General Practice, Solo, and Small Firm Division
Fall 2002 vol. 9 Number 1
From the Editor-in-Chief:
Caution: Babies on Hold!
By Robin Page West
A huge portion of America's most educated and skilled professional women yearn to have a child, but never will. Forty-two percent of women in corporate America are childless at age 40. But only 14 percent planned it that way. Indeed, the more successful a woman is in her career, the less likely she is to marry or have children.
This, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett's recent book, Creating a Life-Professional Women and the Quest for Children (Talk Miramax Books 2002). Hewlett, an economist, author, wife, and mother, set out to write a series of portraits of diverse, 50ish women chosen for their prominence in various fields, and was astonished to learn their lives all shared one common thread: none of them had children, yet none of them had chosen to be childless.
I was absolutely prepared to understand that the exhilaration and challenge of a megawatt career made it easy to decide not to be a mother. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I talked to these women about children, their sense of loss was palpable…. Some of these women blamed their career, some blamed men, many blamed themselves. Some were seriously in pain; others had come to terms with a different kind of life. All wished they had found a way to have children.
I would be one of the childless women had I not been diagnosed in my 20s with endometriosis. My doctors treated it and then admonished me, "If you don't get pregnant within the year, you never will." At the time I experienced it as a huge disruption and inconvenience. I wanted to continue to build my law career well into my 30s before giving motherhood a second thought. Had I not been spurred on by that medical exigency, my focus on work would more than likely have eclipsed my chances for finding a husband and having children. It's not that I didn't want them, it's that I didn't think it was time.
And that's the problem Hewlett wants us to focus on. Nowadays, the typical achieving woman is finally ready to settle down and get married right around the time her fertility begins to plummet and her risk of miscarriage starts to soar. And it is at this point that she notices for the first time how difficult it will be, and how long it may take, to find a suitable husband.
The struggle to develop an authentic identity-in work and in love-can be exceptionally protracted these days, and an accomplished woman who delays commitment and marriage can turn around and discover that she has inadvertently squandered her fertility.
According to Hewlett, only 3 to 5 percent of women over 40 who use assisted reproductive technologies will succeed in having a child-news stories of 50-year-olds giving birth aside. She contends that women have been "sold a bill of goods" by the infertility industry. The commonly held belief among young, achieving women that they can bear children into their 40s, Hewlett maintains, is simply wrong.
Hewlett proposes many solutions, from encouraging young women to make early marriage a higher priority, to private workplace initiatives and legislation that would make managers and professionals eligible to receive overtime pay, putting an end to the 80-hour work week routinely logged by high-paid professionals. More leisure time for both sexes, Hewlett argues, would make it easier for everyone to cultivate relationships and find spouses. All important things to consider, especially now, when unexpected violence seems to remind us almost daily of how precious a life filled with friends, family, and love can be.
Robin Page West, editor-in-chief of SOLO, is a principal at Cohan & West, P.C., a four-lawyer firm in Baltimore, Maryland, where her practice focuses on litigation, corporate, and qui tam whistleblower litigation. She can be reached at email@example.com.