Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children
(Talk Miramax Books, 2002)
It’s no new news that the Time Magazine article on Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book has the city’s female population all in a hurry to have a baby—or in a panic to defend their Sex & the City lifestyles. What’s more baffling to me is the vast array of messages—or dare I call it propaganda—that permeated the media after Time’s cover story. A friend of mine speculated that with the job market being as it is these days, there are limited posts to be filled. Could it be that Rosie the Riveter of 2002 is being sent home to start a family while men occupy the now more coveted, barely available positions in the city? Can the same young women who were chanting Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” lyrics last year be swayed to buckle down and build an itinerary for finding male seed? (“All the honey, making money, hold yer hands up with me” and “do you pay my bills?” come immediately to mind). Have September 11th events made the media’s audience that much more tolerant in hearing about “getting back to home and family”? And if so, at what cost to women and our own skills of evolution, professionally and emotionally?
In her Business Week review of Hewlett’s book, titled “The Loneliness of the High Powered Woman,” Catherine Arnst opened with an observation about the obituaries after the World Trade Center went down. “For 6 months I have been reading the New York Times’ “Portraits in Grief”… and I’ve noticed a pattern: most of the men killed in the attack on the WTC—many in their 30s and 40s—left wives and children behind. Most often, their female colleagues were single and/or childless and were lauded as loving aunts and friends.” Arnst continues the review by laying out all the basic information that posed in Hewlett’s book: Statistics and numbers about the female population of America; how many are home raising children, whether or not they are educated; and the frightening indication that men seem to have little interest in marrying their intellectual or professional peers. As Arnst put it (and as the Oprah Winfrey/Barbara Walters interview of female Harvard students points out), “it seems that boys don’t make passes at girls who get MBAs.”
The last leg of Arnst’s article suggests a solution that no one has even tried to research: “Where Hewlett falls down is in her proffered solutions. She wants women while still in their early 20s to construct a plan for getting married and having children. But life has a nasty way of derailing plans—and marriage take TWO. So here’s a thought: How about viewing this as a male rather than a female problem?” Arnst finishes the review with a suggestion to assign Hewlett’s book to all men in graduate programs. She also suggests classes that would encourage men to think about marriage in the first place, and specifically (possibly) with their professional equals. Finally, Arnst suggests that CEOs could attempt to adjust corporate culture so that it wouldn’t seem “so designed by and for men not eager to spend time with heir families.” And hell, here’s a thought: If children are our future, why not reconcile their needs with the demands of the workplace? Wouldn’t that be a more progressive, modern approach to the very real fact that a dual income seems more likely a necessity in this economy to afford a child in the first place? Why would Hewlett’s book seem to lean on the seemingly outdated dogma (ladies, find ye a husband fast) as a solution to the currently not-so-up-to-snuff technological attempts at fertility? There must be some “middle” ground.
Hewlett asks that women be “intentional in their 20s about having children.” But, as Katha Pollitt so aptly put in The Nation (story title: “Backlash Babies”), “What makes Hewlett think that this disastrous recipe will work out better this time around? Will having a baby compensate (a woman) for blinkered ambitions and a marriage made with one eye on the clock?” I—possibly like Katha—have been surrounded by professional, emotionally stable women who haven’t had an engagement ring flashed in their faces even once. Pollitt writes, “Sure, a woman can spend her twenties looking for love—and show me one who doesn’t!” I have also known the same women to be open to finding a loving, committed relationship while cultivating their own selves and careers. I have especially known men nothing short of terrified of women with deliberate “intentions” to marry and have children just for the sake of only that … and nothing more (as opposed to a marriage that is based on a connection between two people, lifelong friendship, companionship, etc.)
The media circus has resulted in an array of mixed messages in these past few months—could these be wavering attempts to be politically correct to the city’s larger single population? Or wavering because these uncertain times could suddenly lead to recovering the economic boom… a boom that may have had women feeling that anything was possible in terms of work, travel, and purchasing? Shortly after the New York Times reviewed Hewlett’s book, it printed “Admitting to Mixed Feelings About Motherhood” in its Sunday Styles section. Books like Life After Birth, What Even Yours Friends Won’t Tell You, and The Price of Motherhoods were featured, and their authors were hailed as feminist pioneers for writing about how truly difficult, drudging, and boring motherhood can be. The article stated that today’s prospective 32-year-old mom has most likely had a “10-year career and has made her own decisions since college.” And even though motherhood has always required sacrifice in terms of one’s time, ego, and sex life, “contemporary mothers are sacrificing more: careers, salaries and status.” That’s not to say that motherhood itself is the disaster, but again, the room to continue in the workforce seems to be the harder nut to crack.
In late May, New York Magazine published a cover story, sensationally titled “Baby Panic,” written, appropriately, by a very young, 20-something female author who goes back and forth in writing about her own feelings of panic, her interview with Ms. Hewlett, and some conversations with a sexy, savvy New York career gal named “Dina Wise.” Dina is on the verge of turning 30, lives in Murray Hill, and has had a wildly successful career in PR. She wears “bright, fashionable clothes” and tosses her head back while laughing off her baby-panic over martinis. Meanwhile, the writer, Vanessa Grigoriadis, refers to television characters like Ally McBeal and the Sex & the City crew throughout the article, and claims to have realized only while interviewing Hewlett that the book is targeted to her age group. “Young women have had a extraordinary sense of entitlement,” says Hewlett during her interview with Grigoriadis. “Somehow they think they have the right to have kids whenever they want and we’re realizing that there’s something wrong with that kind of entitlement. It’s obnoxious. It’s overweening. And I think it is now over.”
Before I dig into Hewlett too much here for seeming a bit like a morality/family values fascist or anti-feminist, it’s fair to mention that Grigoriadis informs us that Hewlett had her 5-year-old daughter at age 51, after many expensive fertility treatments. Hewlett also has a 24-year-old child, which could lead one to believe that Hewlett followed her own advice while in her 20s and had a child effortlessly. She’s a former economics professor who currently runs a nonprofit group out of the New School. Grigoriadis describes Hewlett’s “clipped English accent” as being riddled with “policy speak” and “anecdotal claims of friends and family members’ regret over childlessness as case studies.” Hewlett goes on to say that women should figure out what they want in their career lives and go after it, and that this same approach should be used in finding a husband and childbearing/childrearing: “Look, there are two approaches you can take,” continues Hewlett, “You can either stand on the sidelines and be critical. Or you can say: This is the game, and it is a game I want to play, because I want to end up with a husband and a child.”
There is something terrifying for both sides if Hewlett’s “intentional” approach is taken to heart. First, there is the very real fact that the divorce rate has not subsided, and that, emotionally, many of use have not seen a marriage as a work-in-progress (with its ups and downs, its kinks and flaws). I have not heard mention of whether or not Hewlett’s later birth was due to her wanting a child in a second or third marriage. Where does her definition of “entitlement” fit in there? The bottom line is, I would hope that societally we would strive to be fit enough parents emotionally in the first place, and not simply obsess about a “clock” or timetable. And at the risk of seeming like my generational equal (New York Magazine writer Grigoriadis, who spouts references to television characters as any child of TV should), all one needs to do is see an episode of Jerry Springer to feel a little wary about what further examples exist in terms of flawed relationships between lovers, spouses, children and their parents. What stands out most clearly in my mind is the fact that parading around with “intention” does not a marriage make. A recent issue of Men’s Health Magazine published a story titled “A Lady of a Certain Age. You Want a Date. She Wants a Mate. Will Her Ticking Clock Blow Up in Your Face?” As if the title doesn’t already spell out the fear rampant in men in their 20s – 40s the story content indicates exactly why “intention” alone just won’t fly for men. The story’s narrator writes about a stunning woman named Daria who has already spelled out her desire for marriage and children, and that she has little time/patience to spare. “I sped back to work, thinking, conjuring Daria’s face every few steps. She was gorgeous. Sexually selfless. At the rate we were jetting, we were two months away from jointly signed holiday cards. At this moment, I was still free. I still had the male prerogative of refusing to have empathy for her ticking clock: We churn sperm to the grave … we can let the irrational fantasy of finding the perfect mate ride for a few more rolls. I’m just young enough to think I still might win … How do young married men not think about this and go mad?”
The story ends with a harmless outing where the writer is sitting at a bar with Daria and “her friends. My head was bobbing, my eyes sanding”:
“Daria,” I leaned over, “I’m going home. You stay here.”
“I had our night planned,” she sputtered.
“I know you did,” I replied, touching her neck. “All this is just too soon for me.”
“This…” I repeated softly, pulling her to me, feeling such a stiff sadness in her that my own eyes welled. “…but later.”
And so the media frenzy will continue to rage on with mixed-up speculations and maybe even suggestions of “agendas for women.” Or maybe we’ll all grow old and childless, floating without partners, and somehow science and technology will come through for us and allow us to create life at age 50. Or maybe we’ll embrace the very beautiful options of taking in foster children or adopting children when our salaries are up to snuff enough to support more than a pet and an occasional shopping spree. All of this I would much prefer to opening a June issue of CosmoGirl and finding that a younger generation of girls—our “sisters”—are being coached with articles titled “Read His Mind,” “What Guys Want,” and “Getta Date,” instead of the stories on improving SAT scores that I remember from Seventeen Magazine in the ’80s. And all of this would be far more rewarding than wrangling with an “intention” that will never be fulfilled when simply “going after the game.”
PAULA TROTTO is a Long Island City-based photographer.