I spent many years establishing a rewarding professional life before having two children—just as my biological clock was winding down—and ever since then I've felt as though I won the lottery. A great career! A wonderful husband! Two beautiful, healthy children! Lucky me! Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that Having It All—the quintessential goal of recent generations of women—has gone out of fashion. Who knew?
One day I opened the newspaper to discover that today's young moms have nothing but scorn for the choices we baby boomers made. "The new breed of wife has learned from the '80s and '90s wives that 'having it all' is a myth," proclaimed Susan Shapiro Barash, a gender-studies professor at Marymount Manhattan College, in the New York Post.
A myth? Gosh, you could have fooled me. My own life, and those of countless peers who also enjoy happy families and challenging careers, seemed to have worked out so well. But apparently we've been deluded—or simply misguided—in our pursuit of the goals we set out to achieve so long ago.
According to Barash's book, The New Wife: The Evolving Role of the American Wife, this superior young woman has no intention of wrestling with the inevitable hassles of juggling a job and a family. She has a far cushier existence in mind for herself. "She wants a pleasurable, struggle-free life—and has no doubt she can get it," Barash, who interviewed 500 women around the country, told the Post.
A pleasurable, struggle-free life—boy, that sounds nice! Perhaps this is why the New Wife has so much company in going after her goal. Anyone who reads the news has been bombarded lately with "trend" stories about women giving up their careers to become stay-at-home moms—picture-perfect domestic icons who dote on their kids, attend every soccer game, and volunteer at school fairs. Needless to say, all this free time is made possible by the income-producing labors of their hard-working (and high-earning) husbands.
And, yes, it really is a trend. Reversing a pattern that has held for nearly 30 years, the workforce participation of married mothers with a child less than one year old dropped from 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In November, the Census Bureau announced that an estimated 5.4 million mothers stayed home with their children in 2003—about 850,000 more than did so a decade ago. Another study cited by The New York Times found that "twice as many Gen-X mothers as boomer mothers spent more than 12 hours a day" attending to child-rearing and household responsibilities.
Of course the media jumped right on the bandwagon, trumpeting "The Case for Staying Home," as Time magazine put it in one cover story—as if no one had ever done such a remarkable thing before. Conservative commentators reacted with predictable glee, congratulating these full-time moms and trashing the older pioneers who broke down workplace barriers for women in a previous era. "A generational shift has also taken place, as young women are less interested in taking orders from the feminist 'sisterhood,'" sneered columnist Rich Lowry in the New York Post.
It seems that an entire generation of younger women has unwittingly embarked on a remake of Back to the Future. See the new wives repeat the past! Watch them make the same mistakes their grandmothers did!
Now call me old-fashioned if you want, but all I can say about these clueless yummy mummies is: When will they ever learn?
Those of us who came of age during the exhilarating heyday of the women's movement are watching these developments with a heavy heart. Back when I was starting my career, a popular slogan cautioned women that any non-working mother is "just one husband away from welfare." Divorce rates were surging, and women discovered that the role of wife and mother lacked job security, not to mention pension benefits.
If a man suddenly took a fancy to a secretary half his age, his wife could be discarded like yesterday's garbage. Errant husbands often didn't pay child support or alimony, even when ordered to do so by the courts. Too many women in my mother's generation got blindsided; their daughters vowed never to let themselves be so vulnerable. Why risk impoverishment in one's later years at the whim of an aging male who just might have a midlife crisis and trade his faithful wife for a younger model?
Even when our parents stayed married, it was painfully apparent that many mothers were frustrated by a domestic life that didn't provide the independent identity or the manifold satisfactions offered by a career. Not that being a mother isn't a rewarding job, but after all, men don't have to choose between being parents and being economically self-sufficient professionals, so why should women?
Or so we thought back then. Now, in Manhattan, where I live, school bake-sales are run by hyper-efficient executive types with Harvard MBAs and law degrees who have given up their careers to become full-time moms. They perform wonderful services for their communities by volunteering, and many schools, charities, and other nonprofit organizations are profoundly grateful for their contributions.
As are their families, I'm sure. When mothers drop out of the workforce, it's usually with the best possible motives. Instead of being frantic all the time, they will be able to concentrate solely on their children and husbands, creating lovely home lives and nurturing their families in every possible way—or so the theory goes. The experience of previous generations notwithstanding, Barash found that these women share an almost mystical belief that such devotion will ensure the success of their marriages. "They feel there will be less conflict; they won't be torn in so many directions," she explains. "They're saying, 'I'm not going to stress out my marriage and get divorced.'"
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