Children or career - or both?

Updated: 3 July 2015

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Dad's opinion

This is one of those questions where, in my opinion, an answer must be gender-specific. Children will always be more important to women's lives - simply because they carry the baby for nine months within their own body; and also because female biology has evolved to nurture and raise small children. I know, some dummies will say this is sexist - but so far, I have not seen men's breasts producing milk for feeding a baby. For god sake - we are mammals after all, and women are the variant of the human species that has the organs to provide food for a newborn. Women are also much better suited than men to comfort and soothe small children and provide the emotional safety that is essential for the healthy development of a child.  The pervasive ideology in "Western" societies that women should "go to work" as quickly as possible after childbirth is nothing but a ruthless demand from the current form of "predator capitalism" which tries to squeeze out productivity from everyone - regardless of the social, psychological and cultural damage.

Especially in Western Europe and the United States have liberal and left-wing governments introduced all kinds of legislation to coerce men into "sharing responsibility" for children. At the same time these social engineers have degraded women who chose to stay at home and raise children as "mere housewives". Only paid labor away from home was promoted as an adequate career choice for a woman. However, with the exception of a few governments (in countries such as Sweden or France), most have failed to introduce legislation that would make it easy for women to combine children and paid labor. Working hours, labor conditions, vacation times, maternity leave regulations, financial recognition for raising children in the pension system, and numerous other legal arrangements are totally insufficient to compensate women for their specific role in reproduction. No wonder that women in the "Western" world have few children or even remain childless for life. The uncompensated double burden for mothers is a key factor that prevents working women from having children.

My advice for women (in the "Western World"):
Forget all the nonsense you hear from the mass media about career and children and make up your own mind! Here are a few factors that you may want to take into consideration:

New options. The availability of modern contraception has changed the life of women during the late 20th century 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 contraceptive measure 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 forever. Period.

The necessity to choose. The small pill that 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 pleasure. Or she can choose to find a partner, become a mother and raise a family. Or she can try to combine both. These are choices no woman can avoid. Even if she makes no intentional decision for or against children or career, her biography will be greatly affected by events that occur in her early adulthood - to a much greater extent than among men.

Diversity of lifestyles. There is, of course, a huge number of 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 about gender roles. If we forget, for a moment, about the expanding social diversity in female life cycles, we can identify one basic question the great majority of 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 usually 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". But for women, the choice of children will transform their life - if they live with a partner or not. 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 the 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. There are, of course, women who give birth only to give the children away - to state-run nurseries or "kindergartens", baby minders, or into foster care. Some may also tray to make the biological father take sole responsibility. But most mother will want to become deeply involved with their children - whether they have help from someone else or not.
 

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Some no-nonsense advice for women:

Don't let yourself be coerced! The current mantra of mass media and politicians in "Western" countries is to promote female labor force participation. More traditional family models, where women take care of children and the household and men work outside the home are ridiculed. Don't accept this social pressure! If you want to stay at home and take care of your children while your husband pursues a career and provides the family income no one should stop you. Just make sure that you are economically secured - even if your husband decides to leave you and your children for someone else. There are more women than you think who find this family model the most rewarding and satisfying. On the other hand, if you want to combine children with your own career, no one should call you a bad mother, just because your husband or day care center will take care of your kids while you are busy at work. And there is also nothing wrong with remaining childless - if you are really sure that children shouldn't be part of your life. Women, for the first time in human history have a real choice when it comes to reproduction and work. They shouldn't give it away to follow some new pressure for becoming a "working woman" - which is primarily an attempt to maximize exploitation of human resources in a capitalist economy.

The satisfaction of non-family work! Before you decide to become a stay-at-home mother you should consider that taking care of children may not satisfy your ambitions. While family work can certainly be rewarding, many women have other aspirations and dreams. Perhaps they have special talents, want to start a business or achieve a particular professional goal. Today many women are well educated and could raise into top positions. Such non-family work not only provides a women with economic independence, it also can also lead to great satisfaction of achievement.

Don't waist time if you want children and a career! As a women, you cannot afford to hang around undecided during your late teens and twenties. If you want to have children and pursue your own career you basically have two options: You can either get ahead in your education and career as quickly as possible in your early twenties and have your children in your early thirties - or you can first have your children in your late teens or early twenties and then start your own career in your thirties. In my view, the first option is clearly the better. If you finish your education as quickly as possible and establish yourself in a job before you are thirty, children will not break your career - especially if you have already become a highly productive employee. However, if you enter the labor force for the first time in your thirties with small children at home, you will start at the bottom! No one will give you a higher-paid job - even if you have an excellent education.

Children will leave your home! With average life expectancy ranging in the mid-seventies most women with children will experience a long "empty nest period" later in life. If a woman has chosen not to participate in the labor force and instead raise her children at home, she might feel useless and without perspective when her children go away to live their own lives. Women, who had pursued their own career have an advantage in this situation. They can focus on their job. Older women without a previous career or labor experience outside the home would have to flip burgers or engage in some voluntary activity.

Observe your work-life balance. I suspect that many women with children only participate in the labor market, because their husband's income is too low for the desired lifestyle. In the 1950s and 1960s women usually stayed at home with children, because a single breadwinner could supply a family. Today, both men and women typically have to work to secure a reasonable family income - even if it means for the women the self-exploitation in a grueling double-burden of children and work outside the home. Some families with many children have therefore decided to live in the countryside or small town, where a single income may be sufficient for a decent live. The "rat-race" between jobs and kids that is typical among today's urban families may not be the smartest work-life balance.
 
 

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Further reading

Mona Eltahawy: Why do they hate us? The real war on women is in the Middle East. Foreign Policy, April 23, 2012

 

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

Updated: 3 February 2015