The job of raising children doesn't last forever — but the financial stability of a career does.
I spent many years establishing a rewarding professional life before having two children—just as my biological clock was winding down. Ever since, 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.
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.
The Census Bureau estimates 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.
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, 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.'"
It's a great idea—unless something goes wrong. What are these über-moms going to do if they end up having to support themselves?
As they hasten to point out, the difference between women of past generations is that these contemporary women often boast impressive credentials. They seem to think they can dust off their resumés and waltz back into the workforce whenever they want.
These women believe that their own wonderful attributes, combined with their experiences at home, will qualify them for a bravura comeback. "I still have education, brainpower, and a mom's multifaceted attention to detail. That's a hot commodity in the business world," boasted one mother quoted in the Post's article on the new breed of wives.
According to Barash, such stay-at-home moms typically share that kind of confidence. "Perhaps a false confidence," the author admits. "What they're saying is, 'I'll go back to work when I'm ready, and I'll be just fine; someone will take me.' They have an almost cavalier attitude about it. They believe they can march into a law firm at age 38 and say, 'I quit in my twenties,' and they'll be able to get back in there. They have this naïve belief that the old rules don't apply to them."
They may be in for quite a shock.
"Many professional women who quit their jobs to raise children are trying to go back, and they're finding it harder than they ever imagined," reported the Wall Street Journal. "The sluggish economy has made jobs scarce for many well-qualified candidates, let alone those with gaps in their resumés. With advances in technology, women who have taken even a few years off likely have fallen behind or feel out of touch. The job-hopping of the past decade has meant many of their old professional contacts, mentors, and networks are dispersed."
Another reason is the ugly but pervasive reality of age discrimination. If you're over a certain age—and it's a sliding scale, depending on your field, the current economy, and other variables—you're just not what most employers are looking for (even if you're a male).
I'm not claiming it's impossible for a woman to leave the work force and return successfully; some manage this feat, although many have to settle for lesser jobs or lower incomes.
Nor am I saying it's always wrong to stay home; no doubt women who are lucky enough to be supported throughout their lives by devoted, healthy, well-to-do husbands would argue that being a full-time wife was an excellent career choice. But that choice can turn into a catastrophe for those who aren't so fortunate.
I understand the desire for a "pleasurable, struggle-free life"—and if you know where to get one, please sign me up, too.
But that isn't the nature of the human condition. Most lives contain many struggles of various kinds. The idea that you can escape such challenges forever is a fantasy few people will find borne out by reality.
Which is why I cannot comprehend the current epidemic of wishful thinking among younger wives who assume they can always depend on their husbands financially.
The risk they are taking amazes me. These are smart, capable women who would never be so rash as to raise a family without medical insurance or life insurance or home insurance, but who think nothing of betting everything they've got on a lifelong run of good luck that isn't supported by the actuarial tables. Since women typically live longer than men, most of us end up alone eventually, no matter what kind of guy we marry.
Can we really afford to stake our children's futures, not to mention our own, on a roll of the cosmic dice?
Nor do I understand the backlash against the whole idea of "having it all." Yes, it's hard to juggle the demands of a job and the needs of your family. Yes, you often feel frazzled. Yes, it's true that you don't get enough time for yourself.
But it's not true that your children necessarily get shortchanged.
Studies show that working women spend almost as much time with their kids as do stay-at-home moms. And what working mothers get in return for their labor is priceless: not only the incomparable joy of family life plus the tremendous satisfaction of earning their own individual successes, but also the peace of mind in knowing they can always take care of themselves and their kids if something happens to their partners, or to their partners' incomes.
There have been many days when I agonized over the inevitable conflicts between work and family. But in the 16 years I've been a working mother, I have never once regretted my immeasurably rewarding life as a married woman with children and a career.
And after all, the job of raising children doesn't last forever.
As my kids turn into ever-more-independent teenagers, the prospect of the empty nest looms in the not-so-distant future. I know I'll miss them desperately when they go off to college, but I'll still have my own exciting, intellectually stimulating life to focus on. I can't imagine how bereft I'd feel if I didn't have my work to sustain me when they're gone.
"Having it all" may be out of fashion now, but there hasn't been a single moment when I didn't feel unbelievably lucky to have engaged in the struggles necessary to attain that goal.
To my husband, I am an equal partner in a marriage founded on the premise that we share all the responsibilities for our family, both financial and domestic. And my children see me as having just as important a professional identity as their father does. Neither my daughter nor my son has to look further than our own home for role models on how to combine work and family life, no matter what your gender.
If having it all is a myth, you sure can't prove it by me. As far as I'm concerned, this is as good as it gets.