“Having it all” is one of those press lady narratives that never fails to get a headline — or perhaps an Atlantic cover story, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” The “having it all” or “having it all but not all at once” song and dance is one of those obligatory annual lifestyle commentaries that usually ends on the whole “women need to think bigger” and “develop more confidence” conclusions that circulate through the feminist blogosphere — not because anything necessarily wise was articulated — but because modern privileged women see the phrase and instantly click.
This isn’t to discredit author Anne-Marie Slaughter, who goes beyond the superficial having it all script and gets to the real cornerstones — like choosing a partner who doesn’t view managing the kiddies as “babysitting” and isn’t going to chide you for not making it to every damn ballet recital. But along with developing flexible work schedules and acknowledging your own personal priorities, Anne-Marie only alludes to a pretty prominent factor in fielding questions from 20-somethings eager to learn about balancing an enviable career with family. That is that biology is not going to accommodate our societal changes.
I am such a young woman who Anne-Marie freely cites in her piece: mid-20s, currently childless, feminist, and flocking to panels to hear some of the most renowned and accomplished women of my time speak about their way in the world. I must have spent the better part of my undergraduate women’s college education and early adulthood waiting outside auditoriums and standing in the back of book stores to get a glimpse of ladies like Rebecca Traister, Gail Collins, and Jessica Valenti. When I was 20, I elbowed my way through my entire college to get –what I saw — as my rightful seat during a Q&A with Gloria Steinem. And no matter whether I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of a reading in New York City or squinting to see Gloria’s graying streaks on a college stage, the subject of “work life balance” always emerges — whether from the predictable interviewer or a very impassioned audience member.
But while Anne-Marie suspects that she has led younger feminists astray with mythologies about how to effectively race to the top, a baby on their metaphoric — or sometimes literal — hip, I would add that misconceptions about fertility can be added to that list. The New York Times may be all about mocking older women who are startled to discover that they have trouble starting their families at 45, but gawking and pointing isn’t really going to better anyone — especially young women.
New mothers in their 40s are a rapidly growing demographic in the United States. A wealth of fertility options does make this belated motherhood possible and I couldn’t even finish this sentence without including the rampant celeb mommy coverage of older mothers. But between all the headlines about Sarah Jessica Parker perhaps expanding her family at age 46 and pressures to swing by graduate school and be utterly successful by 30, it’s no surprise that many young women my age may have a skewed idea of their fertility prowess. Even among my own circle of educated, fairly accomplishment young women, misconceptions about when the baby shop closes pervade. One of my friends who has about five years on me was offended when her gynecologist, upon asking if she wanted children, urged her not to wait. To get on it ASAP as a 30-year-old newly married lady. She was floored that her own doctor was cautioning her about her biological clock. But considering that my friend does want children “one day,” that gynecologist was being a good gynecologist.
None of this is to suggest that babies are not possible over the age of 35, as we all know here in the mommy blogosphere that that’s simply not true. But the ease with which some of my peers assume that they’re going to get pregnant down the line concerns me. Knowing what I do about fertility — that being the basics — I would be getting pregnant next year if I knew for sure that I wanted to carry. Preferably around my 26th birthday. That way should I decide upon having more than one child, I would have about a 10 year cushion in which to expand my family. That being said, I’m most certain that I’d like to find my children through adoption. And so unless I wake up at 34 and suddenly change my mind, my own personal fertility isn’t much of a concern to me.
Yet, in an effort to not veer into didactic 1950s territory of suggesting women marry straight out of high school, I should clarify that I’m not advocating that women marry or partner up young. Nor do I think young women need to be coaxed or herded into marriage with a cultural waiving of their withering uteruses. Rather, I look to my older feminist mentors and teachers to be frank with my fellow ladyfolk about our childbearing window. The feminist crux of choice should absolutely be respected in colleges and universities as girls in their late teens and 20s entertain thoughts of graduate school, PhD programs, and very demanding careers. But glossing over the birds and the bees isn’t doing us younger women any favors. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the older women who I’ve grown up admiring, both in print and in my personal acquaintance, it’s that regret for a family can weigh as heavily as a fumbled job interview.
Young women are more than capable of making their own decisions with regards to their respective paths, careers, family, and yes, “having it all” — whatever that means to them. Guilting younger generations into the maternity ward certainly won’t make for an empowered cohort. But cluing us in on the limitations of our bodies at an early stage absolutely will. With the important footnote that our childbearing years are not in fact endless, we can consider whether we actually would prefer a doctorate to that third baby or a high-powered job that might keep us from our partner for days on end. There’s no shame in prioritizing the demanding work of a family over a 60-hour-a-week power job. But we all know that there exists the possibility of regret.