On the heels of two weeks ago’s Bullish Life: If You’re Pro-Choice, How Do You Make a Good Choice?, let’s see a reader question that is basically the exact opposite.
I’m 22, just graduated from college, and am starting my first job. Don’t laugh, but I feel like my biological clock is a ticking time bomb to my career. I want to have kids when I’m financially stable, which won’t happen after law school. I’m considering whether to get a masters before going to law school. But I also want to make sure that having kids doesn’t affect the peak of my career. It’s the first-generation college grad inside of me that is longing, thirsting, yearning for another degree (in addition to a J.D.), but in the context of time, delaying law school to go to get a Master’s degree that I may never use seems foolish. What do you think about “the right time” to have children?
So, according to a copy of US Weekly I read on the train, Kim Kardashian is in “baby heaven.” According to an evangelical blog I sometimes read for mild amusement, “babies are wealth.” On the other hand, my 35-year-old friend with a PhD has a Kickstarter to try to raise money for childcare so she can do her work.
Incidentally, when I say that I read evangelical blogs for mild amusement, I mean that I find comments like this bizarre and astounding:
My mother Lupita is a beautiful, intelligent, charming woman, who has had eleven boys and five girls…. There is plenty of constant hard work, but my mother has never considered herself a slave. Rather she is a living holocaust of love for her family.
The writer, um, meant that to be a positive. A living Holocaust. (Somewhat relatedly, the writer of Bad Hebrew Tattoos is creeped out by all the young people who want the word “slave” tattooed on their bodies in Hebrew.)
Later in the same article, “My mother has never sought compensations for her hard work, yet she has been rewarded by watching her children grow up and go their own ways.” Oooh, what a great reward. I mean, if the author’s mother is happy, that’s great. But it takes a really specific personality type. I just don’t think that a huge majority of women consider watching other people get rewards to be a very good reward.
You’re definitely set on having kids. I’m quoting this stuff because both the evangelicals and the most ambitious of liberal alpha moms agree that having kids is fucking huge and life-altering.
So I was surprised to read in your letter, “I also want to make sure that having kids doesn’t affect the peak of my career.”
There is no way it won’t. Even if you win the lottery.
After all, what are the options?
1. You take whatever maternity leave you can get, pay for day care, and you and your partner both try to pursue careers full-bore.
2. You put your career on hold for 5-20 years.
3. Your partner stays home while you work hard and pay all the bills and spend your evenings with your family instead of networking.
4. Some in-between solution where you split the duties equally, giving you a nice sampling of both the financial and time/brainspace disadvantages of having kids.
If you’re very, very lucky, you have relatives nearby who can help out.
Am I missing something here?
Angelina Jolie has all the resources in the world, and she isn’t really making a lot of movies right now. Even though she has six nannies for six kids, kids still tend to prefer their parents. (I know she directs now, and I’m pretty sure she’s doing a lovely job taking care of her children. I defended Angelina against tabloid trash here.)
Sheryl Sandberg says that the most important decision you make is who you marry. There are guys out there who want to specialize in whichever part of all this that you don’t want to specialize in, whether that’s making the money or being the primary caregiver. (If I may: Miranda found her Steve, and Liz Lemon found her Criss.) Work this business out way ahead of time. Do not assume anything.
People who absolutely maximize the peaks of their careers don’t do much else.
You’ve probably read the statistics that women with kids make less than men and also less than women without kids, by a substantial margin (here), and that men actually make more after having kids, even moreso when they have sons (here).
So if you want to have kids, you have to accept that, at best, you can be a superstar to compensate for the dampened “peak of your career,” and that peak can still get really high. I suggest accepting that and using it as a motivational tool to compensate as much as possible. Unless you can find a way to turn having kids into a career advantage, which isn’t really the purpose of kids. Or unless you can find a way to think like a dad and also have everyone else perceive you as one, so you can get that 4% “fatherhood premium” (link here).
Even if you have all the resources in the world, kids just need actual time, which I doubt you currently have a huge amount of that you’re not using. Literally every time kids do something like jump off of a piece of furniture while pretending to be an airplane, they would like you to watch them.
From Penelope Trunk:
Women are performing at a higher level at work than men are right now. So, statistically speaking, when you decide to stay home with kids, the people you were better than will start moving ahead of you. It will kill you. Prepare for this. It works best to think of your career as a time in your life. You were a high performer when you did it, but now it’s over. It’s like being the head cheerleader.
AHHHH. I know that’s a quote about staying home, but it’s got to be at least partially true when you’re the mom who has to leave at 5 to pick up her kids from daycare when everybody else is working late. (I’ve read many working moms saying that no one notices when you come in at 6 or 7am to compensate for the fact that you leave early – all anyone sees is that you leave early.)
The “peak” of your career is a fallacy
Also, there isn’t just one peak to your career. Or, if there is, you won’t be able to identify it until you’re retired – then you’ll be able to look back and say, oh yes, the years 2022-2024 were the best it ever got!
But while you’re actually in your career, you’ll hit a peak – and assume that an even bigger peak is ahead. At no point will you achieve a great success and say, “Cool, I’ve peaked, let’s step back.” A peak, once achieved, just becomes the ground you’re standing on. It doesn’t look like a peak anymore; new peaks become apparent, and just as exciting. You don’t become the kind of person who is suddenly happy standing still.
Interestingly, right after I read your email, my assistant Haley appeared on this talk radio show in Canada, about Britain’s “Get Britain Fertile” campaign. She represented the not-thinking-about-babies-yet camp. The other guest on the show runs a site called EarlyMama, which might be of interest to you.
And here, in the NYTimes, is someone who was pregnant (on purpose) in medical school, and managed.
A few years ago I appeared in a pilot for the SciFi show Brain Trust (the show was not picked up, alas), about a team of “geniuses” helping people solve everyday problems. The other two women on the show both arrived with infants strapped to them. Dr. Constance Steinkuehler (who I just learned via Wikipedia now works for the President!) brought her husband, who cared for their baby. Dr. Yoky Matsuoka came alone (well, other than the baby), and hired a local babysitter to hang out on-set. Yoky’s baby was the most pacific, silently happy baby I’ve ever seen. He was like a happy-baby necklace, no fuss at all. Yoky explained that, with both him and her older baby, she just wore the baby while teaching college classes.
But she got really, really lucky with those babies – both of them were silent, happy, peaceful little things. You can’t count on that (colic, etc.) Also, no one said anything when Yoky wore her baby to teach class because she was already a tenured professor and then, later, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner.
Now that’s a superstar performance. AND she still needed some luck.
So, seriously, when?
As for WHEN to have the kids, well, there’s basically never a perfect time. Or rather, the perfect time is, “When you sell your startup to Google at 30 and can temporarily retire without losing face, before your eggs run out.” I didn’t manage that, and it’s obviously not realistic.
Surely, you’ve seen The Atlantic’s How Long Can You Wait to Have a Baby? Apparently, we have more options than we thought. Possibly.
Penelope Trunk has been pretty clear that “there’s never a perfect time,” but that younger is better (try this and this).
I had a phase in my mid-twenties wherein I contemplated the fact that my mother had had a four-year-old by that age, and I wondered why I didn’t have anyone to whom to explain – for example – forks. Because I am totally good at both using a fork and explaining things, and what a waste of talent it was for me to be dating disappointing men and not explaining forks to a four-year-old.
I love, by the way, that the British have the word “broody.” Oh, sure, it’s a gross word, reminding everyone that women are a lot like chickens (pecking at dust, clucking, and sitting on eggs!) But by naming the idea, it becomes easier to discuss. So, I now recognize that I was broody for a bit, but that a lot of it came from the frustration of not being happy about my career. Explaining forks isn’t that hard.
I always assumed I would have kids, but as I’ve become more financially stable and otherwise in control of my life, the idea of overthrowing my current lifestyle is substantially more objectionable than it would’ve been before I got used to adult life without kids. If I’d had kids young, I’d never have gotten used to doing my best thinking during the 7+ hours a day I spend completely alone, or at the bar with a glass of prosecco. And I’d be a different person.
That’s what I know at this point about the trade-offs between career and kids.
This kind of thinking is not the reason people have kids. The reasons you want the kids need to be enough to outweigh all of the above. Apparently, you’ve got that covered.
Whatever you decide, I recommend working ridiculously hard now so you’ve got resources (money, prestige, connections) built up for whatever kind of career hit you take when you have kids (see Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE).
Of course, you might also want to get in some world traveling and young-people hijinks while you still can (see Bullish: Achieve Goals and Glory by Recreating Like a Fucking Badass).
To fit all that in, I’d suggest cutting all the dumb crap from your life, such as by throwing out your television, bowing out of social events that go on forever with no point in sight, and making this season of life – whether it’s two years or twelve – as awesome and productive as possible, while setting up your future self for the very different life she’s going to want later.
First published on The Gloss.