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Career or family?
 

Question

Dad - now that I have graduated from university and got my first job, should I pursue a career - or should I first find a husband and raise a family? What's your suggestion?

 

Dad's response

That is a decision for which no one can really offer advice. It is one of the most fundamental choices for every young woman in a modern, secular society - even when she never consciously thinks about it. Whatever you'll decide now will shape the rest of your life. Don't believe the conventional nonsense that your husband will fully share the responsibility, or that you can somehow easily combine career and family - or switch back and forth between them. Whatever choice you make the consequences will be profound and far-reaching. Here are some thoughts that might be helpful:

 

Basics

A "new world" for women. The availability of effective and safe contraception has changed the life of women in the most fundamental way imaginable. For the first time in human history women in modern, secular societies have easy-to-use, efficient, reliable and relatively cheap means of preventing unwanted pregnancies. And, what is even more important, this access is under their own control - not under the control of their husbands or boyfriends, not under the control of their parents, not under the control of religious or political authorities, and not under the control of their own biology. This is absolutely new! Forget about the theories of some demographers and anthropologists who have argued that some form of contraception was well known in ancient times! It is true that fertility regulation always existed - but at what costs and difficulties for the women? It was the "anti-baby pill" that changed female history.

The necessity of choice. The small pill that modern women can now use to control their fertility has created unprecedented freedom, but also a never-before existing necessity to make life-changing decisions early in life. Now exists for every young woman this elementary choice: She can either choose to focus on herself - on her education, her career, her artistic or scientific talent, her spiritual self-fulfillment or her personal emotional or physical pleasures. Or she can choose to find a partner, become a mother and raise a family.

Chaotic relations. There is, of course, a huge number of other possible constellations and life styles. Some adolescent women have (unwanted) children while they are still in school or university; some women first pursue their career and marry later in life to have a family; many women enjoy the freedom of single life in their twenties and thirties - and regret that they have missed their chance for a family in their forties; many women try to postpone their first child to get ahead with their education or career - and struggle with the difficulties of getting pregnant in their late thirties. There are women, who dislike or hate men and believe they can form a family alone or with a girlfriend and artificial insemination. And there are, of course those, who remain single and childless for life, which, in some countries, is a rapidly expanding group in the female population. The exploding diversity of life styles is just a sign of the new freedom - and burden - of choice.

The bottom line. If we forget, for a moment, about the expanding social diversity in female life courses, we can identify one basic question every women has to answer relatively early in life: Do you want to have your own (biological) child or children and raise a family? If the answer is "yes" your life will be totally different from what it will be when you say "no". This is quite different for men. For men, it doesn't make a big difference for their own life course if they have children or not. In most cases they will still finish their education, do a full-time job, pursue a career and hobbies and then retire into an "empty nest". For women, the choice of children will transform their life. They will experience the biological wonder of pregnancy and birth, they will nurture their baby, they will - most likely - be primarily responsible for taking care of and educating their small children, and, if they are good mothers, they will create a home and emotional sanctuary for their family in which their children feel safe and can prosper. Most likely, they will be involved with their children for the rest of their life - helping them and even taking care of grandchildren.

 

For women: The "hard facts" of having children

Dependence. Being pregnant, giving birth, breastfeeding your babies and then taking care of a growing family with two or three children is not something you can do on the side. Only a very small minority of (very wealthy or otherwise privileged) women have the resources and stamina to handle the shared burden of career and family. If you have children you will most likely be dependent to some extent on your partner - at least for the time when your children are small. Make sure, you find a husband who is really willing and able to provide for you and your children. And don't be so dumb to accept a marriage contract that gives you the burdens and him the freedom (and money).

Gender roles. Don't believe the nonsense that a man will equally share the burdens (and joy) of raising your children. He never will! He is not genetically programmed for it. We are currently flooded with all kinds of bullshit gender ideology by the media, by politicians and quite a few social scientists. They want to make us believe that men and women are equally suitable for taking care of small children. But this is nonsense. For millions of years men and women have evolved with specialized gender roles, which have shaped our bodies, brains, social skills and emotions. On average, women are just more capable of providing the physical, social and emotional care to small children than men.

Please note that I have emphasized "on average". Of course, there are men who have great parenting skills, empathy and love for small children; and there are, of course, women who are exceptionally bad mothers, cold-hearted, sadistic, or emotionally abusing with their children. All biological, social and emotional characteristics of people are normally distributed - with "tails" of extreme on both sided. But the peaks of the distributions are important - and these are quite different for men and women.

I also emphasized that men would not share responsibility in equally. I am not spreading the ideology that men just should go to work and women should stay in the kitchen. Men have to take on some significant responsibility - and when they are good fathers, they will enjoy helping you with the children and household. But don't expect too much! He will not give up his career or postpone his education to take care of children. With a few rare exceptions "house-men" are a social fantasy of cultural engineers.

 

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Having or not having children

Self-fulfillment. When you scan book stores (or the Amazon online shop) or watch the usual TV shows you could easily get the impression that children are just a pain in the butt. They ruin your figure during pregnancy, cause you terrible pain when you give birth, threaten your sex-life, trigger a post-partum depression, cry all night for the first year, chew up your nipples, vomit all over your new dress, make you change their stinking diapers and keep you busy in various ways all day. Later they have problems in school, torture you with hyperactive attention disorder, or become drug addicts.

While this may all be true to some extent this image ignores the most important aspect of children: The incredible, with nothing comparable, joy, pride, pleasure and happiness that a child can provide. Nothing - no amount of money, power, success or fame can replace this feeling. When a woman is pregnant with the child she desired she often radiates an aura of deep happiness and health. Childish men, who were fooling around or wasting their time with ridiculous hobbies, finally grow up when they become fathers. And life gets a unique meaning when you can pass on all your experience and property to your own child or children.

Get some independence. If you make the decision to have a family you shouldn't waste time. You need to get three things done early in life: First, you need to finish your education quickly. For a woman few things are more stupid than getting pregnant while still being in school or university. Schools and universities have a fixed schedule - you can't postpone graduation for a week or two to give birth to your child. You will lose a year or two in the best case - or brake up your education altogether. Second, if possible, you should establish yourself in a job as quickly as possible and get at least one or two years of work experience for your CV. If you marry and spend for a family one or two years immediately after school it will be extremely hard to get your first position afterwards - and you will start significantly below your qualification. Third, once you have established yourself in a job you should start looking for the right partner. There are scores of attractive men who are great for sex and for enjoying life, but there is a very small pool of men who will be faithful husbands, good fathers, and reliable providers. They are like needles in a haystack. Without a proper husband you will work yourself to death with a family - torn between low-paid jobs and your children.

Proper timing. As a woman who wants to have children you do not have the luxury of men, who can "waste" a few years early in life with such important activities as driving a motor bike through the Sahara or spending a few years on a sailboat in the Caribbean. As a woman you should never forget the clicking of your biological clock. Don't get confused by sensational TV news of women who had their first child in their late forties, fifties or even early sixties. No one ever talks about their psychological and organic problems and the enormous challenges and risks of having children at such a high age. In modern societies the proper age for a woman to have children is between the age of 25 and 35. At that age she can have finished a proper education and a few years of work experience. And when she has completed her family formation phase in her mid-thirties she will have enough time to pursue a late career of her own. With their greater life expectancy women in their mid-thirties will have another 30 years to develop their own career before they will retire in their mid-sixties. (I have no doubt that all developed nations will raise retirement age to between 65 and 70 years due to demographic reasons). A quick education and early career start, a family formation phase and then three decades of late professional career are probably the most proper timing in a modern female life cycle. For men, such hurry in early life is not necessary. They can always find a young wife even in their forties or fifties and start a family later in life.

Regret. Born in the early 1950s I am a member of the first generation in human history, in which women started to control their fertility with an easy-to-use contraceptive pill. The first oral contraceptives were available in 1961, when the Food and Drug Administration in the United States approved Enovid 5 mg for contraceptive use, but widespread availability only started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a time of radical social change and many women of my generation remained single and never thought of having children before they were in their late 30s - which, by the way is one of the reasons for the unprecedented decline in birth rates and the emergence of societies with persistent sub-replacement fertility (of far less than one child per woman). However, in the early 1990s the "party was over". The first generation of women with access to the contraceptive pill was now in their 40s and many began to bitterly regret that they had never thought of having a child or had light-headedly postponed it for too long. For them the new freedom had turned into a curse and many desperately tried to quickly find a husband, get infertility treatment or adopt a child to finally have a family of their own. Only with age they realized that without having their own family they had missed an essential part of life. While some found happiness with friends or satisfaction in a career others became depressive and are facing decades of loneliness.

 
 

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Some advice for politicians

The broadly sketched change in female life cycles, which is at the core of unsustainable low fertility in almost all modern societies, is still widely ignored or misinterpreted by politicians and economic leaders. Here are a few no-nonsense suggestions that would allow women to choose having children (and thus solve some of the serious demographic problems in modern societies).

Speed-up education. While it is ridiculous that academic education (particularly in Europe) usually requires young adults to go to school until their mid- to late-twenties, it is a disaster for women. This is why the highest educated women have the lowest fertility. They often are in their early thirties before they have established themselves in a professional career. Finding a proper partner, getting married, launching a shared household, and enjoying the new partnership may take another few years, so that the question of children might come up for women with academic education at some time in their late thirties. And then time is short - often too short. From a life-cycle perspective it is not at all surprising that women with academic education often have no children or only one child. What needs to be done is to radically shorten academic programs - which were essentially designed for male students. Since women are often more serious, more persistent and better students it should be no problem at all to reach the same standards in half the time. Everyone, who has studied in Europe knows that there is enormous potential for much more effective and shorter university education.

Provide family-friendly infrastructure and services. No woman will have a child, because there is a day-care center in the neighborhood. But if a woman is almost killing herself to combine work and family, because she has no option to give her child in day care, she will think twice of having a second child. There is no other field of social policy where more "hot air" is produced than on family-friendly infrastructure and services. Politicians routinely praise themselves for "supporting families". The opposite is true: In modern societies almost everyone and everything is hostile toward families and particularly women with children. Just try to rent an apartment with two small kids on your side! Try to find a day care center that opens before you have to go to work and closes after your shift is over. When my daughter was in "kindergarten" we had to bring her at 8:00 in the morning and pick her up in late afternoon - at 16:00 sharp. No one gave a damn that it was physically impossible for us to commute 2 hours from and to work and have a regular job in the 8 hours between. I don't have the space in this text to list all the many dozens of discriminations, hardships, and mindless hurdles for families. Other authors have documented that people with children have huge economic disadvantages - particularly if they have to pay for their (higher) education. Business leaders (and union bosses) constantly encourage women to work fulltime jobs - especially in Europe. But they do almost nothing to make it easy for women (and men) who want to combine child care and work. Their lack of imagination is mind-boggling. With flexible working hours, work-place day care, breastfeeding rooms, paid leave for sick children and a guaranteed career continuation after a baby pause much could be improved for women to have a child.

Implement family-friendly legal framework. While social and economic conditions may be difficult to change there is no reason, why legal frameworks could not be adapted to better take into account the new freedom of choice for women of having children or not. For instance, why do women who give birth and raise the next generation not get directly paid for their work? They "produce" the next generation of tax payers, social security contributors, workers and consumers, entrepreneurs and politicians which not only allow the continuation of a country's economy, but who also directly will pay for the pension and healthcare of those elder people who had no children (this is particularly true in pay-as-you go systems). No one questions why basic researchers are often paid with government funds coming from all tax payers, because the society assumes that their discoveries may benefit everyone in the future. Women, who have children, also produce a common good for the future. Why not compensate this work exactly in the same way as the work of a researcher. One could also change election laws and give parents with children more votes - according to the number of their children. There are hundreds of ideas that should be explored more seriously, if modern societies want to respond to the new reality of female life choices.

 

Further reading

Sophie Gilbert: Why women aren't having children. The Atlantic, April 17, 2015.

 

Copyright © 2014, 2015 by Gerhard K. Heilig. All rights reserved.

Updated: 3 February 2015