The Choices Women Make
ne way of examining the choices women make is to take family size as an indicator of the constraints and considerations that give purpose and order to their daily lives. From this perspective we can distinguish at least four general categories that form a continuum of work-family lifestyles—traditional, neotraditional, modern, and postmodern. These categories are conditioned on the number of children in the family and linked to the mainspring of personal identity from which women derive a sense of achievement in life. Women having three or more children are associated with the traditional lifestyle, two children with the neotraditional, one child with the modern, and childlessness with the postmodern way of life. The actual proportion in each category corresponds to the distribution of fertility rates among women nearing the completion of their childbearing years. In 2002, 29 percent of women ages forty to forty-four had three or more children, 35.5 percent had two children, 17.5 percent had one child, and 18 percent were childless.1
This classification is an ideal type in the Weberian
sense—an analytic frame that encapsulates a set of essential characteristics that distinguish a range of women’s family – work lifestyles choices. The categories are logical but by no means exhaustive.2 And as with any typology of this sort there are exceptions within every category. It helps to think of these lifestyle traits as patterns that occur usually but not always.
At one end of the continuum are women with three or more children, who are oriented toward the traditional lifestyle. These women generally derive their sense of personal identity and achievement from performing the time-honored duties of childrearing and household management. This is not to say that all “traditional” mothers assume this role for their entire lives. The number of children a woman has, their spacing, and the mother’s age at the first birth will influence the length of time invested mainly in domestic life. Many of these women spend a good number of years, perhaps even the majority of their adult lives, in the paid labor force.
But they also spend a substantial period of time as stay – at-home mothers. Although traditional women are fervently engaged in childrearing, their styles of mothering may vary depending on education and background. Some mothers take pleasure in what Sharon Hays identifies as the ideology of “intensive mothering,” continuously working with their children— explaining, negotiating, distracting—and scheduling a stunning array of activities.3 Others may appear more laissez faire and create a less-structured environment, a style based on what Annette Lareau calls “accomplishment of natural growth.”4 Lareau found that this approach was followed by working-class and poor women in her sample, in contrast to the middle-class respondents whose “concerted cultivation” style of childrearing was the virtual equivalent of “intensive mothering.” Although Hays maintains that all the women in her sample were devoted to the ideology of intensive mothering, in practice class differences appeared, which produced childrearing patterns that looked very similar to those found by Lareau.5
While their approaches to childrearing may differ, traditional mothers share an abiding belief that the daily care and socialization of their children is the most meaningful job in life. It is a job to which they are devoted full-time and from which they draw a deep sense of personal accomplishment. Even if they do not all perform the job the same way, the time and value they attribute to it and the satisfactions derived from socialization, care, and home management place this work at the center of their daily lives.
But what about gender relations? Although these women’s primary duties—household management and child care— follow the traditional division of labor, it does not necessarily follow that their personal lives are constrained by the type of male-dominated gender relations associated with much of family existence prior to the 1960s. The social fabric of American life has changed considerably since that time—Archie Bunker was an anomaly even by the 1970s. The pervasive gains in women’s rights and educational achievements have increased gender equality throughout society, including family life. In family relations based on a social partnership of interdependence and mutual adjustment, couples decide how to divide their labor most effectively to satisfy personal needs and family responsibilities, which does not require that all duties be split evenly down the middle.6 Many women who choose the traditional family-work lifestyle are full partners in the joint enterprise of family life. Still, inequalities persist. It is no doubt fair to say that to the extent the hierarchy of male dominance in family life still exists, it is more likely to surface in the traditional category.
The past several decades have seen a pronounced tilt away from the traditional side of the continuum. The proportion of women with three children at the end of their childbearing years sank from 59 percent in 1976 to 29 percent in 2002. At the other end of the continuum, the number of women engaged in the postmodern lifestyle reached historic proportions as the rate of childlessness climbed to almost one in five during this same period.7 In the past, high rates of childlessness have been attributed to intense poverty, poor nutrition, and the absence of men during wartime. But those conditions do not apply today, and modern rates of infertility do not explain the decline either.8 Childless women are a highly individualistic, work-centered group for whom a sense of personal achievement tends to be measured by success in business, political, and intellectual life rather than in the traditional realms of motherhood. These are the women in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s sample of high-powered professionals, almost half of whom were childless at age forty. As a group they are disproportionately well educated. An analysis of the women who graduated from college in the late 1960s and early 1970s showed that 28 percent were childless in 1991, when they reached thirty-seven to forty-seven years of age; that rate climbed to 50 percent among the women who had active careers.9
The postmodern lifestyle corresponds to that enjoyed by a new breed of thirty-to-forty-year-old women in the United Kingdom. According to a 2004 report for Standard Life Bank, 28 percent of five hundred working women surveyed were identified as “contrasexuals”—“women of their time, who are independent minded, secure in their own company, adventurous, and confident of their own ability to handle all aspects of their lives.”10 As happy alone or in the company of friends as with a partner, these women have ambitions that are not shaped by the prospects of marriage and family life. Indeed, one of the survey’s most revealing findings was that less than half of the working women interviewed said that having a family and creating a happy home environment would give them the greatest sense of fulfillment in life. Almost 40 percent of these women attributed the greatest sense of fulfillment in life to an extraordinary personal achievement (such as climbing a mountain or learning to fly a plane), to success in their professional life, and to staying slim, fit, and healthy.
One might wonder why Standard Life Bank was involved in a study of women who were shunning marriage and families in favor of the good life. It was not entirely a matter of sociological curiosity. Another prominent characteristic of the contrasexuals is that, in contrast to the other working women, they are more likely to go off on adventurous vacations as well as more inclined to take out mortgages and purchase their own homes (and use their mortgage to finance their vacations). Of the 19 percent who had a mortgage on their own, more than half of them said they would keep the mortgage and property for as long as possible, even if they met a partner and wanted to settle down. Thus, the contrasexuals represent not only a lifestyle but a growing market for mortgage brokers and refinance specialists. A similar pattern is found in the United States, where 21 percent of all homes sold in 2005 were sold to single women—up from 10 percent twenty years earlier.11
In the middle of the continuum are the neotraditional and modern women who have either one or two children. These women are interested in paid work, but they are not so thoroughly committed to a career that they would forego motherhood. Although a bare majority, they are often seen as representative of all women, especially those who are trying to “have it all.” In balancing the demands of employment and family, women with one child normally tip the scales in favor of their careers, while those with two children lean more toward domestic life. Both groups vary in degrees from the traditional and the postmodern lifestyles. To the extent that women are opting out of the labor market to stay home and raise their children, they are most likely to come from these two groups—joining traditional mothers who are already outside the labor market.
The neotraditional group contains families with two children whose mothers are likely to be employed—often part-time—but are physically and emotionally more invested in their home life than their jobs. Since 1976 the proportion of women over age forty with only two children has increased by 75 percent and currently amounts to about 35 percent of the women in that age group. The modern family usually involves a working mother with one child; these women are more career-oriented and devote greater time and energy to their paid employment than neotraditional women. The proportion of women over forty with only one child has climbed by almost 90 percent since 1976 and currently amounts to 17 percent of the women in this age group.
As general types, the traditional, neotraditional, modern, and postmodern categories help draw attention to the diversity of work and family choices as well as to how the size of these groups has shifted over the past three decades. Ideal types are like impressionist paintings: they portray sufficient dimensions of a category to evoke meaning, but the borders are fuzzy and porous. So, to repeat, in each group there are women who do not fit the ideal type—childless women who do not work and women with three or more children who are employed full-time. Also, accident, illness, divorce, poor timing, and plain bad luck may have hampered lifestyle choices for some, so in each group there are women who might have wanted to be in another category. Finally as people live and learn, there is movement among the categories. Women may start out their adult lives oriented more toward either having careers or rearing children and later change their minds and lifestyles.
Certainly, there are some women who would rather have additional children and not go to work but are financially compelled out of dire necessity to participate in the labor force and have fewer children. For most people in the United States, however, I would argue that what is often considered economic “necessity” amounts to a preferred level of material comfort— home ownership, automobiles, vacations, cell phones, DVDs, and the like. The triumph of materialism in modern times feeds the market and leaves childrearing and family life undernourished. This point, of course, is highly debatable and will be taken up in greater detail in Chapter 4. For the moment let us accept that the trade-off between higher levels of material consumption and a more traditional domestic life is largely a matter of individual choice.