When I speak to groups of young women and men, I've found that more and more frequently, the question I get isn't "Can I have it all?", but "Should I have kids at all?"
Young women and couples watch as friends have children. They see new mothers and fathers completely stressed out from juggling work and family, their marriages unraveling, bank accounts strained, careers derailed and hobbies and exercise and sleep and friends pushed aside. They wonder if they really want to sign up for that.
Couples that already have one small child ask me a different question: "Can we afford to have another child at all?" They know from experience what having a child means, and they are thoughtfully and fretfully adding up the childcare, the bigger house, the college education and the possibility that a second child will be the straw that breaks the back of at least one of their careers and thinking the math just doesn't make sense. They want me to double-check their calculations.
In a big sisterly way, I tell these women and men to consider an option they probably haven't -- have one child.
I say this to them because someone once said it to me and I learned two important lessons from it.
In October 2001, days after our daughter's first birthday, I went to Chicago for a conference for mothers. As I sat waiting for the keynote speaker the first morning, I chatted with another mom at my table. "How old are your kids?" I asked.
"I have five ranging from 2 to 11 years old," she gushed. "How about you?"
"Oh, mine just turned one," I said. She immediately asked, "So when are you having another?"
I said I didn't know. "Having a baby has changed so much; I'm not sure we'll have another."
She responded with a knowing grin, "Of course you'll have more! Children need siblings. I can't imagine it any other way. You'll come around."
At that moment, Joan Williams, our keynote speaker and the author of Unbending Gender, approached. We had met the night before, so I introduced her to my seatmate, who quickly tried to engage Joan in her cause. "I was just telling Kristin that of course she'll have more kids!"
Joan, thoughtful and considered as always, didn't smile and agree as most would have. She instead turned to me and said quite deliberately, "Having one child is a perfectly legitimate option. Especially given how hard society makes it for women -- and men -- to combine work and family. For some women and families, one is the best option. You should do what's right for you. Not what anyone else thinks you should do. "
I felt a wave of relief -- and gratitude. Joan had just made it okay to consider being a one-child family. She helped me release a bunch of cultural baggage that had been gumming up my thinking -- wanting just one child didn't make me a bad mother and it didn't make us less of a family. Plus, I wasn't crazy for thinking that combining our careers and a family was turning out to be much harder than I thought it would be.
I'm not advocating that couples should have one child. I am hoping to break through through the cultural expectations, help couples see reality more clearly and make it okay to consider one or none as options -- a revelation that Joan brought to me.
This was my first lesson. Forget "having it all." Instead, ask yourself what kind of life you want to create. Identify and set aside the subconscious cultural assumptions about women, men, mothers, fathers and families. Be realistic about the expense of and the lack of support for family life today. Then decide.
For us, deciding to have one child has meant having more options to create the life we wanted -- a life where my husband and I have time to enjoy our daughter and share caring for her; time for our careers, for ourselves and for each other and financial security for our family. Here are a few of the things that decision made possible.
But I also share with couples the second lesson I took away from my interaction with Joan. In so many ways, it is patently absurd for me to be suggesting couples consider "have one child" or for someone else to advise "be careful who you marry" or for someone else to recommend "have kids after you start your career but before 35 or freeze your eggs." These are all just personal workarounds for living in a country that makes it cost too much -- in terms of time, money, career and quality of life -- to have children.
So I suggest that men and women consider another option they probably haven't -- that they become advocates for more support for families whether they decide to have none, one or five.
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