Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan wrote in The Feminine Mystique that American women suffered from "the problem that has no name"—a growing sense of emptiness and boredom. Her solution to the increasing mechanization and isolation of the American home was for women to leave it, just as men did. Seek meaning in a useful vocation, she advised, and hire help to care for the children.
Many women have taken her advice, but research indicates not only that children have suffered as a result, but also that women themselves prefer what they left behind at home. In "The Plight of the Alpha Female" (City Journal, Autumn 2012), Kay Hymowitz argues that "women are less inclined than men to think that power and status are worth the sacrifice of a close relationship with their children." Hymowitz reports on a longitudinal study of graduates of the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. Although male and female graduates of Booth began their careers in equal numbers and earned roughly equal salaries, almost half of the women had quit within ten years, while 90 percent of the men remained in the workforce. Even though these women were probably well able to afford childcare, they chose to leave profitable careers in order to stay at home with their children.
Similarly, a recent survey of 1,000 mothers conducted by Forbes revealed that while only 10 percent of stay-at-home mothers wished they still worked, about half of working mothers wished they could stay home. And it appears that mothers are actually happier when they do so. A 2011 study by Judith Treas, Tanja van der Lippe, and Tsuio Chloe Tai across 28 countries found "a small, but statistically significant and robust, happiness advantage for homemakers compared to full-time working wives." The researchers concluded, "All things considered, homemakers are slightly happier, full-time workers are slightly less happy, and part-timers are much like homemakers."
While the data indicate that women want to care for their children and are happier when they do, the stark reality is that they still seem to think they should pursue a high-powered, full-time career while postponing childbirth. The mean age of a woman's first childbirth in the U.S. is a bit over 25 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the overall U.S. birthrate is at an all-time low of 63.2 per 1,000 women aged 15–44, making for a total fertility rate of 1.9 (replacement level is 2.1).
What the data do not show is how many of these women would have liked to have more children but perhaps couldn't. Recent mathematical models indicate that 95 percent of women have only 12 percent of their eggs remaining at age 30. Thus, women who have put off having children until their thirties often find that they have waited too long and their fertility has failed them. The popularity of IVF and other reproductive technologies, despite their costliness, suggests that this is the case for large numbers of women.
But those still in their prime fertile years may find a lesson in these data. Young wives should not trust that they can push children back indefinitely, or, if they do have them early, that they'll be content to entrust their care to others. Many women assume they won't mind using daycare, only to realize too late that they do mind, but by now their mortgage requires a dual income.
The decision to live in a way that would allow them to stay home to care for their children is one that many women wish they had made. Younger women should consider this, for although the decision involves sacrifice and effort, it may also be a way to avoid regret. •
This column has been adapted from a longer article that appeared in the winter 2013 issue of The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy.
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