Old choices in new times

On Tuesday, the New York Times posted this article on women attending elite universities and whose main goal is motherhood.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many women have such a plan. One survey found that 85 out of 138 Yale undergraduate women—over 60%—planned to stop working full time when they started families. The sample size is small and consists only of women at Yale, but the results do still raise questions.

These young women seem to greatly value family life. Those who were interviewed for the article expressed desires reflect the choices of their mothers (or other female role models). I think there’s something to be admired in the fact that these women wish to pass the values of their mothers on to their daughters and that they wish to have an active role in the upbringing of their children.

For many careerwomen, the need to balance work and family and the impossibility of having it all can be frustrating. These young women accept the choice as necessary, and they accept rather than rail at the status quo. One of the female professors at Yale interviewed for this article called these women “realistic.” A Yale survey involving alumnae found that less than 50% of the women in their 40s still worked full time. This younger generation seems, as a group, to want to follow in the previous generation’s footsteps.

Although it is only mentioned in passing, there is also the important question of return on investment (ROI). For these young women, the investment of both time and money is worth it because it will allow them to have fulfilling part time work or to return to work when their children are over. It also allows them the opportunity to meet husbands who will be able to financially support such a choice.

The parents of these women are also important stakeholders. The parents interviewed seem happy enough with (if you’ll permit me to be reductionist) choosing family over career. Of course, these parents also have an interest in seeing their future grandchildren raised in a manner consistent with their own values, so it’s not totally surprising.

Of course, then there are feminists and women’s rights advocates, who did and still do fight a long and difficult battle so that these young women could have such a choice.

Educators make up a final group of stakeholders. In one sense, they are the ultimate payers. It’s their reaction that interests me most, although I suspect they have not yet had the time to react. It appears that there may be a great deal invested in preparing these young women for leadership positions they won’t take. Should these funds be diverted elsewhere? What about those women who do choose (or end up on) ambitious career paths? Is it fair to deny them resources on the chance that they might choose not to fully use their intellectual abilities?

For that matter, is it fair to say that one can’t stay home with one’s children and still develop one’s intellect or become a leader? Is it fair that right now most women can’t have a fulfilling career and devote oneself satisfactorily to one’s family?

I don’t believe that the work is over for those who advocate for greater flexibility in the workplace. Reading this article makes me think that their work is more important than ever—not because I begrudge these women their choices, but because I’d like every person to be able to make a choice that is satisfying and is in keeping with that person’s values.

I can’t see myself ever letting go of ambition. I suspect it’s been drilled permanently into me by 18 years of people telling me I had so much potential to live up to. I really came to hate the word “potential” after a while. Today, I know that I have stakeholders to answer to, and one of them is myself.

There are a few final points I’d like to make about this article.

First, it’s important to remember that this article focuses mostly on Yale, so what is presented may not be generally applicable, perhaps even to other Ivy League Universities.

I also wanted to point out some of the quotes used. There is this one, about the young men in Harvard’s American Family class.

“A lot of the guys were like, ‘I think that’s really great,’ ” Ms. Currie said. “One of the guys was like, ‘I think that’s sexy.’ Staying at home with your children isn’t as polarizing of an issue as I envision it is for women who are in their 30’s now.”

This is one young woman’s explanation of why she wants to stay home with her children:

“Parents have such an influence on their children,” Ms. Ku said. “I want to have that influence. Me!”

There are some other curious choices, and I wonder if there isn’t some rhetorical purpose behind them.

This post refers to:

Story, Louise. “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” New York Times. September 20, 2005.

2 thoughts on “Old choices in new times

  1. I read that, too, and I wasn’t quite sure what to say. A lot of my friends have expressed intentions of not marrying. I and some others of my friends like the idea of marriage but don’t plan to have kids. I think my social group is a different sample from the students polled at Yale.

    There are a couple of other bits of my experience that seem relevant…I think that, whether or not you have kids, balancing a social life (and/or family life) with a full-time or more-than-full-time job is hard. Possibly going along with modern American materialism, people want a lot more than they can have, whether they’re men or women. The dot-com bubble and 30-year-old retirees probably contributed to that.

    I also think it can be harder to get back into working than a lot of those Yale undergrads think. My mom has been really frustrated over the last few years, as she’s tried to find a full-time, permanent job. I’m sure the ten years she spent on her doctorate in something that not too many people think about didn’t help, per se, but she had enough teaching experience and qualifications that she’d be expensive for local school systems, particularly compared to all of the students from the local school of ed. Getting back to the topic at hand, though, I don’t think I’d be comfortable in a relationship in which I didn’t feel as though I contributed comparably. If other people can, good for them, but I have to wonder about the Ivy-League setting for this survey and the impression around Penn that the undergrads are spoiled brats.

    (Nothing I said should be read as contempt for women who stay home with kids. I just think it’s something that people need to think about more than some of those quotes suggest.)

    I also wonder whether anyone asked male undergrads at Yale if they’d consider working part-time or from home to take care of their kids.

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  2. You bring up a lot of good points. It does seem like there is a certain amount of niavete on the part of the young women interviewed. And yes, it does seem that people want everything these days.

    Interestingly, one guy that I discussed this article with also said that he found the idea of a woman willing to take a break from a career to raise kids to be sexy. It’s a concept that puzzles me. I don’t know if they’d be willing to do the same themselves, and I don’t think they were asked.

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