In the June 2012 issue of the Atlantic, Anne-Marie Slaughter bemoaned her decision to wait until her late 30s to have babies because, in her mid-50s, she felt forced to abandon her high-level Director of Policy job at the U.S. State Department. She was at the apex of her career in a powerful position and she walked away to help her adolescent son through a rocky patch. Her story, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,”beseeched women like me to get on it already and have babies earlier than she did or to risk engendering equally crushing regret when we hit our mid-50s and discovered it’s mutually exclusive to be good mothers and hold down dream jobs. Even Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officerof Facebook and author of the bestselling Lean In, a manifesto on how women can get to top-level executive positions, suggests having children earlier in a woman’s career is a strategic step on the way to the corner office.
Welcome to slackerville
When I read stories like these, my stomach tends to lurch and I panic, but my dread has nothing to do with being an old mom and everything to do with the fact that I’m never going to work for Hillary Clinton. These articles are stark reminders that I’m probably not going to graduate from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, orchestrate a lucrative tech startup IPO, or give a Ted Talk. In other words, they make me feel like a slacker.
The myth of having it all
But once I overcome my inferiority complex, I find myself disagreeing with these successful women. I don’t believe that young motherhood is the key to anything, much less “having it all.” First of all, no one “has it all.” This is a myth that’s been perpetrated by people hell bent on making women feel like they’re missing out because of their choices. I’m a firm believer that with every choice comes sacrifice, and I’m OK with that. When one door opens, another closes. You walk through the open door. More, even if it was possible to have it all, I strongly suspect that my interpretation of that would be drastically different from, say, Sheryl Sandberg’s.
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I have never aspired to the corner office. I haven’t harbored dreams of political power, and not once have I thought to myself: I wish I had done more corporate work earlier in my career.
All my major adult decisions have been based on geography, not job opportunities. My resume reads like a marketing plan for Subaru. I’ve lived and worked in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Bend, Oregon; Spokane, Washington; and Boulder, Colorado. I’ve skied and biked a lot. My regret when I read educated treatises from people like Ms. Slaughter and Ms. Shulevitz stems from doubting if I’m pushing my intellect to its highest levels. It has nothing to do with whether I should have had a baby when I was 27.
Night nursings or powder days?
In fact, I know I should not have had a baby at that age, when I was living in a basement apartment in Boulder, Colorado and auditing classes at CU-Boulder as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism. I was ostensibly working on an investigative reporting project about wolves, but really I was ditching classes and heading to the high country with my skis whenever the snow report said more than five inches. I was shooting tequila and playing pool at seedy bars until 3 a.m. at least one night a week. And I was sleeping with an artist who lived out of his rusty Jeep Cherokee, traveled with a packed bong, and never spent the night. Somehow I was OK with that.
It took several years and a few more moves to establish a life that was remotely conducive to having a baby. And then it took a few more years to find the right partner to have a baby with. I’d wager that my path is more emblematic of women my age than Sheryl Sandberg’s is.
Finding meaning everywhere
Like me, most women want a life filled with meaningful work, loving relationships, some fun, and stability. It takes time to establish that, particularly the meaningful work and loving relationships part. Even if my contemporaries weren’t ski bums, they, too, postponed childbirth for perfectly good reasons. While cabinet-level policy advisors and corporate executives may never find a convenient time to have a baby, the majority of women in America very likely will. And chances are that convenient time will probably overlap with their foray into advanced maternal age.
Exactly why they’re ready for motherhood once they hit their mid to late 30s is impossible to generalize. Perhaps, like me, they found the domestic partner who eluded them through their younger years. Maybe they finished graduate school and achieved tenure at a university or reached partner at their law firm. They’ve traveled the world, made music, earned money. They have been bridesmaids, and aunts, and helped friends through acrimonious divorces, developing empathy and selflessness along the way. They’ve bought houses and started businesses, shoring up their nest egg and increasing their earning power. And when their biological clock started ticking more loudly as they neared 35 or 40, this time they listened.
With age comes wisdom
Instead of worrying about the mess they’re probably getting into by having a baby at their age, these women should be commended for their patience. Having a baby at advanced maternal age endows them with perspective and endurance that younger moms have not yet had cultivated.
Sure, some young women have the maturity or circumstances to be terrific moms, and if they’re ready at age 23, they should have at it. But just because that’s the right choice for them, it’s absurd to suggest having babies early is the best choice—even if that’s what Ms. Slaughter says.