Professional Women and the Quest for Children
by Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Talk Miramax Books, 2002 334 pp, $22.00
AS A POLITICAL MOVEMENT, feminism is barely breathing. Many forces converge to obstruct movement toward genuine equality of the sexes: the entrenched, symbiotic structures of work and family life; the refusal to assign economic value to housework and child rearing; the devolution of the public sector; increasing class and racial inequality; the religious right’s influence on abortion policy, sex education, and other aspects of sex and gender politics. At the same time, the taboo on radical thought that pervades our political conversation chokes off any serious discussion of how to transform these social conditions. Yet culturally, and in the mainstream media, a certain brand of feminism is (just as the right has always charged!) conventional wisdom, official morality. That men and women have equal rights; that women can do and be anything men can do and be; that we can, in a phrase that strains one’s loyalty to the First Amendment, “have it all”; that there are glitches, of course, but onward and upward: this we believe, or at least say. And so dissent from these propositions takes on an aura of novelty, daring, and subversion, the very stuff of a “Big Story.” The same media that promote the conventional wisdom revel in attacks on it-even as the attacks themselves become routine.
To be sure, not just any attack will do: attacks from the left are dismissed as cranky, while religious conservative antifeminism, for all its political clout, has no media cachet. What flies is “facts”-statistics and anecdotes drawn from biological, sociological, or psychological studies or from journalistic surveys-purporting to reveal that one or another aspect of the feminist project has unforeseen troubling consequences and that the quest to “have it all” (that is, have as much as men take for granted) must bow to intractable limits. Bonus points if you can get the facts to show that failure to recognize those limits has hurt women themselves, not just children or society, so that it’s in women’s interest to rethink their aspirations. The journalists who publicize these reports usually do so with a sympathetic and sober mien: it’s a shame women can’t get what they want, but what can you do-facts are facts! Still, there’s no denying the undercurrent of relish, characteristic of those who mouth the conventional wisdom but have never really reconciled themselves to it. Which is why, as feminist critics are quick to point out, reporters so eagerly swallow questionable “facts” as well as interpretations that may be faulty even if the data are correct.
There’s something of the kabuki dance about the stream of gloomy pronouncements and the ensuing charges of backlash. In general there is little appetite for the socially conservative changes in policy or behavior that the facts are said to warrant. Women make the decisions or non-decisions they do because of the complicated conditions of their lives; books may stoke anxiety or guilt, but they are not going to convince women to stay married or keep their kids out of day care or, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s latest book would have it, make their first priority getting married and having a baby by their early thirties. On the other hand, feminists have made little impact with their efforts to show that the fact-mongers’ statistics are wrong, their alarms exaggerated, their conclusions shaped by unacknowledged assumptions. In the end, the public tends to agree with the Rosie O’Donnell character in Sleepless in Seattle-the facts are not true, but they feel true. Backlash, strictly speaking, is the reaction against some novel social advance; what passes for backlash these days is more like the flogging of a horse that won’t die, but isn’t going anywhere, either.
CONSIDER THE classic just-the-facts episode launched by Hewlett’s Creating a Life-she wanted to call it Baby Hunger, but her publisher objected-which made 60 Minutes and the covers of Time and New York, among other conspicuous venues. Hewlett claims that attaining motherhood over the age of forty is akin to winning the lottery, and that women with high-powered careers are big losers. Enmeshed in corporate or professional institutions that demand total dedication and virtually unlimited working hours, the women of this rarefied cohort are starved of time for childbearing and rearing and for relationships that might lead to marriage; encouraged by the hyping of high-tech infertility treatments to believe that they can always get pregnant later, they are devastated, or so Hewlett argues, when they discover their time has run out.
The book proposes a number of legal and corporate reforms aimed at curbing the imperialistic claims of work on women’s time, but these would hardly have inspired headlines like “Baby Panic.” Rather, the irresistible hook is Hewlett’s exhortation to women themselves: while she speaks of empowering young women with knowledge, giving them freedom to make the choices that will allow them to have work and children too, her practical advice boils down to Katha Pollitt’s acerbic summary in the Nation: “Spend your twenties snagging a husband, put your career on the back burner and have a baby ASAP.” Toward this end, the achievement-oriented, feminist-minded woman may need an attitude adjustment; Hewlett lauds the example of an interviewee who, in the middle of a grueling medical residency, hosted business dinners for her lover several times a week. (Reader, he married her.) Hewlett recognizes that men contribute to women’s “time crunch,” whether by asking them to host dinners or by not doing housework; she ruefully acknowledges their tendency to prefer “younger, less-accomplished and more-easily-impressed women” to female peers with ambitions of their own. But she offers no proposals for changing male behavior; evidently it just comes with the y chromosome.
Creating a Life is, to put it charitably, slight-a mixture of muckraking and self-help, with a bit of memoir thrown in. Its tone tends to the chatty and inspirational; its interviews are superficial; and its discussion of the insane demands of the contemporary workplace and their differential impact on women merely skims over territory covered more fully by authors like Joan Williams, Arlie Hochschild, and Ann Crittenden. Its information on the low rates of success with in vitro fertilization is old news (I find it hard to believe that the educated women Hewlett is writing about have been as credulous on the subject as she claims). The autobiographical section is poignant-Hewlett describes her own struggles with the conflicts between work and motherhood, as well as the traumatic loss of stillborn twins-yet in the end its main effect is to undercut her credibility. Already the mother of several children, Hewlett spent four years undergoing invasive infertility treatments in order to have one last baby at age fifty-one. Though she presents this quest as an emblematic case of baby hunger, it instead casts doubt on the whole concept as anything but one woman’s Mia Farrowesque obsession
READING Creating a Life, I couldn’t help sensing at every turn the dead hand of editors in thrall to the marketing department, telling Hewlett to simplify the ideas, scapegoat, er, expose the infertility industry, and supply plenty of anecdotes and personal details. It’s less a book than a bound media event. Which is to say that it’s a fat pitch for feminist critics. Of the various articles I’ve read that question Hewlett’s figures and skewer her conclusions, every one is smarter and better written than her book, as well as truer. And yet, as this particular dance ends and the media move on (have you heard about the recent finding that children of mothers who work during their first eighteen months display slower cognitive development?), the feminist vs. backlash debate stays in exactly the same place. The rhetorical stalemate mirrors the political one-feminism has been on the defensive against the right for a quarter century-but it’s cause as well as reflection, for new rhetoric is an integral part of new politics. How then do we shift the ground of the conversation?
The key, it seems to me, is to view books like Hewlett’s less as backlash than as symptoms of a revolution that’s gotten stuck. If feminism has vastly increased the menu of women’s choices-especially for the well-off, educated, ambitious women who are the subject of Hewlett’s book and also its critics-they are often choices among lousy alternatives; at the very least they entail complicated individual tradeoffs between worldly work and child rearing, love and autonomy, economic security and independence, tradeoffs that are not inherent in life’s limitations but are products of institutional inequality. A vast quantity of literature has sprung up to interpret this situation for frustrated, anxious women-some of it by traditionalists who are resolutely antifeminist, some of it by hacks exploiting the frustrations and anxieties for bucks, and some by well-meaning writers like Hewlett, who have both feminist and traditionalist impulses and sincerely believe they’ve hit on the best possible compromise between them.
The only honest response from feminists is to demand that the revolution get moving again. But mainstream feminist organizations are only comfortable defending the status quo. And feminist intellectuals with a sophisticated grasp of the problems facing women often fall into a subtler trap. They-we-know that whatever the state of the movement, feminism is the linchpin of the lives we struggle to lead, the necessary condition for what we’ve achieved in the way of work, love, and a sense of self, whether we have children or not. The just-the-facts jeremiads obliterate this lived reality, understandably prompting the impulse to insist on it: feminism has won crucial victories; we are far better off than our mothers. Yet this insistence can carry with it the unwitting implication that sexism is no longer a serious constraint, at least for the privileged stratum of women to which feminist intellectuals and high-achieving professionals belong.
Rhetorically, the dilemma reveals itself in the ubiquitous “yes, but . . .” construction of antibacklash critiques. Yes, the critics concede, Hewlett raises some real issues. Women do pay a price for achievement, and many do end up involuntarily childless. But . . . Some of the “buts” have to do with Hewlett’s numbers (her claim that the “vast majority” of childless professional women are unhappy about their state is based on the fact, of dubious relevance, that only 14 percent of her interviewees knew in college that they didn’t want children; according to a study cited in the American Prospect, the only difference in the birth rates of high-achievers and working women in general reflects the former’s greater reluctance to be single mothers). But mostly they add up to a defense of female achievers’ priorities. We (that is, those of us who want children or male partners or both) would rather postpone childbearing till we’re really ready and take our chances; would rather throw ourselves into our work and hold out for a man who will make room for it; would, indeed, rather be alone than like the hostess of those dinners, “willing to surrender part of her own identity to enhance that of the man she wanted to be with.” Furthermore, we take responsibility for our choices and refuse to make melodrama out of the rough spots. We know the difference, as Joan Walsh put it in Buzzle.com, between “an occasional twinge of regret and life-darkening despair.”
THE PROBLEM with this approach is that what begins as outrage at the disparagement of feminism may end up sounding suspiciously like self-congratulation. Instead, it might be useful to put our brief aside and focus on why “the facts,” however distorted and dramatized (and because they are distorted and dramatized), are never laid to rest by rebuttal. Backlash may explain why studies like Hewlett’s are so enthusiastically hyped, but not why they keep on coming or why they feel true. The woman bereft of a child exists, but she also represents something larger: she’s a potent cultural symbol for the woman with a missing piece. And in some sense, in a sexist society, we are all that woman. None of us can put all the pieces together.
Which brings me to the subject of baby hunger. It exists, I know, because I developed a bad case of it toward the end of my thirties. Until then I hadn’t seriously considered motherhood, not because I was putting my nose to the corporate grindstone, but because I feared losing the bohemian freedoms of my low-rent life as a writer; nor was I willing to consider it without a man who agreed to share child-rearing. When for various reasons that fear loosened its grip and I began a relationship that made motherhood seem doable, the desire kicked in-perhaps I couldn’t afford to feel it before then. Like a ripe subject for a Hewlett cautionary tale, I was confident that I would get pregnant easily (perhaps because five years earlier, one stupid moment of carelessness had been enough to do the trick). But it took me ten months to conceive, and then I had a miscarriage in my fifth month. When my daughter was finally born (I was forty-two by then), I knew I had been lucky. Had my luck failed, I’m sure I would have felt intense disappointment-how deep, how lasting, I can’t know.
But baby hunger, in my experience, is a thing apart from rational consideration-“intentionality,” as Hewlett calls it-about how to fit motherhood into one’s long-range plans. Even at my most pessimistic moments, after the miscarriage, I never wished I had rearranged my life to have a child earlier; this would have been tantamount to wishing I had been a different person. I didn’t regret aborting my earlier pregnancy; it was the last thing I wanted at the time. Baby hunger is not retroactive, any more than sexual desire is. It’s a visceral yearning for a love-object-to-be; indeed, in its indifference to logic and practicality it’s rather alarming. In the early throes of my craving, I worried about whether it signified a genuine desire for parenthood, with the whole new set of tradeoffs I knew would follow-if my main motivation was lust to cuddle an infant, I ought to do myself and the potential kid a favor and get a kitten instead.
I decided I did want parenthood: whether hunger propelled the decision or readiness to decide prompted the hunger, I’ve never resolved. But I’m convinced that baby hunger has a larger emotional meaning. It has to do with the longing to retrieve that missing piece; and it has to do with power. I don’t mean just the power to create a life, though that’s no doubt part of the story, but the power to create a human being on whom one can lavish all one’s love and generosity without fear of judgment, rejection, humiliation, or violence; a being whose demands are based on need, not dominion. In the real world, motherhood intensifies women’s economic and social disadvantage; yet the fantasy behind baby hunger is, paradoxically, one of emotional freedom.
To challenge “the facts” we need to understand the feelings behind them; to transcend sterile arguments about how much feminists have or haven’t won, we need to reclaim the movement’s utopian dimension and talk about what we really want. In the realm of work: not just “family-friendly” reforms that allow us a few hours off from our jobs to take care of the “second shift,” but the abolition of corporate tyranny, work without end, and the sexual division of labor. In the realm of sexual relations: not to bribe men with our hostess skills or get off on ironic banter about the many ways they’ve let us down or proclaim that heterosexuality is inherently patriarchal, but to revive a near-dead conversation about how to change the sexual culture. In the realm of child-rearing: not just help with our responsibilities from husbands, nannies, day care centers, and social welfare benefits, but a serious effort to reimagine the family along lines that foster equal sharing and collective responsibility for children, whether their parents are married or not. “Facts” can debunk what is; they have little to say about what might be. This is our ground, if we can take it.
Ellen Willis directs the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.