Lifestyles of the Rich and Infertile
Shortly after September 11, there began to appear an unusual number of paeans to family life—unusual, at least, for the more fashionable precincts of New York City. The editors, pundits, and publicists who set the tone in these matters let the rest of us know that the proper response to the great loss of life and security was a return to domestic pleasures, to the things that “really matter.” “Lifestyle” articles extolled the comforts of entertaining at home and discussed the worries of “commitment-phobic” Manhattan singles, so jolted by the terrorist attacks that they were seriously considering settling down. There was even talk that Sex and the City—HBO’s iconic tribute to New York’s fabulous, sexually liberated, professional single women—might have passed its moment.
Reading the “Portraits of Grief” in the Times—thumbnail sketches of the victims at the World Trade Center—New Yorkers could not help noticing that many of the men killed that day had left behind three or four children. While tragic for their widows and orphans, this was a meaningful legacy in a way that an impressive résumé, frequent-flier miles, and a closet full of Armani suits was not. In my own neighborhood, the famously child-centric (and commensurately dowdy) Upper West Side, parents these days seem deeply grateful to their children for keeping them focused on the demands of daily life. School, birthday parties, and family milestones beat worrying about what terrorists might yet have in store for the city.
With so much family-related anxiety in the air—and not just in New York—the moment could not have been better for Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s new book, Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children1 The author of several previous books chronicling the clash between feminism and family life, Hewlett asserts that there is an “epidemic of childlessness” among today’s professional women, especially the most accomplished of them. This is bad enough by itself, but worse, she argues, is that the women themselves are not really responsible for this outcome; they have been tricked, pressured, and cajoled, and have found themselves without offspring despite assuming all along that they would have them.
Hewlett begins by talking to nine women at the top of their professions—some of them famous, like Diane Sawyer and Wendy Wasserstein—and asking each of them how she ended up childless. Some seem bitter and regretful, but most simply recite the stages in their careers with an air of inevitability.
Lisa Polsky is typical of the group. After fifteen successful years in investment banking—and just as she turned forty—she was offered a position as a managing director at Bankers’ Trust. “I knew it wasn’t in me to turn it down,” she tells Hewlett, “yet I also knew that if I took it I would never have a child. It would not be fair to the child. . . . I felt torn apart by the decision, but at the same time I felt robbed of any real choice in the matter.”
Having a child was always something Polsky had imagined doing “in a year or so, after the next promotion, when I was more established.” In this, Hewlett writes, she is typical of the entire “breakthrough” generation—that is, the cohort of women who came of age during the 1970’s and led the way in integrating the higher reaches of the labor force. According to the survey that forms the heart of this book, 33 percent of women who earn over $65,000 a year are still childless in their forties, and the portion rises to 42 percent for women who earn over $100,000 a year.
Even more worrisome, according to Hewlett, is that younger educated women are following suit. Like their elder sisters, they defer marriage largely because building a successful professional career demands a tremendous commitment of time during one’s twenties and thirties; there is little opportunity to pursue and cultivate relationships. Even when married, they postpone child-bearing until they earn their partnership at a law firm or hit similar career milestones.
Why do they put off having children for so long? Almost 90 percent of them, Hewlett reports, believe that they will remain fertile into their forties, and that, if they have problems then, new reproductive technology can overcome them. One by one they visit the OBGYN’s who obligingly doled out their contraception for the past two decades only to learn that they have long since passed their reproductive prime—fertility peaks at twenty-seven, and the odds of a healthy birth drop to less than one in five after forty—and that the success rate for treating age-related infertility is very low indeed.
Hewlett herself had four children and then managed to have a fifth, at age fifty-one, thanks to four grueling years of infertility treatment. She understands the “pain and yearning” of these women, who are rich and powerful—or on track to becoming so—but barren. The sadness is compounded in her eyes by the fact that most of them did not set out be childless. None of these women, Hewlett writes, “sat down at age thirty and decided that motherhood wasn’t for me.” It was an unexpected, unintentional sacrifice, made during their climb to the top—what one of her subjects calls a “creeping nonchoice.”
Hewlett holds a number of culprits responsible for this situation. There is the fertility industry, which promises more than it can deliver. There is the work culture of corporate America, which demands more time of professionals and managers than is strictly necessary for the execution of their work, a condition that takes a greater toll on young women than on young men. And there is American feminism, which demands equality and sexual freedom instead of the European-style, social-welfare measures (daycare, maternity leave, job guarantees, etc.) that would create “a level playing field” for women who want to combine work and family. Finally, Hewlett places some of the blame on American women themselves, who, she says, must become every bit as “intentional” about having children as they have become about setting up careers.
Much of what we learn here is old hat, even for Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Her two previous books, A Lesser Life (1986) and When the Bough Breaks (1991), offered similar laments about the trade-offs that women face in trying to manage work and family, and about America’s need to become more like Sweden.
What is new in Hewlett’s current formulation is the idea of a fertility crisis—and it is what has made her book a media sensation (though also, thanks perhaps to its dour message, a sales flop). Creating a Life has been featured on the cover of Time, discussed in the book-review and op-ed pages of the major newspapers, and presented on all the big TV talk shows, including Oprah and 60 Minutes. It prompted New York magazine to declare “Baby Panic” on its cover, inspired New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to new heights of solipsistic inanity, and seemingly drew the attention of every woman who has ever penned a thought about the gender wars, the mommy wars, feminism, or anti-feminism, plus anyone who ever had a baby or decided not to have a baby, each making her point by drawing freely on her own dating history and reproductive career.
The book broke through the media blare because actual infertility is a problem that is still treated with great discretion among elite women. Not only is it a deeply personal sorrow, but the problem lies in dangerous proximity to their wider ambitions. In the institutions that groom the professional and managerial class, it remains taboo to calculate the possible costs to women of emulating a male career path. Women who raise the issue are immediately seen as lacking seriousness.
What Hewlett has pointed out with painful clarity is that female fertility is a limited, diminishing resource. The option to have one’s own babies without massive intervention, cost, and the high risk of failure is highly circumscribed by time. Women who really want children must marry and get on with things in their twenties and mid-thirties. Obscuring this reality—as the fertility industry certainty has done, with the complicity of its feminist boosters—has undoubtedly resulted in a great disservice to women.
But can it really be, as Hewlett suggests, that today’s educated American women—the most privileged generation of women in the history of the world—have played so passive a role in their own childlessness? Hewlett measures her subjects’ “real intentions” by asking them whether, when they graduated from college, they knew they did not want to have children. Though just 14 percent said yes, 33 percent nevertheless ended up without them. For Hewlett, this is a clear sign that women have been the victims of “unfairness.”
Indeed, Hewlett is quick to describe any ambivalence or second thoughts that women might have about forgoing children as a tragic “nonchoice.” But perhaps they just changed their minds as they grew to understand the demands of their professions. Whatever the regrets of someone like Lisa Polsky, the investment banker, she clearly knew what was most important to her: at each stage in her career, she put off children in favor of work. The fact is that she has been hugely successful, earning millions of dollars a year in a high-pressure, high-reward job. Her sacrifices have not been so different from those of her male colleagues, who, if they have children, probably do not get to see much of them.
Other women, faced with similar options, go the other way. At a neighborhood park, I recently encountered the mother of one my children’s classmates. A Harvard-educated partner in a law firm, she told me that she was cutting back her work still further, to just fifteen hours a week. “I’m going to be so marginal I bet they’ll just fire me, or maybe I’ll end up quitting,” she said. She had worked hard for the partnership, but now she wanted to be home. In the face of competing goods, she could not bring herself to make a direct decision, so she was doing it incrementally.
For the women of my generation—I graduated in 1982 from Bryn Mawr, an institution that has long prided itself on sending women into the professions—the need to make real compromises came, oddly enough, as news. In college, no one ever mentioned marriage, even as we received much advice about our presumed careers. The accepted hypothesis was that work was what gave your life meaning, and therefore should be pursued aggressively; everything else was just a matter of taste, and would somehow “fall into place.” On a campus where traditional moral or religious guidance was conspicuously lacking, the more impressionable among us absorbed these ideas without much thought.
Still, though they would have sooner died than say so, some of my college friends knew that having a family was their priority, and that it would mean taking a different path. They found jobs, even went to graduate school, but they did not make big career plans. While the rest of us pursued more “serious” goals and less serious relationships, they made themselves attractive and accessible. Before long they were inviting us to be their bridesmaids, all the while claiming that things had just happened that way, and would for us too. In those years, we believed them—even as we looked down at them for “wasting their potential.”
By the time we hit thirty, of course, the shoes had changed feet, as the unmarried among us began to worry that we would never find a husband, or have cute little toddlers of our own, and as those vaunted careers of ours began to seem a bit empty. The lucky ones were able to reevaluate their choices, find jobs that did not preclude a social life, and make sometimes painful efforts to meet potential mates. Among my own acquaintances, those who did this early enough tended to get what they wanted. More than a few of them missed the boat—and felt cheated.
But were they victims? They would certainly have been better served by an education, and a culture, that hammered home the inescapability of costs and trade-offs. But they would have had to be willfully blind if, a few years into their careers, they did not understand just how difficult it was to get to the top, or see how the people who were there—women and men—actually lived.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s great contribution is to have brought the ambient “go-for-it-like-a-man” feminism, whose influences pervade the thinking of nearly all educated American women, up against the limits of reproductive biology. As she—and anyone who has had occasion to hear the stories of disappointed friends—knows, too many women past their childbearing prime have gone through the devastating experience of in-vitro fertilization and other techniques only to end up without the child they wanted. Still more have had one, but not the two or three they planned. Creating a Life will do genuine good if it reaches just some fraction of those deluded young women who are counting on making babies in their forties.
Still, Hewlett too remains a feminist in the end, and so she must point to the possibility of escaping the limits she so ably describes. If only we were to arrange society more justly, she suggests—a subsidy here, a regulation there, some new attitudes all around—women would be able to have everything: work would bring fulfillment, families would prosper, and all would be well.
Some conflicts may indeed be solved or at least seriously ameliorated in this way—with money, new technology, a changed mindset. But the conflict between family and work is not one of them; it is simply a part of the human condition. As long as there are only 24 hours in a day, taking care of one’s family will clash with serious professional ambition. The sooner that fact is recognized, the better equipped young women will be to make the choices that best suit their temperaments and aims. Some will give up children in order to make millions; some, in the time-tested way, will give up work for children. Others—the great majority—will try to strike the best balance they can, either simultaneously or sequentially.
To pretend, however, that these are not the basic options—to pretend that women can have everything and sacrifice nothing—is a recipe for widespread misery. As Hewlett so strikingly demonstrates, even those who refuse to choose know, at some level, that they have made a choice.
1 Talk/Miramax, 334 pp., $22.00.