• Wed, Jun 15 2011

Family Planning By Single Ladies: Bad Idea Or Totally Necessary?

When Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg addressed the graduating class at Barnard this year, she made some interesting observations. The theme of her speech was that “this generation’s central moral problem is gender equality.” One of the things she implored of the graduates was that they not plan their careers with children in mind. She acknowledged that not everyone is going to want to be an executive and that some women will choose to raise children full time, some will choose a balance between work and child-raising and some will go whole hog with the work goals.

She said that any choice is fine, but:

“… until that day, do everything you can to make sure that when that day comes, you even have a choice to make. Because what I have seen most clearly in my 20 years in the workforce is this: Women almost never make one decision to leave the workforce. It doesn’t happen that way. They make small little decisions along the way that eventually lead them there. Maybe it’s the last year of med school when they say, I’ll take a slightly less interesting specialty because I’m going to want more balance one day. Maybe it’s the fifth year in a law firm when they say, I’m not even sure I should go for partner, because I know I’m going to want kids eventually.”

I found the suggestion fascinating because my own advice is so dramatically different. To be sure, unlike Sandberg, I don’t think that women’s power comes primarily in being a head of state or the head of a company. In fact, I think that women have always held tremendous power in the giving of life and raising of children, in the creation and nurture of home. So I don’t see a power problem when, as she notes, most college graduates are female but few women are heads of state.

But from my perspective, women need to think much more about whether a spouse and children will be part of their future. I remember when my Econ and Gender prof asked us something about our life goals and I responded that I wanted to be a wife, mother, and economist. I mean, some people even snickered. But I’d thought at the time that I wanted to be an academic and that an academic career would work really well with my other goals of having children. Even as I changed my career path, I thought of how important these goals were and how I needed a flexible career that I could dial up or down along with children.

Now I have a career that balances everything quite well. I’m a writer — which is truly a dream job for me. And I also get to stay at home with my children. We have a part-time nanny and my husband is a tremendous help with everything. The only major career decision I made for which I have a twinge of regret was that I chose not to go to law school on account of how I thought that profession wouldn’t match well with children. I assumed I’d be having my children in my 20s just as I was trying to make partner. Of course, I didn’t even get married until I was 32, much less have children. I would have had plenty of time to get things going before I had my children. But, on the other hand, I’d be an attorney and I’m sure I wouldn’t enjoy life as much as I do now.

But I also have friends — many friends — who put precisely no thought into balancing career and family and they complain about the problems it causes all the time. I know stay-at-home mothers who wish they could have held on to part-time work but couldn’t find a job willing to make that arrangement. And I know careerist mothers who are downright miserable about how much they work and how little time they spend with their children. I also know many stay-at-home mothers and career-minded mothers who are perfectly fine with the way things are working out.

The big dividing line I’ve noticed is that the women who did a bit of planning at the front end are far and away the most satisfied with their situation.

One of the things that bothers me about the Sandberg’s speech is the idea that we should denigrate the way women have always balanced their responsibilities so well. That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Sandberg makes the same error when she tells women to be more like men since men tend not to give credit to others for their work. Women do this horrible thing, she says, of pointing out how other people helped them.

Ridiculous. If it’s true that men hog the credit while women share their success, that’s an area where men should be encouraged to be more honest and women should be praised for the same. I really don’t understand why we’re constantly told we must emulate some of the worst traits of men.

In any case, what do you think? Should women consider how a career might impact a family? Or should they, as Sandberg writes, ignore it until such time as a baby pops out?

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  • Lyddie

    I think you really oversimplified her speech, which I loved. “Don’t leave before you leave” is a fantastic message that is not about not doing any thinking or planning for the future, but about not mentally checking out or going for a new opportunity because someday, there might be kids. I think it’s a huge loss that we have so many women college grads who don’t pursue their talents and skills- but your opinion will vary based on what you think are more/less valid choices in life. I think it’s unfortunate women are mommy-tracked in careers instead of forging new balance. I highly recommend the book The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? by Leslie Bennett for more on the subject.

  • Mollie Hemingway

    Lyddie,

    What you say the speech is about is also what I thought it was about “not mentally checking out or going for a new opportunity because someday there might be kids.”

    I just disagree. I think that if having a family is part of your life goals, you should plan accordingly, which means you may choose different career opportunities. You may not change your plan at all — but failure to think it through can lead to much greater overall disappointment, in my experience.

    I enjoyed parts of the speech, particularly in light of the fact I don’t share her view that “this generation’s central moral problem is gender equality.”

  • Lyddie

    Again, she’s not saying don’t think about it, just to not shoot yourself in the foot in case life doesn’t match up to your plans. I’m guessing I’m just more of a go-getter than you- wanting kids in the future is not a precursor to kicking butt and taking new opportunities when they come by and making them work for YOU instead of the other way around. I seriously recommend Mrs. Bennett’s book (she, like you, is a writer, albeit a much better one).

    • Mish

      Lyddie,

      There’s no need to be rude just because you disagree.

  • Mollie Hemingway

    Lyddie,

    Ok, then!

    Thanks for your kind words and best wishes on your career.

  • elaine

    Yikes Lyddie, why are you so angry? This is an open forum with room for many opinions. Unfortunately that gets lost with your inappropriate and unfounded criticism.

  • Christine

    Mollie, I agree. I definitely think you should think ahead. I know I want kids, and knowing that has helped me confirm so many other things for myself. I attack career and work from the approach of achieving what I consider to be a good lifestyle. I don’t expect to be famous or rich or any of those things, but I do hope to be happy and fulfilled. Knowing that I want kids, and that family is something that I, personally, value has helped me realize I don’t want to be an architect (which I studied to be) or marry that ex or go down any other number of life paths. I am happier for these decisions. Life is about lifestyle, and the sooner we figure out what we want from life, and plan for it, the better off we’ll be. Some women genuinely like working… all. the. time. I don’t. But I’m glad they do, because that opens other paths for me. All the power to any women on her own road to happiness.

  • B

    I think this all depends on who you’re asking and what their priorities are. Some women know early on that they want kids, and then plan their careers accordingly. Other women aren’t really sure if they want kids, but they know what they want to accomplish in their careers. They may decide to scale back on their careers later if they choose to have kids.

    I see an article in the ‘Related Posts” section entitled “62% of Gen-Y Women Don’t Want Their Mom’s ‘Extreme’ Careers,” and I would consider myself in that 62%. My mom put so much energy into her career that she had little energy left for me and my sister. My mom rags on me all the time for being a teacher, but I chose that career because I wanted to have more time for my family than she did for hers.

    I think that the most important aspect of feminism is fighting for women to have a choice, whether that choice is career, family, or both.