This post is about being a modern working woman and the challenges that go into motherhood versus deciding not to have children. It was inspired by a dinner I had tonight with four women in their 40s and 50s who had decided to (or were unable to) have their own children. At the same time, my boyfriend was at our good friend’s house for the first viewing of their new child, which I missed out on. To top it off, of course today is the first mother’s day of my 30s, inspiring some soul seeking of my own.
Did you know that women who chose to have children give up $250,000 in lifetime income? According to a new report by The National Bureau of Economic Research, while the costs to raise children continue to grow, the income opportunities for working women who have them suffer immensely, especially for those of us in the higher income brackets.
“Our findings strongly indicate that the wage costs of childbearing are vastly higher for high-skill women, that these wage penalties persist over time, and that having children later may reduce, but will not eliminate the significant lifetime costs of childbearing for higher skill women,” write researchers Elizabeth Ty Wilde, Lily Batchelder and David T. Ellwood.
The second hand of the clock slowly made its way around once more. I sat and stared at it as the minutes passed in any one of my classes which I spent doodling and/or avoiding paying any attention. My sheer boredom throughout my education may have been one of the reasons time went by so slowly back then. I would have given anything to speed it up, but that second hand just dragged on until finally the bell rang.
Childhood, and adolescence, is a gift that is only valued once it’s over. It’s a time when, at least in middle-class America, you’re protected from most of the evils of the world, and you enjoy sleepy summers filled with day camp or sleepaway camp to keep you occupied. It’s clear that summers go by faster than the long winters, but not quite so fast that you aren’t looking forward to starting school again by the time fall rolls around. There are long summer nights filled with fireflies, cold winter mornings with delayed openings due to fast-fallen snow, and changing of the leaves from green to burnt umber to not there at all.
But life as a grownup, as we’ve all been warned, is when time starts to fly by before our very eyes. The difference between 0 and 10 is immeasurably drawn out, between 10 and 20 is immense and between 20 and 30 still seems such a wide gap. Yet 30 to 40 is clearly the age when life truly begins to blur. I’m not so sure if having children slows time down or speeds it up further, but at least a child provides a meaningful sense of time in terms of growth. Once you’re an adult, you have no more growth spurts to celebrate on your own. Your body is slowly declining at this point, you are dying and avoiding thinking about this by focusing on purchasing and/or remodeling houses and focusing on your blossoming yet somewhat empty career – because what else is there to do? You are supposed to be successful. To make money. To save for retirement and your family. To do what everyone else does.
Except everyone else doesn’t always do. People all have their own interesting take on what it means to live a full life. Some accomplish this and some don’t, but the means to the end are always unique. I find it extremely enlightening to spend time with women who are 10 or 20 years my elder, who are where I will be in the blink of an eye, and study their own life satisfaction and stability.
For example, tonight I had the pleasure of spending time with four other women, three in their 40s and one in her 50s, give or take a few years. The oldest of the group still appeared quite youthful, and had stories of working for major technology companies in marketing only to find that there wasn’t quite the right fit for her in these firms, and moving on to consult and then to switch careers entirely to some more artistic pursuits. Two of the other woman, highly successful data scientists, seem to be obtaining sizable incomes as consultants and single 40-somethings, enabling them to splurge on luxury getaways from wine country to month-long excursions through Mozambique and Sub-Saharan Africa.
It seems there are woman who have decided against having their own children (though I’m not 100% sure all four women did not have kids, but this was not brought up in discussion and it seemed to be the case) and that this choice enabled them a very productive professional 30s, one where they were able to become high-paid consultants leveraging their experience in data analysis in order to earn a flexible, world-traveler lifestyle in their 40s. While travel is not my #1 hobby I do love the thought of being able to pause from my work for weeks at a time to explore the globe. With kids, unless I hit the jackpot, I don’t think that’s possible.
It’s certainly a tradeoff. Two of my close friends have very young children, one less than a year, the other under a month. Their lives are not unlike that of young parents — busy in the new world of everything being about their child. Suddenly work itself is means to not only feed and clothe oneself, but to provide for an entire new life. That’s so crazy to think about, despite it being absolutely normal for humanity, and it is challenging to look at the future as one where I want kids, I want freedom, and I also don’t know which is even more possible to make proper plans.
One thing I do know is that at 30… 30.5… fast approaching 31… fast approaching 32, 33, 34, 35… if children are in my future, they need to start happening soon. Given my own lack of ability to take care of myself, I don’t know how I’d manage to be a mother. Yet, in my heart I know I’ll regret not having children down the line. There are so many in this world who have children with much less. I wanted $500k in my savings and stocks prior to having my first child, but why? There will never be security once kids are in the picture, but that’s the fun of life. That is the meaning of life (for those of us who want children to begin with, not for everyone.)
I just don’t know how I can build a serious career and raise the family in the way I want to. It seems easier to picture the life of the single career woman — seeing these successful — and youthful — 40 year old women who are free to travel the globe, enjoy their success and all the luxuries life has to offer (within reason) including their fair share of men, I get that journey, though I am not sure I’d want it to be my own. Then there is the life of my other friends my age who have children and more flexible careers, but it’s clear their husbands are the main breadwinners of the family. I do not know one woman my age who has children and who earns the lion share of the salary. Most continue to work (it’s necessary to have a dual-income in the Bay Area) but few are on fast-growth career tracks.
Sheryl Sandberg can tell us all to lean in but I’m not really sure how to. I may be decent at my job but as of now it is my life. I go to work in the morning, I come home at night and do more work, I’m exhausted, I sleep, I wake up and repeat. My weekends are either spend working or catching up on sleep. I can’t say I’m using all of my time wisely, but I can’t imagine a child added to my current situation. So what’s the use of planning ahead for my career if I’m actually going to start a family of my own? Perhaps the planning should be quite different. If only my former startup would have sold for a few dollars a share, I’d have the rare luck of achieving my goals of financial stability before having children. But that’s not going to happen. So I’ve got to figure out how to lean in far while leaning back enough to not miss out on the opportunity to be a mother. Some women don’t care about this opportunity, but deep down, I do. I think more than anything I really want to be a mom.