|Gloria Steinem in early Ms. days|
Ms. Magazine proudly proclaimed her selection, adding that three others so elevated were also female: Oprah Winfrey, songwriter/singer Loretta Lynn, and Judge Patricia Wald. The story neglected to mention that the rest of the sixteen winners, 75% of the total, were men.
I spent an hour on the Michael Medved radio show confronting a topic Gloria Steinem popularized: "Having It All." I debated Laura Sandler, who's in publicity mode on her current Time Magazine cover story, "The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children."
In it, she sympathizes with women who opt out, admonishing our culture for a pro-parenthood bias with little room for deviance from the norm. She bemoans the cultural "pressure" women feel to procreate, even as more reach menopause without motherhood. Her anecdotes of child-free-by-choice women standing up to pro-parental assumptions are meant to illustrate "a deep problem" in our society, as she said on the air.
|My mom and me|
And yet, she argues, because fewer women want kids, a "new female archetype" of "having it all" sans motherhood has emerged. On the one hand, she suggests, non-moms find it tough to face the well-meaning stare-down from others who think they're missing out. On the other, the freedom to pursue interests, extra earnings and indifference to a ticking genetic clock let child-free women feel fine. A 50-year-old woman Sandler quotes put it succinctly: "Now I don't give a s--- what anyone thinks."
|I own the premier issue of Ms.|
But "all" always included children. That's why "Having it All, Child-Free" is an oxymoron. Non-parents can have, do and give a lot, but let's get the term straight. Without that huge time-and-emotions soaker called parenthood, they're missing an enormous chunk of the equation.
I took issue with Lauren Sandler on the Medved radio show because in the 30 years since I wrote Children: To Have or Have Not?, a book that grew out of my doctoral research at UCLA, much has changed. My dissertation tested a decision-making process that I created, and later used as workshops with hundreds of couples. Thirty years ago, choosing "have not"did come with more of a stigma--though even then, the choice had its advocates. The National Organization of Non-Parents, later renamed the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood, whose LA headquarters were right there in Westwood a few blocks from UCLA, regularly offered discussion groups, public events and even demonstrations.
Now that 48% of babies are born out of wedlock, gays marry and obtain children using surrogates and donors, and divorce, step-families and live-togethers form a myriad of cohabiting configurations, an individual or couple without children earns a big...shrug.
Not to mention that even parents spend perhaps 25 working years alone. The average age for first marriage has leaped to 27 for women and 29 for men, which means a decade in the work world before getting hitched; then if a couple has two kids in their early 30's, they're back to an empty nest when they're close to 50.
The lifestyle hook for the Time article is that the percentage of women aged 40-44 who remain childless--or "child free" if it's their choice--has increased. Well, fecundity is down a bit--but not more than you'd expect. I suspect Ms. Sandler's piece doesn't present the figures, because a 4% decline in the last decade--and 8% over thirty years--just doesn't seem that surprising given expansion of women's careers, and much later ages for marriage.
Here's my take on this: Time Magazine is gasping for air. Wrote Michael Rosenblum in the Huffington Post this week under the headline "Too Little, Too Late for Time Magazine," "Looking at last week's issue, the staple was wider than the magazine and you could see why. They forgot to put in any of the advertising."
What does a dying magazine do? Try to drum up controversy. And what topic is most near and dear to readers'--all readers'--hearts? Their kids. Put a good-looking couple lying on the sand wearing smirks and matching teal bathing suits, arms intertwined, on the cover of the magazine with a headline telling purchasers their kids are in the way of "having it all" and whattaya get? Dozens of comment threads, hundreds of "likes" and "shares," a bunch of TV chat show appearances, and an hour on the Michael Medved Show. Gives the illusion the magazine still breathes.
Meanwhile, in Americans' posting, Tweeting culture, non-parents are certainly criticized. But not as much as parents are. Given that the vast majority of adults do have children, there's plenty to say: Kids are ungrateful, and their parents aren't teaching civility. Kids are rude, and their parents have atrocious manners so what do you expect? Kids are tattooed, ruining their futures, but their parents' ink sags. Kids' tuitions are outrageous but parents' pushy insistence on exclusive schools drives competition and costs. Kids' clothes and accoutrement are expensive, but parents show off by spending. Kids are loud and slacking and selfish, and their cheering parents helicopter to fend negative consequences.
|Halle Berry, pregnant at age 46|
The cut-off of age 40-44, however, slices away a growing segment of mothers. Childbearing for all ages declined over the past several years--except in women over 40, for whom the rate increased 10% between 2007 and 2011 alone. Women whose circumstances didn't coalesce earlier are pushing the envelope to take advantage of fertility treatments that can allow women through their 50s to deliver babies. Women Sandler calls "early adopters"--younger people who announce they never want kids--may change their minds, even after counted as "permanently" child-free at age 40.
It's true that as more women remain without offspring, the definition of "having it all" is sliding to accommodate them. Twenty-seven percent of professional women in a survey last year sponsored by Citi and LinkedIn said kids aren't required. Yet an Atlantic Magazine cover story a year ago by Anne-Marie Slaughter gained media furor (including a post by me) by asserting "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," seamless family life being a major part. Slaughter and Lean In' author Sheryl Sandberg, CEO of Facebook, agree that "all" includes children.
As one who has worked with hundreds of couples deciding about childbearing, and as a former 'early adopter' who in my 20s didn't want to disrupt my joyous life, now, as mother of three, I finally "get it." Parenthood's satisfaction, investment, long-term perspective, motivation and connection far outweigh the (significant) inconveniences and costs of children. Each of my children is a unique, fascinating and compelling individual, and I'd have experienced and enjoyed far less in this life without them.
So, yes, if you think comfort, freedom and career top kids as determinants of what "it all" is for you, great. Few nowadays would spend more than a few seconds thinking about your choice, to pity, scorn or envy. But unless you're actually the parent to a real, vital, changing child, I'll never convince you that there's no substitute, if only in sheer intensity of emotion. Far more women hear that ticking clock and don't want to miss this most major of life's adventures than decide to skip it. And there's always the "tombstone test:" what, in the end, really matters?