A few months ago, I was sitting at a cafe, and met a young woman. She was about 19 or 20, and she had two children. They were currently with their father, so she was getting a lovely bit of time to herself.
This young woman seemed very calm, and was obviously a good mother. She was speaking very eloquently about her children, what they needed at each stage of development, etc. Yet, inside of me, I had this voice in my head: Two children by the age of 19? Not by accident, but by choice? She’s doing it wrong, she’s a Bad Mother.
I thought about that judgment. I’ve spent a lot of time in very judgmental environments: New York City, young professionals, Harvard students and Harvard graduates — these are not a live-and-let-live kind of people. There are Rules for things, and right and wrong. So let’s take a peek at the conversation I had in my head:
19 with 2 children? How irresponsible. What a bad choice. And she seems like she doesn’t have a lot money, either. Sure, she’s sweet and loving to her children, but how long will that last, once economic reality sets in?
What should she have done instead?
Well, someone in her position should obviously wait. She should go to college. Graduate school.
Will that be good enough?
No! Graduate school is no time to have a child! She needs to embark on a career! She needs to make a living! So that she can provide her children with everything they need!
Well, if she’s in such a high-powered career, it will take her a long time to get established. When should she have kids?
Probably not until she’s 35 or 40.
But that’s at the end of a woman’s fertility cycle. She might have problems, or she might even be infertile!
There are new technologies. And she can always adopt.
And once she has her kids, how will she possibly be able to take time off to raise them?
She can take a few months off. Maybe get her hours reduced to only 40. But really, she’ll need to hire some help. That’s just one of the many perks of earning a good salary!
In other words, she’ll pay a nanny to raise her children for her, because she’s too busy to do it herself. Tell me, what kind of nanny should she get?
Well, she’ll need someone young…so that she has the energy to run around after little babies. And someone who has a calm temperament — and is very interested in the children’s welfare. Then, of course, there’s the question of cost…much as we’d like it to be otherwise, we can’t really pay a Nanny a whole lot of money. So she’d probably have to be someone from a lower economic level…
After going through this whole Q&A session in my head, I realized that society judges poor young women when they dare to raise their own children. But it doesn’t judge those same poor women when they’re working as nannies, and raising rich women’s children.
The whole area of career and childcare is so messed up in America. I know I’ve had a feeling of paralysis when I think about career, much of my adult life. Part of this is because it is extremely hard to keep on in your career once you have a child. Why — for example — go to law school, work hard, start a career as a lawyer…only to find, 5 years into your career, that you have to make a humongous, life-changing choice, that you want to stay home with your baby for a few years? That you might be throwing your career away forever?
In this situation, looking ahead to the future which includes motherhood, there’s the “better not to really try in the first place” option. We never talk about that. We discuss — occasionally — the women who face obstacles in terms of combining career and family. But we never talk about the women who are sure they want kids, and quietly take less career-oriented, dead-end jobs, for their whole adult lives, because they’ll just have to quit them eventually anyways, and why bother?
Something’s got to change.