It’s the annual open season on feminism, the time when television producers and magazine editors come together to lament the ways in which women’s equality has ruined women’s lives. When Creating A Life: Professional Women And The Quest For Children, Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s cautionary tale about the “epidemic of childlessness” amongst successful career women, was published two months ago, you could smell the media orgy coming.
It’s since been featured on 60 Minutes, Oprah, Today and Good Morning America, debated in the op-ed pages of The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and on the covers of New York, Newsweek and Time magazines.
Hewlett calls herself a feminist, which makes all this very interesting. And much of the book is a very serious-minded and compelling argument for the United States to adopt a European model of family supports that include benefits such as paid leave, reduced hours for working parents, and subsidized daycare.
But forget about finding that policy discussion in any of the media reports. Instead, the coverage has been a largely unquestioning promotion of Hewlett’s other, problematic, theme: If women in their twenties don’t lay off their career goals and make finding a husband and having babies a priority, then they’re going to be facing their forties barren, bitter and alone.
If you think she sounds like the Danielle Crittenden of the left, you wouldn’t be far from wrong.
Still, some of what Hewlett says is true and bears repeating: A woman’s ability to conceive does decrease as she gets older, and that fertility treatments don’t offer much hope for age-related infertility.
Yet, not to belittle the pain of infertility, or the regret that some childless women feel, the trouble with Hewlett’s book and the ensuing media coverage, is that its message is both punitive and backwards.
With their implicit suggestion that an infertile life is not worth living, Hewlett and her media bandwagon have reduced women to their most basic biological function and subjected their lives and choices to the most sweeping judgments and prescriptions.
For instance, in all its doom-and-gloom, “baby panic” stories, the media have seized almost unquestioningly upon Hewlett’s dubious finding that eighty-six per cent of the 1,400 or so highly successful women in their forties and fifties that she interviewed for the book, had not chosen to be childless.
Hewlett arrived at that statistic through one vague question: “Looking back to their early twenties, when they graduated college, only fourteen per cent said they definitely had not wanted children.”
Did Hewlett think to ask her subjects if they changed their opinion about having children as they got older? Or whether they were satisfied with the way their lives panned out? Or was it simply more convenient to imagine that these women were all despairing victims?
And what does it even mean when people say they want children? In her anecdotal account of the widespread baby hunger amongst twentysomethings in Manhattan, twenty-eight-year-old New York magazine writer Vanessa Grigoriadis reports that the birth of Rachel’s baby on Friends and Charlotte’s struggle with infertility on Sex and the City has inspired her and her peers to reconsider their carefree, Cosmopolitan-swilling singledom and trade in their Jimmy Choo shoes for maternity smocks.
I’m thinking that anyone who bases her major life decisions on television characters probably isn’t that serious about becoming a parent.
Despite the gloomy predictions, many women have chosen and do choose, to have children, biologically or through adoption, with a partner or on their own, and manage to balance their family and careers, with the occasional sacrifice and sleepless night.
The high-achieving and childless middle-aged women who haunt Hewlett’s book haven’t been duped — they decided to put their focus into their very demanding careers, a perfectly valid choice that Hewlett and the media denigrate in their sweeping assumptions about the hollowness of their lives.
They may have some regrets, but doesn’t everyone? For the record, feminism has never been about having it all — whatever that means — but about having rights and choices. That some of those choices remain limited isn’t solely the fault of biology, but is equally due to outdated gender roles and corporate and government policies that ignore the needs of working parents.
As Hewlett rightly points out, men haven’t had to make the choice between children and career and that is unjust. But why then does she tell women that their only option is to marry young and have children before they turn thirty?
We’re so glad you stopped by!
Thanks for consuming rabble content this year.
rabble.ca is 100% reader and donor funded, so as an avid reader of our content, we hope you will consider gifting rabble with a donation today!
Whether it be a one-time donation or a small monthly contribution, your support is critical to keep rabble writers producing the work you’ve come to rely on as a part of a healthy media diet.