Innate Desires or Transient Tendencies?
The final answer is that we really do not yet know whether women’s choices regarding paid work and childrearing over the past several decades represent a transient phase that is due for a correction, or whether they represent a basic pattern of deep-seated lifestyle preferences that will continue over time. Yet, my hunch is that the distribution of choices regarding motherhood and employment over this period is not an accurate representation of genuine lifestyle preferences. I think that the distribution of lifestyle choices is distorted by an asymmetrical knowledge of the supposed value of each option and by incomplete information about the range of alternatives. By that I mean that the choices have been influenced by a onesided view of the costs of having children and the benefits of shifting labor from the household to the market, and that at the same time these choices have been narrowed by a limited perspective on the possibilities for harmonizing work and family life.
There are several reasons for this point of view. To begin with, I am not sure we know how well women’s choices reflect a pattern of deep-seated preferences, because it is still too early in the contemporary game of changing lifestyles. Also, just as women are finding more possibilities for work and education, they are also facing a longer lifespan within which to realize these options. Ronald Lee and Joshua Goldstein suggest that young people today are beginning to internalize the likelihood of living into their nineties. As these extra years of life are factored in, Lee and Goldstein see a “rescaling of the life cycle” that includes delaying marriage and childbirth, moving back home after college, and prolonging adolescence.26
Since the 1960s men and women have been learning about the implications of their work and family choices—and the current generation may now be reordering their preferences and rescaling their investments of time based on experience. Preference theory would suggest that the professional women shown to be opting out of the market probably had a strong inherent predisposition toward a more traditional lifestyle but were temporarily seduced by what appeared to be glamorous, rewarding work—until the biological clock began to sound an alarm or until the first child arrived, arousing their innate maternal preferences. Maybe for some of them, after a few years on the job, what appeared to be glamorous, rewarding work to a twenty-one-year-old turned out to be monotonous and wearing by age twenty-seven. Others may have decided to postpone the corporate or professional climb until another day—accepting the likelihood that a late start would reduce the chances of getting to the top.
At the same time there are women who may have wanted two or more children but delayed having the first child until they completed their education, established themselves in professional life, and got married—at which point it was too late to have a second child (and in some cases, perhaps, even the first). Indeed, since the 1970s, there has been a growing discrepancy between the accuracy with which women anticipate their future patterns of work and family life. At the end of the 1970s about 80 percent of women in their late teens envisioned their future participation in the labor force. By the time they were thirty-five years old their actual participation rate was about 75 percent. For this generation it appears that women’s life experiences matched their expectations about work more closely than their expectations about family life. Among women in their freshman year of college during that time, 82 percent expected to have children; by the time they were thirty-seven years old, only 69 percent actually had a child.27
Within the span of a single decade, from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, the median age of marriage for college – educated women shot up by 2.5 years, from 22.5 to 25 years old.28 This might not sound like much, but if we consider eighteen as the age of emancipation, the additional years before marriage represent a more than 50 percent increase in the period of time college-educated women live as independent, single adults. The average age of mothers having their first child in the United States has climbed during the past several decades from 21.4 years old in 1970 to almost 25 years in 2000.29 The average age of first-time mothers in most of Europe is reported as 30 years old.30 The average age may rise or fall as social learning about the implications of postponed marriage and childbearing occurs. As the current generation of women in their twenties and early thirties consider rescaling the life cycle, they will no doubt examine and learn from their parents’ experience.
Another reason that I think the lifestyle choices may be due for a correction is that social class, income, and the type of work available to people inevitably influence the attractions of family and work. Some women can opt out of their careers while still maintaining a very comfortable material standard of living. And some simply must work to support their families. Others may be persuaded to work by strong prospects for engaging in prestigious, empowering, flexible, and interesting careers. The latter group must weigh the social and economic trade-offs of working in the labor force against staying home with their children in the context of realistically anticipating access to highly satisfying and meaningful work. These women are influenced not only by income but by the kind of work they would expect to be doing to earn the income. Some jobs are simply more enjoyable than others, and that factor likely feeds into any woman’s decision-making process. In addition, the emerging pattern of lifestyle choices may respond to changes in the character of working life, but the direction and impact of these changes are not yet clear. Increased telecommuting and part-time employment, for example, might soften the demands of working life by enhancing the flexibility of weekly schedules and the opportunity to spend more time at home. Yet one could also envision the mounting competitive pressures from low-wage developing countries in a global economy resulting in a more callused workplace. As Lucy Kellaway claimed in 2006, “The increasing talk of work-life balance has gone hand in hand with more work and less life. The term is still routinely used but has lost its resonance and in 2007 it will start to sicken and die.”31
Finally, I would suggest that the pattern of choices in recent decades has been distorted by the conventional discourse on balancing work and family life, which has been framed for the most part in such a way as to discount, if not entirely ignore, certain alternatives. The standard choices have been posed as having a number of children and staying home to care for them; having few or no children and making paid employment the central activity of life; and trying to create a balance (often referred to as “harmonizing”) between production in the market and reproduction at home, which usually involves some combination of full-time work, part-time work, flexible work schedules, and varying amounts of out-of-home child care. These alternatives take as axiomatic that “going to work” or “having a career” means doing what men usually do—that is, entering the labor force immediately after completing their education and remaining there with nose to the grindstone until the age of retirement. Other alternatives have been faintly voiced, such as the idea that work and family life might be balanced not by juggling them at the same time but by engaging in each separately for a varying number of years over the long course of modern life. In recent years, however, the voices seem to be getting louder, not so much in the established circles of feminist academic and political leadership as among the rank and file of the coming generation of college women, many of whom are trying to imagine how to achieve the right balance for a satisfying life.
Not only are some alternatives scarcely articulated, but there is an imbalance in the social support for those that are most commonly expressed. In any society, individuals’ lifestyle choices can be skewed by overbearing cultural constraints or government dictates, such as the social and religious conventions against women working in some Muslim countries or the one-child policy in China. Such forceful normative demands and exacting regulatory strictures do not apply in the United States; however, although they are less prescriptive, the prevailing norms and values, as well as policy incentives that reinforce those norms and values, do have a strong effect. They influence how people perceive lifestyle alternatives, the worth attributed to these alternatives, and the behavior that follows. In the 1960s, for example, widely shared expectations and values assured that cohabitation and openly gay unions were rarely practiced outside of bohemian venues. Today, the formerly dodgy customs of North Beach and Greenwich Village have migrated into the mainstream of almost every major city and college town in the United States.
It is evident that the highly personal lifestyle choices of women concerning how to balance work and childrearing are not made in a vacuum. They are influenced by each individual’s particular circumstances—the sum of health, wealth, and providence—as well as by the social pressures of norms and values in a given cultural context. My interests lie in examining how capitalism, feminism, and the state contribute to these cultural norms and values and how the social pressures they generate influence lifestyle choices and the changing role of motherhood. In the United States, the twenty-first-century culture of capitalism influences how we value household labor and assess the costs and benefits of childrearing. The prevailing strains of feminist ideology communicate normative expectations about the extent to which work and children constitute the basic ingredients of a psychologically and emotionally satisfying life for modern women. The state, through publicly financed family-friendly policies, creates incentives and legitimates work-and-family lifestyle choices, which reinforce the social influences of capitalism and feminism. In the following chapters I will take a critical look at the nature of these capitalist values, habits of mind, and feminist expectations, and how they support the various lifestyle choices of women trying to reconcile the demands of childrearing and work.