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Is Motherhood Sustainable? 4 Ways to Stop the Bleeding

05/13/2014 05:52 pm ET | Updated Jul 13, 2014

"What do you want to be when you grow up?" My not-so-clever icebreaker was met with a look of piercing disdain from the audience of 17-year olds. Ummm, okay. Until that moment, I had been excited about serving as a career mentor for this prestigious boarding school. But these girls in plaid skirts and ponytails were not interested in my "be-the-best-you-can-be" brand of excellence -- they were about being the best, period.

With panic setting in, I realized that these overachievers would think my story as a "momprenuer" was about as motivating as Matt Foley's lesson in living in a van down by the river. But politeness dictated that they endure my second-rate pep talk. One by one, hands went up to answer the question.

"I want to be a scientist," said one girl. Several aspired to be researchers. One said "Silicon Valley CEO" (I don't think she was kidding). Teacher and nurse were noticeably absent. Nobody said mother, either. Suffice it to say my tales of balancing a laptop during my son's basketball practice did not win them over. But in hindsight, my flop at the prep school may not have been the result of a subpar speech so much as a shift in societal norms.

To put it bluntly, our increasingly ambitious girls no longer aspire to motherhood, at least not as their primary role. Even my own 9-year old daughter corroborated this observation. "I don't want to do dishes, Mommy," she recently announced. "I'm going to become a famous artist and travel the world." (Her toy kitchen hasn't seen action in years.)

While our culture reveres motherhood, the institution is in decline. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America's fertility rate is now 1.93, the lowest since 1920 when records first started being kept.

So what if more women choose to focus on career over child-rearing or remain childless altogether? Isn't the global population expanding too rapidly anyway?

Problem is, a declining birth rate does not bode well for the American labor force or our economy. As an example of what happens when a society gives up on motherhood, demographer Joel Kotkin points to contemporary Japan. Since 1990 the world's third-largest economy has had more people over 65 than under 15. And by 2050 there could be more people over 80 than under 15. Japan was "long a model of frugality," writes Kotkin, but "now has by far the world's highest rate of public indebtedness." Spending on the elderly has already shot past what the country can extract from its remaining productive workers.

In fact, America may be "heading toward a demographic cliff," wrote Jonathan V. Last, author of What to Expect When No One's Expecting. Experts on the right and left point to a myriad of drivers for the postfamilialism phenomenon, but Last gets to the heart of our voluntary "one-child" policy when he says, "The problem is that, while making babies is fun, raising them isn't."

Let's face it. When a new life begins, life as we know it ends. Motherhood is a beautiful thing, but choosing it means selecting sacrifice over opportunity -- not only career opportunities, but income, travel, freedom, and in some respects our health; motherhood exacts an enormous toll on the body.

For those mothers privileged enough to have the freedom to haul kids to activities, whining about exhaustion is akin to "poor little rich girl" gripes. But in reality, most of us have to make money in a dual-income society. The relentless hyper-scheduled activity is a drain on time and resources, puts stress on our kids, and is a drag on productivity. Far worse off are moms of lower socioeconomic levels, who suffer from depression and poverty. As word gets out, fewer women are willing to sign up for the job.

While the popular media puts us on a pedestal, especially around Mother's Day, the real challenges we face in rearing children remain hidden or ignored. What can be done to help mothers carve out careers that are economically viable while fostering the balance necessary to nurture community and family? There are no easy solutions, but it behooves us as a society to ease the burden on moms. In the spirit of extending a necessary conversation, here are four ideas for moving the culture in the right direction:

1) Own our value. The author of the famous essay "I Want a Wife" used humor to show the real value of the wife-and-mother role. If quantified, Forbes reports, the work of a stay-at-home mom is worth $115,000 per year. If you're a mom, you don't have to collect on it, but do make sure your value is recognized and supported at home. Simple appreciation is one of the payoffs that keep moms motivated in the workplace, even if that workplace is the kitchen table. (And if you're a dad, say "thank you" with actions, not just words.)

2) Learn from other countries. I once had a Finnish intern who stayed with our family for several months. Nina grew up thinking it was normal for her mom, a lawyer, to work a full day. And Nina's country and culture provided the support mechanisms to make mom's extended workday work for the whole family, which ultimately benefits Finnish society.

Finland, the world's most educated country, provides top-grade childcare for its citizens, has normalized the school day to coincide with the workday, and has a host of other favorable programs baked into its DNA. While specific policies related to Finland's model lie outside the scope of this article, they merit further investigation and wherever possible, adaptation. (I realize that using a Scandinavian example may brand me as quasi-socialist. However, considering the realities of postmodern parenthood, we Americans might reconsider our definition of "family values." Just sayin'.)

3) Support mompreneurship. Nobody said that running a home-based consulting practice while raising two small children would be easy, but given the choices, becoming a mompreneur was the most fulfilling option. Although I have heard some condescending remarks about my "lifestyle business" from men, many of them understand my rationale and manage to find interesting roles for me in their projects.

What it would be like if more women could mentor each other toward mompreneurship? The OpEd Project is one model to follow. The social venture started by author and Harvard grad Katie Orenstein helps women hone a voice in the media. (I was one recipient of a life-changing fellowship.) Such a program could be adapted to transfer skills, knowledge, and support to help women create satisfying careers while balancing motherhood.

4) Redefine success. The real basis for this conversation should be establishing a new definition for success in post-growth America. To prepare girls for adapting their careers to seasons of life, women who are further down the path can serve as smart models for a simpler lifestyle with the flexibility to accommodate the demands of motherhood. Choosing mompreneurship often means less money, but the intangibles are priceless.

Other women may find their bliss in traditionally feminine career paths, even as we're told, "You don't have to do that anymore." While I know a dozen women lawyers who seem happy with their lucrative careers, I also know a dozen who found it unsatisfying. My friend Whitney is one of them. After law school and several unfulfilling years of practice, Whitney helped a friend through breast cancer and discovered a passion for nursing. She has now returned to school and plans to go into hospital administration when her kids go off to college.

Whitney is essentially carving out a career path for leadership that accommodates her instinct to nurture as well as her legal education. As straightforward as it sounds now, it actually took a fair amount of mentoring and support for Whitney to seek out and pursue this career path. In fact, it does for all of us. As a culture, we need to support mothers in finding viable ways to perform fulfilling and interesting work -- that is, if we want motherhood to continue.

There's nothing wrong with wanting to be "just a mom," but with so many choices for women today, nobody wants to be just anything. To make motherhood a status that our daughters aspire to again, the role will require institutional support, intentional advocacy, and systemic change -- not just a Hallmark holiday.

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