all parents to do this, but as Drew points out, since we know that it *can* work we should be looking at ways to make it possible for more women rather than simply giving up.

As to pressuring my wife to work, I only intend to say that I don't necessarily think it would be fair of my wife to "choose" to stay at home in the presumption that I would work and support the family. Maybe we would decide that it could work like that, maybe we would decide that that wasn't fair. All I'm saying is that if I'm in a relationship and one of the parties is going to make a decision that will have a drastic effect on both of us, we'll need to have a discussion about it first. But yes, having grown up with both parents working I tend to think that that is a better situation in a number of ways.

I'm not sure what level of pressure women actually receive these days to stay at home. I just haven't seen any data on it. Those quotes, however, don't strike me as terribly enthusiastic about staying at home.

Colleen said...

Drew:
What I meant by "nature will not be denied" (are you sitting down?)is that most women (considering all women, all classes, at all times, since the beginning of time) want children and families. Yes, yes, I know, it goes against everything you've been taught but there it is.

As to your point As for the rest of your comments, to the extent that a woman cannot both raise a family and pursue a career, that's a social problem that needs to be addressed.

I don't think you are getting it, although if this happens to be the first article you have seen dealing with the issue that isn't a surprise. These women are telling you that they want to raise their own children. They don't want other people to do it. They don't want to put their infants in daycare and they speak for a fairly significant number of women, though by no means all.

They have seen what balancing careers and families has meant to children and are rejecting it. There is no way to make it easier, really. If you want to be there for your child, you cannot be there for your employer. And the more demanding the profession, the more true that is. (Now, I should say that if a woman's spouse is very supportive and particularly if there is an extended family near by, it gets a *lot* easier.)

There is no real wage gap. (Oops, I should have warned you to sit down, first.) Once you control for years of unbroken, full-time employment (no maternity leaves or years out of the profession to raise a child til, say, school age), the gap disappears. Officially, it diminishes to 97% of what males make but in my own experience, I don't even see that much of a gap.

I see that while I was writing this, a couple more have weighed in-- consider this an answer meant for all!

Colleen said...

Drew: A question--now that I have read the comment that you wrote while I was pondering my last post--
Why on earth should the government "take active steps to make it easier for women to balance families and careers."

The US is not a socialist state. We do not need or want the government micromanaging our lives. It does too much as it is. What do you envision the government doing? Wait, don't tell me. State run daycare, right? That is the answer I most often hear, at any rate. So here is what I think we have to consider:

Women who don't want to put their children in daycare right now aren't going to find that any particular improvement. And then there is the issue of who will actually be employed in them. It isn't like child care is a high paying job, so we face the enviable task of either creating a low-status subclass of women (and it will be women), or artifically overpaying them and making the cost so prohibitive, that it becomes another expensive, wasteful gov. program. What else do you have in mind?

Drew said...

Colleen, if "nature will not be denied" simply means that most women want families and children, why not just say that? Seems a bit of a non-sequitur to me. Besides, don't most men want children and families as well?

The goal should be to create a society that allows women the most choice. There are difficulties involved in having a career in addition to raising a family. We can either reduce those difficulties, or we can force women to make a choice. Given that most are required by economic factors (aka market forces) to work, plus the fact that most women wish to have families, shouldn't we strive to make it as easy of possible for women to do both? If some women are economically able to not work, great. If some women don't want families, great. But for the vast majority who want both, shouldn't we make it easier?

The wage gap exists. Even if you are right in that it is explained by market forces rather than sexism, it still exists, and it still punishes women who a) must work and b) want families.

When you say "these women are telling you...", are you referring to the women in the article? Because they are saying no such thing. If women feel that way, and they are financially comfortable enough to not work, fine. Those women don't concern me.

What are we arguing about? Whatever it is, perhaps you could conduct yourself without being condescending. Please keep your speculations about what I have or have not read to yourself. Thank you.

Noumena said...

Yes, most people want children and an involved family life. And (are you sitting down?) most people want to develop their personal talents while associating with their peers, ie, have a career. Neither desire is particular to any gender or sex.

What I, and others, are arguing against here the two presumptions that (a) someone ought to sacrifice their career for the children, and (b) this someone ought to be the mother. Thus far, all you've done is assert (b) and attack the long since discarded notion that women ought to persue careers at the expense of having children; feminists have recognized for fifteen or twenty years now that this is just buying into the patriarchal POV that having a career is better than staying at home with the kids.

Ampersand's series on the wage gap. You want part 5, wherein the myth that the wage gap exists because women take time off to raise kids is thoroughly discredited; this only accounts for about 30% of the gap. References are given to studies by actual economists published in a prestigious and peer-reviewed economics journal.

How are subsidies to make childcare by professional early childhood educators affordable and widely available 'micromanagement' or 'socialist'? Or guarantees of maternal and paternal leave? Or protections against discrimination against new parents who want to work part time for a couple years?

Or, even if these measures are somehow economically inefficient, why does that make them automatically undesirable? As we discussed not too long ago, economic inefficiency is only negative insofar as it contributes to situations which are undesirable in themselves. Economic inefficiency can be desirable when it's deliberately imposed to prevent in-themselves undesirable situations, eg, regulation of food and drugs or preventing discrimination.

And, yes, none of this has to do with women who don't want to put their kids into daycare, and have the financial means to be stay-at-home moms. Because the only one here talking about those women is you.

Noumena said...

One last thing. The US military has a fantastic, state-subsidized day care system. Mothers who have chosen careers in the armed forces think it's fantastic, and if I recall correctly it's actually one of the most cost-effective military programs. Ann Crittenden discusses it in The Price of Motherhood.

Drew said...

Colleen, the market has provided daycare, and women are utilizing it. The market has provided staff to run it. Why would government-run daycare face an independent problem of staffing? Why would government-run daycare suddenly create a new underclass?

If women who don't currently utilize daycare choose to stay out of government-run daycare as well, so what? The goal is to assist families who currently have to pay for daycare. I'm not worried about families who can find other options. I'm worried about families who can't.

And government-run daycare is hardly the only option.

Let me ask you: you are convinced that balancing work and family is unworkable, or at least, difficult. Therefore, you support women who choose not to work. We agree on all of that. So what do you feel we should do with the women who have to work and still want families?

Anonymous said...

Colleen why do you think it's so damaging to children who have both parents working? My dad's an engineer, works like 45 hours a week. My mom for a good portion of my life has worked 2 jobs to have extra money for me and my brother AND go to school and get certified as an accountant so she could not work those 2 jobs anymore. And me and my brother are perfectly fine. Yeah I would love to have a family. I'm getting married and I'd loev to have kids someday. But I'm definitely not gonna screw over a career to have kids because both of their parents having a job somehow means we can't be there for them emotionally. And I KNOW that I speak for several kids who have 2 working parents. Being sent to a babysitter every day for a few hours doesn't mean you're not getting parental attention. Just don't think you're speaking for every family when you say things like that is my point.
Manda

MosBen said...

I would, at this point in the debate, like to thank Colleen for sticking around. I disagree with you in just about every way I think we can, but it's certainly more interesting around here with someone to argue with.

Joy said...

There's way too much testosterone besmerching the pages of this post and maybe that in and of itself is telling. Gentlemen, I don't doubt that you care deeply and are less informed than my colleague, Colleen. We've all pondered where we see ourselves, what we want out of life, where we want to go, etc. I think that the choice issues is key here. If it's an honest, informed, well-thought out decision to step back from a career and choose to be a mother than so be it. I think of all the women who have children because of "oops" and the subsequent guilt they place on the aforementioned spawn. Have we determined that motherhood can be fulfilling? Can we agree that a career can be fulfilling? Is there consensus that says a woman, being of sound mind and body, has the ability to best determine what will make her happiest or in which capacity she will be most fulfilled? The difficulty is that our goals change and the things we want may change. If you're 36 and decide that you want a family and children, you may be approaching the end of your childbearing days (note: MAY...my moms was 39 when she done birthed me, hyuck) and that very career you thought was fulfilling may instead be a source of resentment. Similarly, a woman who chooses a family and children may miss the life she envisions she may have had as a corporate executive which would cause resentment of said family and children. Is balance possible? Can women "have it all?" Can MEN have it all? I apologize for glossing over substantive portions of the dialogue, but a few notes: On the pressure by a man on his wife to work, well, such is life. I've often discussed the future with my significant other and for us to have what we want, it would require both of us working and earning 6 figures. Dare to dream, dare to dream. Even then, what would it take? An article ran in the Washington Post yesterday about the outsourcing of the "home;" how one couple hires 12 (12!) small businesses to make the business of their family run: A private chef, a person to tend the garden, someone to clean the dog feces from the back yard, someone to pick up the dry cleaning, someone to clean the house, someone to cart the children around to and from school and events. Mom works, Dad works, they live in a HUGE house in the suburbs...but do they have it all? They're paying others so they can afford to have time with their children. Any opinion on this idea? I say if you've got the means, why not?! Sorry for the brief aside but I think that perhaps families CAN "have it all" and both parents can work or one can work and one can be part-time as long as they have vast sums of money so that everyone has time to do the things that matter. Drew mentioned something about "Why is it so hard to balance work and family?" Oh my oh my oh my...where to start on that one. The fact that domestic labor is overlooked, under-valued, and unappreciated and that this can impact a stay-at-home parent's sense of self-worth. The dramatic change from a corporate VP to the VP of a family; deadlines are different and your former boss would be upset if you missed a deadline but your child will be devastated if you miss a soccer game. Here's my ideal world: At present, I can't imagine life without work. I can't imagine having children or a family either but let's suppose that someday, that may happen. I would hope that my partner and I would have reached a level of accomplishment in our lives where we can determine our own terms of work. For example, one month, I'd stay at home M,W,F and work Tues and Thurs and the next month, I'd work M,W,F and stay home Tues and Thurs with my husband working at the office when I'm at home and at home when I'm at the office. Run it by the numbers, do the math that way. That's really all I can think to do. I do think that the well-thought-out decision to raise a family from home can be an intelligent one. I just think that women should be supported in that decision. Again, the transition from being full-time employed to full-time parent...I can't even imagine. One minute you're conversing about (in my case) substantive legislative issues and in the next, you're scrubbing baby food out of the cat's tail. You're busy but maybe you're not intellectually stimulated. Hence the importance of sisterhood, support groups, and all that other wavy gravy nonsense. I fear I've digressed. Bottom line, women are damned if we do and damned if we don't. We either "miss out" on a family by spending a lifetime in a career or "miss out" on a career by spending a lifetime rearing children. If we work part-time, we're viewed as part-time parents. Just my two cents.

Joy said...

Quick response to Manda...Both my parents worked too. My Dad was never there for any meal, my mom was the one who picked me up from school, took care of me when I was sick, and was the "primary caregiver" in my household. My folks own their business and sure, it was tough. Did I grow up normally? That's for others to determine. I know that I harbor resentment toward my father for being absent and that's because he was. Completely. I'm reading a book now called "Primal Leadership," for a Grad. Class in Political Mgmt. I think that a very valid point is what happens after that bad day at work? This sentiment is echoed in "New Jack," about a man who works at a prison. When he came home, his wife was just leaving, he didn't have time to decompress, a kid was horsing around and he ended up grabbing the kid and yelling not so much that he was upset at the kid but because his day at work was stressful and busy. Think about it. I need a solid half hour/hour or more to decompress at the end of my day. You don't have time to think let alone decompress with kids at home. Maybe it's not a lack of "being there emotionally" for kids but I for one know that I wouldn't be as "present" emotionally without that time to myself. Knowing that there's a large chance I wouldn't get that time? Well, that's something to keep in mind before thinking about having children. As a quick note, what about the rols of spirituality in all this? As I've been setting goals, making decisions, plotting and planning, I think that a large part has to do with what it is you want out of life. Personally, when I look at what I do, I see it as largely devoid of deeper meaning. I find myself REALLY asking if this is fulfilling. How has our concept of what is fulfilling changed since our parents were our age? My folks knew each other less than two years and ZING, they were married. Less than two years later, ZING, they had a kid. Now, people date for 5+ years and maybe consider marriage and maybe 5+ years after that, a kid. What is it we're hoping to find with that career or with having a kid? Oh, ponderous...

Drew said...

"There's way too much testosterone besmerching the pages of this post and maybe that in and of itself is telling. Gentlemen, I don't doubt that you care deeply and are less informed than my colleague, Colleen."

I'm trying hard not to take this personally. I do doubt that I am less informed than Colleen.

"Drew mentioned something about "Why is it so hard to balance work and family?" Oh my oh my oh my...where to start on that one."

I think if you go back and review what I wrote, you'll find that this is not remotely what I said.

TG said...

those ivy league gals have all grown up in the post-reagan era. they may think they're making a choice, but i think they just don't know any better

Colleen said...

What a world we live in. I was just about to blow all of you out of the water with my air tight arguments when the **&#%^fire alarm went off... But there is a good side to everything, Joy has since weighed in!

Here is my attempt to answer the points and questions raised:

1. Drew: There was nothing condescending (i.e. meant to be) in my remarking that if you haven't been bombarded with these kinds of articles, you might not be reading them as broadly as I am.

2. "if nature will not be denied" simply means that most women want families and children, why not just say that? Seems a bit of a non-sequitur to me" Non sequiter? I don't think so. What I am saying is that women are designed by nature to bear children. If they didn't want to do it, well... that is hard to imagine. Hence, being surprised that these women would want to raise their children seems weird to me.

3. Noumena: In a word, nonsense. You aren't reading what I wrote; you are reading into what I wrote: "What I, and others, are arguing against here the two presumptions that (a) someone ought to sacrifice their career for the children, and (b) this someone ought to be the mother. Thus far, all you've done is assert (b) and attack the long since discarded notion that women ought to persue careers at the expense of having children; feminists have recognized for fifteen or twenty years now that this is just buying into the patriarchal POV that having a career is better than staying at home with the kids.

This is not what this and other articles like it are saying at all. Nor am I. These women *want* to stay at home with their children. There is nothing here about sacrificing their careers or that it is the mother who must do it.

4. And, yes, none of this has to do with women who don't want to put their kids into daycare, and have the financial means to be stay-at-home moms. Because the only one here talking about those women is you. Ummm, well, yeah. That is who this article is talking about and the article is what I am responding to, primarily.

5. Economically inefficiency is automatically undesirable, imho and that of most capitalist pigs.

6. Drew, you wrote: "Let me ask you: you are convinced that balancing work and family is unworkable, or at least, difficult..."
(These are two very different propositions. I don't think it is [absolutely] unworkable. I do think that it can be difficult.)

Therefore, you support women who choose not to work. We agree on all of that. So what do you feel we should do with the women who have to work and still want families?

At the point where there is no child in sight, women who cannot afford children, should not have them, until they can. There is an assumption here that I don't think holds. That is, that once poor, always poor. In fact, poverty is closely correlated with early childbearing and lack of education. Women and men do not usually stay at the bottom of the socio/economic ladder, unless there are other factors (drug abuse, cognitive impairment, etc.) involved.

However, I do have to make one exception to my dislike for economic inefficiency-- I am in a real minority in that I don't think we should be making women on welfare with young children work at all. I would like to see them raise their children to school age, with whatever support is necessary to make it a success.

7. Manda, I haven't said that having two working parents is damaging to children, nor do I think it. What I am saying, in response to this article and Noumena's disgust with it, is that it is quite normal for women to want to raise their children and that it should neither surprise nor dismay us when they make that choice.

(My favorite bit in the article was this:
[T]he likelihood that so many young women plan to opt out of high-powered careers presents a conundrum.

"It really does raise this question for all of us and for the country: when we work so hard to open academics and other opportunities for women, what kind of return do we expect to get for that?" said Marlyn McGrath Lewis, director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard, who served as dean for coeducation in the late 1970's and early 1980's. ...)

Here is someone who doesn't get it. And it is the older generation of feminists who are the most critical of these real choices that young women make.

Joy, I know where you are coming from! But I would say that so long as we make the choices that we *really* want to make, what other people think just doesn't matter. And you are absolutely right--a supportive community is a necessity.

Midge Decter's book (An old Housewife's Tale) is instructive in this regard-- she talks about how when her children were young, she had legions of young mothers around her offering support, tea, and friendship and contrasts that with what she sees as the isolation her daughters endure as they bring up their children today. But that really gets into another area...!

Noumena said...

How exactly are you determining whether or not they're looking forward to being stay-at-home moms?

Noumena said...

Pseudo-Adrienne provides a digest of feminist blogosphere reactions to this article. We've actually covered most of what she mentions. Go us! We rock!

Joy said...

Here's a quickie article through msn. Just to add more fuel to the fire:
http://lifestyle.msn.com/FamilyandParenting/BabyandPregnancy/Article.aspx?cp-documentid=29039