By LOUISE STORY
Published: New York Times September 20, 2005
Cynthia Liu is precisely the kind of high achiever Yale wants: smart (1510 SAT), disciplined (4.0 grade point average), competitive (finalist in Texas oratory competition), musical (pianist), athletic (runner) and altruistic (hospital volunteer). And at the start of her sophomore year at Yale, Ms. Liu is full of ambition, planning to go to law school.
So will she join the long tradition of famous Ivy League graduates? Not likely. By the time she is 30, this accomplished 19-year-old expects to be a stay-at-home mom.
"My mother's always told me you can't be the best career woman and the best mother at the same time," Ms. Liu said matter-of-factly. "You always have to choose one over the other."
At Yale and other top colleges, women are being groomed to take their place in an ever more diverse professional elite. It is almost taken for granted that, just as they make up half the students at these institutions, they will move into leadership roles on an equal basis with their male classmates.
There is just one problem with this scenario: many of these women say that is not what they want.
Many women at the nation's most elite colleges say they have already decided that they will put aside their careers in favor of raising children. Though some of these students are not planning to have children and some hope to have a family and work full time, many others, like Ms. Liu, say they will happily play a traditional female role, with motherhood their main commitment.
Actually there are two problems with this scenario. These women are assuming they are going to have a full-time working husband who is willing to assume the entire financial burden of supporting them and the children while they stay home for the seven to ten years it might take for them to return to work after having a few kids. This assumption of a ‘second income’ allowing them to remain unemployed for almost a decade or more might not become reality for many of these young women.
Many of their older sisters are facing exactly this dilemma at they hit their early to mid 30s NOW. Focusing on college and career-building during the first decade or so of their adult life has left them single and just now beginning the search for a partner, so they can begin having the perfect family of 2 children (one boy and one girl) that statistics say most American women desire. The men in their age grouping, however, who have been doing the same thing, building up their professional lives, are now looking for wives as well, but they are looking to their younger sisters as mates.
It appears that the professional and financial success that comes with working as a high-powered doctor, lawyer, corporate executive, politician etc., makes men eligible for the ‘pick of the litter’ when it comes time to look for a spouse, but the same is not the case for us women. Our professional/financial success appears to come at a cost and this cost appears to be marriage and motherhood; as men do NOT look to women who are professional successes when they look for a wife. They are still looking for the age-old standards of youth, beauty, peak physical condition, overall health (both physical and emotional), etc., that men have always looked for in their wives and the future mothers of their children. Very ‘retro’ in the modern age, but what can we do about it? Sadly nothing.
I mean no one was more horrified then I when I heard that Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas was reduced to doing a single parent adoption of a Chinese orphan in order to have any family. I mean this was, at one time anyway, a beautiful woman with everything going for her. Smart, successful, savvy, full of life and self-confidence. What the heck???? If she couldn’t attract a husband and have a kid or two through the usual method, well, what hope is there for the rest of us, let’s face it, rather ordinary women.
So as Maureen Dowd would sadly ask: Was feminism a sad joke for most women? Promising us the freedom to become everything we could be, but making that offer contingent upon giving up our most precious desire to have a husband and children.
It appears this could very well be the case. As the qualities that attract men to women are at their peak in twenty-somethings and fertility for women begins declining around age 27 or so; by age 35 most of us will be lucky if we can attract the dirty old man who hangs out in front of the bodega all day making sucking noises at every hot young thing that passes by (not that you’d want the old codger anyway, I’d rather have a faithful dog or cat as a companion). But I think you get my drift.
The career and attractive/reproductive years cycle follow the same trajectory unfortunately and time appears to be the enemy of both.
Thus I’m not entirely sure if young women are being totally realistic in their goals as outlined in the New York Times story above. Choices must be made and they must be made early enough so that they are really choices, not just the lesser of two evils option we fall into because we’ve waited too long to make a real choice.
Remember this as well. Early motherhood can also be a professional career killer, just as a career could end your chance of motherhood in the future. As it is not so easy as they claim to just morph into a professional career women after marrying and becoming a mother in your 20s and focusing the next decade or two on your family.
I can attest to that, having devoted most of my life to raising my children, returning to college in my 40s and getting a BA from a prestigious university guaranteed me nothing. I’m pretty much still making the same income now as I was when I was working with no college degree as guess what: the age thingy still exists in employment. Plus I now owe student loans to go along with my same income group, which I didn’t have that burden before.
Probably I’d say in retrospect that past 35 or so most women might be better off getting a small business loan, instead of wasting the money on a college degree, and finding some little niche they can do well and making it into a small business for themselves. Remember women’s ‘shelf-life’ in the working world is far shorter then men’s, far shorter. Thus, all of these things must be carefully taken into consideration when women plan their lives. AND yes, women must plan. We, unfortunately do NOT have the time to just travel, experiment, grow, just trying on different hats until we find the right fit the way many young men do. Our time line is shorter, if we want children and even if we don’t sometimes, as society treats a woman in her 30/40s far differently then they do a man in his 30/40s.
So don’t make this mistake and take too long to move definitively in one direction or the other. As many women waste their lives because they take too long to make ANY decision and so time makes it for them, not so much because women make bad ones.