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Chapter I

The Social Context:
Motherhood in Decline?

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’ ot too long ago, caring for children was unques­tionably the most important activity that women performed in society. Before the 1960s, it was cus­tomary for mothers not to work outside the home, a convention acknowledged and reinforced by social policy. For example, Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), a program under the Social Security Act of 1935, gave cash grants to single mothers so they could stay home and care for their children.1 But during the 1960s, normative views and policies concerning the role of motherhood began to shift in response to feminist demands for social and economic equality—and, some might add, in response to labor-force needs. The changing expecta­tions surrounding motherhood are evident in the transforma­tion of ADC, which by 1996 had morphed into Temporary As­sistance for Needy Families (TANF), a program that aimed to move women with young children into the labor force.2 By the late 1990s, women were having fewer children, and mothers were increasingly delegating child-care responsibilities to oth­ers as they entered the paid workforce in what were historic proportions for peaceful times.

Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, however, word has been spreading that a revival of home care is under way, with women returning in droves to domestic life, leaving lucrative careers to give birth and raise their children. Reports of this trend have received considerable media attention. Under the front-page headline “Putting Family First,” the April 2002 issue of People magazine told of such celebrities as Sissy Spacek, Demi Moore, and Jodie Foster finding more joy and meaning in being mothers than movie stars. Three months later Vogue ran a glossy thirteen-page spread about supermodels taking time out for motherhood.

The fluffy stories in People and Vogue were not so much hard news as rumors of a trend. Since these magazines rank low as providers of news and opinion in feminist intellectual circles, the stories of childbearing and home care among the rich and famous did not create much of a stir. But around the same time, Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book Creating a Life: Profes­sional Women and the Quest for Children surfaced, provoking the feminist community. Hewlett found that 42 percent of the high-achieving women in her study were childless after age forty (a figure that climbed to 49 percent among the women in her sample who earned $100,000 or more) and that many women who did have children had only one.3

Hewlett was charged with delivering a dangerous anti­feminist message. If taken seriously, Garance Franke-Ruta main­tained, her findings might lead to more young women having children, “but so too will more of them get divorced, become single moms, or opt not to become high achievers in the first place.”4 Citing data from a much larger survey than Hewlett’s sample of 520, Franke-Ruta offered a more optimistic picture of the marriage and childbearing prospects for high-achieving women. She also reported on a Fortune magazine study of fe­male CEOs, presidents, and managing directors of major cor­porations, which found that 29 percent of the most powerful women in business were childless.5 (Although this figure is about 40 percent lower than that of the $ioo, ooo-plus earners in Hewlett’s sample, it is also about 50 percent higher than the national rate of childlessness among women in 2002.)

For most men and women it requires many years of edu­cation and hard work to scale the upper peaks of the corporate world or to gain entry to the most prestigious chambers of professional life. Hewlett’s controversial message that the long struggle for career success is not conducive to childbearing was reinforced by a 2002 cover story in Time magazine, which pub­licized how much the odds against fertility increased with age. Citing findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the authors reported that by the age of forty-two women had only a 7.8 percent chance of having a baby with their own eggs, because at that age 90 percent of the eggs were abnormal.6 (Mother Nature, I might note, has not exempted men’s reproductive capacities from the ravages of Father Time—as men age, their sperm count declines and the likeli­hood of chromosome abnormality increases.)