Having it all except kids
|||Women without children on rise|
|||Job demands can make pursuing family tough|
By Karen S. Peterson
Perhaps they should be called working nonmothers. They are women who have birthed successful careers, accumulated status, achieved comfortable incomes. But they have never gotten around to having the one thing they always intended: a child.
Illustration by Jon Orque The Honolulu Advertiser
Many successful but childless women are feeling angst when they look at their lives and notice they forgot to have a child.
Illustration by Jon Orque The Honolulu Advertiser
Ramey Warren Black, a woman of a certain age, is co-owner of a Los Angeles production company. She counts herself as one of the unintentionally childless. "All of my life I thought I would have children. But truly, I was never in the right position with the right person at the right time. And I got totally caught up on a career track."
Black married late. She and her husband have considered adoption and mostly have given the idea up, believing they may be too old. But both feel that if a kid "walked in the door," they would ask him or her to stay. She has looked at her life carefully and noticed, "I forgot to have a child."
Many such successful but childless women are feeling that angst, reports Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" (Talk Miramax, $22). She is founder of the National Parenting Association, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and author of 1991's award-winning "When the Bough Breaks: The Cost of Neglecting Our Children".
In her latest book, she declares that unwanted childlessness "haunts the executive suite." Hewlett quotes Judy Friedlander of New School University as identifying the cause: "a creeping non-choice."
A number of factors might be at play, experts say. The time was never right. Marriages failed. Potential husbands with big egos did not want to marry hard-charging women earning big money. Most single women still do not want to conceive or adopt children on their own. Career ambitions intervened, and promotions were hard to come by if the boss detected baby hunger.
The list goes on. Demanding careers and long workweeks made fostering relationships difficult. Second husbands were not interested in starting second families. Women didn't want to turn children over to nannies to raise. And many put their faith in the popular belief that a woman today can conceive a child at virtually any age.
Career success factor
"Creating a Life" is based on a new, nationally representative survey of 1,186 high-achieving career women ages 28 to 55, employed full time or self-employed. Hewlett defines "high-achieving" as women whose incomes place them in the top 10 percent for their age group. Her high achievers, 28 to 40, earn at least $55,000 yearly; those 41 to 55, $65,000.
Among her findings:
33 percent of high-achieving women in general are childless at 40.
42 percent of women in corporate America are childless.
49 percent of "ultra achievers" (earning more than $100,000 a year) are childless.
25 percent of childless high achievers ages 41 to 55 still would like a child.
31 percent of older "ultra achievers" still want a child.
No high achiever ages 41 to 55 had a first child after age 39.
No ultra-achiever 41 to 55 had a first child after 36.
Overall, only 11 percent to 14 percent of those without children preferred it that way.
Hewlett supplements her survey findings with the poignant stories of named, powerful women who never did have kids or went through the labyrinths of hell trying to conceive later in life.
A prime example she cites is Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who in her late 40s finally had a child after years of struggle with infertility. In her book, Hewlett cautions, "After age 40 only 3 percent to 5 percent of those who use the new assisted reproductive technologies actually succeed in having a child no matter how much they spend, no matter how hard they try."
Choice vs. chance
Her findings on women who she says "feel they have been robbed of choice" already are creating a bit of a furor. "I would expect this book to be provocative," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research center.
She hopes it is "a call for discussion and thinking rather than a cause for panic."
Sheila Wellington of Catalyst, a nonprofit organization dedicated to women in business, says her group's research projects don't find a large number of childless women execs who pine for kids.
The same thought is echoed by Betty Spence, president of the National Association of Female Executives. She has not found "a lot of anguish or breast-beating over the choices women have made," whether those decisions are conscious or unconscious. "I do not hear a lot of regret."
Hewlett says such existing studies focus on certain groups of women in specific fields. "We had no sense of what the national picture looked like. There was an enormous paucity of good data."
Hewlett's findings do seem to tap into truths nobody wants to talk much about.
Madelyn Cain is the author of "The Childless Revolution: What It Means to Be Childless Today" (Perseus, $15), just out in paperback. She agrees that childlessness is often unexpected.
Because single, high-achieving women can now often support themselves, "our energies have not gone into a search for a man. We can marry for love. And we are a lot choosier" and marry later.
Cain supports women who are childless by either choice or chance. They are still considered by many to be either selfish or pitiful, she says.
Her study of 125 childless women found "the vast majority always intended to have children."
Gail Berendzen, founder of the nonprofit Women of Washington, says she sees the dramas around decisions or nondecisions about having children play out at forums sponsored by WOW.
"This organization really deals with the issues women go through in their careers. We are very aware of the agonizing decisions women make, of the sudden awakenings" that there are no children. "This is a very, very sensitive subject."
Victims of indecision
Carrie Olson faces that subject. At 43, she is director of marketing for a luxury hotel company in Los Angeles. She and her first husband discussed having children "on and off. We kept saying, 'Next year we will think about it.' We were both caught up in our work and our marriage, and I think unconsciously we just kept delaying it."
During the six years living single before her second marriage, she could have arranged to have a child. But her own mom raised children on her own. "The hardest thing you can be is a single, working mom," she says, and she rejected the idea.
Now she has a stepdaughter by her second marriage. She and her husband "definitely discuss having children. But I think at age 43, I wonder if it is physically possible, and the answer tends to be no."
Hewlett hopes her book "triggers some changes in workplace policy" that are family-friendly.
And she hopes "young women will absorb this information and put it to good use." Focusing on a career "with a laser beam and postponing all else works for men, but not for women," she said.
She does not see many positive changes ahead for the successful women of tomorrow. Hewlett writes that younger women "seem to be having an even harder time balancing career and children than their older sisters."
And she suggests they may fall victim to the same indecision about having kids at all.
Many others say: "Wait a minute. That's not true." Lisa Gritzner, 30, is the chief of staff for a Los Angeles councilwoman. Gritzner is married and plans to conceive in about another year.
"My generation has become successful earlier than women who are 40 or 45," she said. "That allows us to plan children and have them earlier. We talk about it a lot. My friends recognize you have to make a family happen."
Women and men in their late 20s and early 30s have different "attitudes and expectations for families and the workplace," says Jill Kirschenbaum, editor in chief of "Working Mother."
They care less about who earns more or which partner stays home with the kids. Both expect to be involved with parenting, she says, and both want a family life.
Corporate America is changing, making it easier for future high-achieving women to have children, Kirschenbaum says.
"Corporations are committing millions to sophisticated work-life programs, because in an economy driven by talent, the programs are effective recruitment tools."
Hewlett's book, she says, "should not be a prescription for alarm."