Career choice: spouse first

An interesting interesting article caught my eye this week with its catchy subtitle: "I should have ditched feminism for love, children and baking". In that article, Zoe Lewis writes about her regret at pursuing a career at the expense of relationships and children. Now nearly 37 and a successful playwright, she has woken up to the reality of an empty pot at the end of the feminist rainbow: "from what I see and feel, loving relationships and children bring more happiness than work ever can".

The article provides an interesting contrast to Guiomar Barbi Ochoa's wonderful story on MercatorNet of meeting the right man in a chance encounter at 33 years old. This was slightly ironic in that Ochoa had not been leaving things to chance but had pursued the matter of a spouse quite deliberately for some time -- unlike those of her peers who want to believe that you can do your own thing, pursue your career dreams and interests, and, at the right time the perfect man will simply pop into your life and sweep you off your feet. In my experience, however, this kind of dream encounter eludes many good women today who seem to be doing everything else according to plan -- that is, following their own careers, dreams and interests and "working on themselves" while trying to be happy and optimistic about their lives despite the continued lack of a partner.

Indeed, while a majority of young women still hope to get married, the statistics show that more and more women are remaining single into their thirties and beyond. This is perhaps especially true of women focused on pursuing their careers. In a Harvard Business Review article in 2002, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett reported that in the 41-55 year age group, "Only 60 per cent of high-achieving women...are married, and this figure falls to 57 per cent in corporate America. By contrast, 76 per cent are married, and this figure rises to 83 per cent among ultra-achievers." Moreover, Hewlett found that "between a third and a half of all successful career women in the United States do not have children", yet, "These women have not chosen to remain childless. The vast majority, in fact, yearn for children." 

One explanation for this phenomenon was advanced by Danielle Crittenden in What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us (2000). There she writes that feminism, which launched young women on a quest for careers at the expense of children and family, overlooked a crucial difference between the sexes: the "disparity in sexual staying power". At a certain point an aging single woman will realize that "Men will outlast her. Men, particularly successful men, will be attractive and virile into their 50s. They can start families whenever they feel like it" while women's biological clocks are ringing in alarm by age 35. Crittenden concludes that for this reason, "it is men who have benefited most from women's determination to remain independent…moderately attractive bachelors in their 30s now possess the sexual power that once belonged only to models and millionaires. They have their pick of companions, and may callously disregard the increasingly desperate 30-ish single women around them".

Hewlett agrees with this conclusion: "Clearly, successful women professionals have slim pickings in the marriage department—particularly as they age. Professional men seeking to marry typically reach into a large pool of younger women, while professional women are limited to a shrinking pool of eligible peers. According to U. S. Census Bureau data, at age 28 there are four college-educated, single men for every three college-educated, single women. A decade later, the situation is radically changed. At age 38, there is one man for every three women."

While I was still in law school, I stumbled across Hewlett's book Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. Two years later, while working long evenings as a junior lawyer in a large corporate law firm in Manhattan, I realized that her analysis was right. Around me I saw aging single women lawyers working side-by-side with mostly married male colleagues (often with stay-at-home wives). It's harder for women to meet and marry men and have families when they are trying to get ahead in what is still, in essence, a man's world. It is a man's world because the career trajectory is much better suited to men than to women, in that our prime career-building years also coincide with women's peak years of fertility. In that sense, women have a much harder time "having it all".

One solution to this problem was proposed last year by Lori Gottlieb, a 40-year-old single mother of a child conceived via sperm donation. She wrote in the Atlantic that although she still describes herself as a feminist, she now admits her desire for a traditional family: "ask any soul-baring 40-year-old single heterosexual woman what she most longs for in life, and she probably won't tell you it's a better career or a smaller waistline or a bigger apartment. Most likely, she'll say that what she really wants is a husband (and, by extension, a child)." Gottlieb didn't seem to regret pursuing career and education, but she regretted holding out for a romanticized notion of true love. Her advice to younger women: settle while you're young, for "Mr. Good Enough".

Gottlieb's advice is certainly extreme and justifiably sparked much outrage, but there may be something to it, at least to the extent that she is asking women to be more realistic about men. Today, many women are so self-sufficient that they've in effect become their own men, providing for themselves and arranging for their own protection. They need men less than ever, which may also lead them to be more picky than they perhaps should be, holding out for a dreamy Hollywood version of "Mr. Romantic" while missing the good real men along the way.

But certainly, "settling" in one's search for a marriage partner can only be taken so far. Some criteria can perhaps be made more realistic, but I would not advocate for abandoning your core values and principles. Ochoa is right in that regard - marriage, as the most important partnership in life, has to be built on a solid foundation.

Yet perhaps there is another way that women may want to consider "settling", at least during their childbearing years. Today, there is a lot of pressure on women to be high achievers in every area – often, pressure they put on themselves. I can speak for myself: as a Harvard Law graduate, how could I not pursue a high-powered career? If I were to "settle" for a less demanding career path, if I were not to rise to the top in whatever field of work I chose, wouldn't I be wasting my brain and my education? On the other hand, as I laboured away my nights and weekends at the law firm, I also started to realize that my heavy-duty work schedule did not leave much space for a personal life. If I were to ever get married, I couldn't see how I would successfully juggle all my work demands while giving adequate time to a family.

In the end, something had to give. I knew within myself that work could never fulfil me as much as family and children. So I consciously chose my priorities: marriage and family first. At 27 years old, I quit the law firm and decided to pursue non-profit work, which was not only much more satisfying, but which also decreased my stress level and allowed me more free time.

I made conscious efforts to meet a future husband – not by compromising on his qualities, but by increasing the opportunities for meeting the right man. Incredibly, only three months after I quit the law firm, he ended up
clicking on my photo on A year and a half later, we were married.

Now, nearly three years later, I am about to take a further step – becoming a stay-at-home mom to the baby we are soon expecting. While it's not always easy letting go of my own career for what may be either a short or long time, the truth is that I can't wait to be home with our baby, and I am the happiest I have ever been. I still agree with Crittenden and Hewlett, and I am so glad that I did not succumb to the pressure to focus on a career at this time in my life. Zoe Lewis is right, and the feminists got it wrong.

Lea Singh graduated from Harvard Law School in 2003. She works for a nonprofit organization in Ottawa, Canada.


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