What time is just right for motherhood?

May 09, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- If you ever find out who came up with the old saying about motherhood and apple pie, let me at 'em.

Apple pie may be the bland and generic American dessert, but the idea that the mother 'hood is a placid suburb of agreement that thrives on a diet of platitudes doesn't fit my vision of the modern landscape.

We may wake up Sunday with breakfast in bed and a bouquet in the vase, but this Mother's Day truce won't last as long as the flowers. Childbearing has become a fractious territory. We've argued so intently about biology and economy that motherhood has become, well, the mother of all controversies.

Consider what's going on now at either end of the financial and fertile scale. On one end, we are worried about poor and young mothers having children. On the other, we are worried about well-to-do and older mothers not having children. Over the past generation the weight of the culture has turned the tide of teen-age motherhood. There is universal agreement that the young and the hormonal need to postpone childbearing.

We know that young women get financially and even emotionally derailed by maternity. We repeatedly warn teen-agers that they need to get their own futures together before they take on another future.

Meanwhile back on the Time magazine/60 Minutes/op-ed front, we are in the midst of another round of anxiety-producing statistics about whether uppity women end up alone. Or at least without children.

Sylvia Hewlett's book Creating a Life, which dovetails with some new fertility research, has focused the national eye on high-end women who follow the plan to make the most of themselves and then find they can't make babies. Her survey of 1,168 professional women found that 42 percent of 40-year-old executives in corporate America are childless. Not because they've made a choice, she says, but because of what one woman calls "creeping non-choice."

Well, I have been around surveys too long not to be a skeptic. So I wonder if we are dealing with chickens or eggs. Half-full cups or half-empty.

The women she surveyed may be childless because they're successful or successful because they are childless. For that matter, 28 percent of college graduates among the first generation of uppity women, circa 1920, had no children between the ages of 35 and 44. That number is down to 20 percent. And if half the women making $100,000 today are childless, is that progress or regress?

As for "choices" and "creeping non-choices," I'm not sure how you tell the difference. I'm not even sure that Ms. Hewlett is a reliable guide. After all, Ms. Hewlett went through three years of fertility treatments to have her fourth biological child at 51.

Mind you, the recent debunking of hype on fertility treatments is long overdue. But in the furor of the timing-crunch of biological and professional clocks, we've been left with lingering and dual social messages.

Kids: If you can't afford them, don't have them. But if you wait to afford them, will you still be able to have them?

Kids: Don't have them until you finish school, find a good job, find a good husband and maybe even find yourself. Don't wait too long and do too well or you'll end up on the cover of Time mournfully cradling a Palm Pilot and a briefcase.

Is this a Mother's Day greeting? I'm all in favor of planned parenthood, but the window of opportunity barely lets in enough air to get a Lamaze breath.

Ms. Hewlett's heartfelt advice to young women in this timing-crunch was enough to make many of us laugh down memory lane. She tells them, "Figure out what you want your life to look like at 45" and "be as strategic about your private life as you are about your professional life."

I don't think I knew what I wanted my life to be at 45 until I was 47. I had a job at 22, a daughter at 27, a divorce at 30, a second marriage at 40. You call that a strategy?

In fairness, this economist is also a strong advocate of making the workplace friendlier to mothers. But I keep noticing that when push comes to shove, we expect individual women to figure it all out on their own.

This Mother's Day, society's stretch marks are showing. If we can't overhaul the biological time frame -- where is evolution when you need it? -- surely we have to change the economic clock. Instead, we keep trying to manipulate maternity to fit the economic plan.

Want a portrait for the perfect Mother of the Day? Not too young, not too old, just right. She sounds a lot like Goldilocks. Wasn't that a fairy tale?

Ellen Goodman's syndicated column appears in The Sun Mondays and Thursdays.

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