When I was 7 months pregnant, my mother told me her biggest regret in life: that she had been a working mom. “If I had to do it all over again, I would have stayed home with you and your sister from the get-go,” she said.
I was surprised by this admission, to say the least. Sure, when I was a kid, my mom would sometimes complain about missing a field trip or a PTA meeting, but to be honest, she complained about most things, so it didn’t seem like her job ranked super high on the list. Growing up in New York City in the ‘90s, I’d watched the rest of my friends’ moms slowly drop out of the full-time work force, taking lower-paid part-time administrative positions or scheduling their days around manicures and aerobics classes and harshly worded sit-downs with the nanny. But my mom had kept on working, rising through the ranks to become a corporate executive before retiring a few years ago. I had always been proud of my mother for having (it seemed) seamlessly integrated her career with motherhood. It never occurred to me that she didn’t feel the same way.
So, when she told me that she not only regretted her professional achievements — her three-decades-long career, her MBA, everything — but also that a work-life balance for mothers is impossible, I felt suddenly unmoored. My vision of my own parenthood — which at that point entailed me handily pairing Chuck Taylors with diaphanous nursing dresses, really letting my multitasking skills shine — suddenly seemed less certain. If my mother felt that having a career and a family at the same time was a mistake, I no longer had proof that the opposite was true. What had happened to my feminist hero? And also, as I yelled at her over roast chicken at Rosh Hashana dinner, why didn’t she tell me this before I got knocked up?
I'm not sure why I was so blindsided by this reality; it's easily gleaned from any number of Atlantic think pieces and Sarah Jessica Parker movies. I'm guessing a combination of being too self-involved during my childless years to care about the experiences of young moms and too arrogant to think that I would be vulnerable to the same pitfalls that typically befall working moms. (Would I, a superior specimen of womanhood, ever be caught dead wearing spit-up-stained yoga pants at brunch? Hell no.) But it turns out that most of my peers, especially those on the younger end of the spectrum, have their eyes wide open.
"As a woman, having a child is guaranteed to impact your career," one respondent asserted point blank. Other women were even more blunt: "I think if I decide to start a family it will negatively impact my career."
In a recent survey conducted by Bustle Trends Group, Bustle's research department, many respondents indicated full awareness that "having it all" is such a joke, they no longer see the point in trying. In fact, a significant number of respondents reported feeling such anxiety over the prospect of balancing motherhood with their careers that they weren’t sure if they wanted to have kids at all.
In the survey of 332 women, many said that they were extremely concerned about the effect that having children would have on their professional lives. "As a woman, having a child is guaranteed to impact your career," one respondent asserted point blank. Other women were even more blunt: "I think if I decide to start a family it will negatively impact my career," one woman wrote. Another added, "As a woman who wants to be a physician but also have a family, I feel that at some point I will have to make a choice."
In fact, some women explicitly said they had already made this choice, precisely because they were concerned they would be unable to balance motherhood with a career. "We aren't having children, so I won't have to deal with the issues working parents face about maternity/paternity leave, childcare costs, discrimination against mothers in the workforce, etc.," one respondent wrote. Another echoed that sentiment, writing, "I do not plan to have children, so I think that will advantage me [sic] throughout my career." Having watched their mothers march home night after night, burnt out and underpaid and exhausted, these women evidently got the memo I didn't: Working parenthood is going to suck, most of the time. You maybe want to reconsider your options.
I am constantly frustrated and frazzled, and — to be honest — angry that having children and a career is still such a heroic feat.
Now, I finally get it. Once I became a parent, my mother's words made terrifying sense to me. When I’m on the floor, pointing out the color blue to my infant son while simultaneously answering work emails, or when his busy paws swipe the keys of my laptop while I’m trying to meet a deadline, I struggle to contain the reflexive surge of rage in my throat.
While I do not regret my decision to have him, I am constantly frustrated and frazzled, and — to be honest — angry that having children and a career is still such a heroic feat. And if I feel that way as a woman of relative privilege — I have a stable mid-level job, a supportive partner, and an extensive local network of friends and family members — I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult this is for women with fewer resources.
Even in an era when shifts in gender and social norms are the norm, we are still limited by a culture that stubbornly refuses to make space for all of our dreams. No matter how many advanced degrees we earn, no matter how many bad men we replace with supportive and nurturing partners, and no matter how strong and self-sufficient we are, millennial women are still forced to decide between deeply dissatisfying options. Choose motherhood over work, and we lose out on the self-empowerment, personal fulfillment, and financial independence a career affords; choose work over motherhood, and we lose an experience that could give our lives new color and dimension and meaning; try to have both, and we end up embittered and exhausted, operating on half-empty at all times.
Maybe no one believes we can “have it all.” But it shouldn’t still be this hard for us, right?
If you doubt that women are actually dropping out of the work force or think that decision is only the prerogative of the affluent, consider that the percentage of women in the workplace is 5 percent lower than it was in 1999, and it's actually not just rich women who are leaving. And according to a 2014 New York Times survey, women are not abandoning their careers because they'd rather be at home, but because they feel they simply have no other choice. Sixty-one percent of women said they left the work force due to "family responsibilities," while three-quarters said they would return to the work force if their employers offered flexible hours or a remote working policy.
Between the cost of childcare, limited parental leave policies, work and motherhood have become financially, logistically, and physically incompatible. Add in the student debt most of this generation of parents start out with (42 percent of college graduates aged 18 to 29 are still paying off student debt) and it's no wonder millennial women are ambivalent about having children.
“How the f*ck would we handle it with work and traveling, and how do people afford daycare?”
Emily, 27, is a clinical therapist in a long-term relationship. Both she and her partner want to have children, but even though she is gainfully employed with two master’s degrees from an Ivy League institution, she is still forced to supplement her income with a part-time babysitting job. Given her current financial and scheduling constraints, she just doesn’t think parenthood is possible. “I seriously don’t know how the average person our age makes it work with kids,” she told me.
“I just don’t see how we could make it work,” “it doesn’t seem possible,” and “I want kids, but…” were common refrains from the Bustle survey takers as well as the women I spoke to for this story. "I think balancing work, love, and children can be challenging since our current system doesn't support motherhood financially,” wrote one survey taker.
“I thought I wanted kids, but that’s changed considerably in the last couple years.” Hannah, 30, a Boston-based consultant, told me. “How the f*ck would we handle it with work and traveling, and how do people afford daycare?”
Work, of course, is a big factor here, and what it has come to mean to us. While the current financial outlook for millennials is pretty bleak, we've found solace in our careers, which have become a major, if not primary, source of personal satisfaction. “Honestly, career ambitions have taken precedent [sic] and I’m not convinced I’d be unfulfilled without children,” says Hannah.
Mindy, 31, an academic in San Jose, Calif., agrees. “Now that I've invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in my career and am also starting to think about kids, I feel more scared than I ever have of having them. I have a lot more of a sense of what I'd be giving up if I had to make substantial career sacrifices for them,” she says.
Between college, internships, and the 24/7 work week, we’ve spent so many years building ourselves up. Why would we want a toddler to come along and knock it all down?
In a corporate-driven culture that views self-fulfillment and empowerment as synonymous with financial and professional success, it makes sense that women would be resistant to the idea of putting their careers on hold, let alone giving them up completely to have kids, says sociologist Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, a deconstruction of American myths and stereotypes associated with race, gender, and family life.
“Increasingly, when women are asked to choose between work and motherhood, they choose work,” Coontz tells Bustle. “We’re seeing that around the industrialized world, at least. Work has become a central part of a woman’s identity, as well as her sense of security.” Between college, internships, and the 24/7 work week, we’ve spent so many years building ourselves up professionally. Why would we want a toddler to come along and knock it all down?
Of course, the problem with this trend is that for many women, work is not enough, or they’re worried it won’t be. A singular focus on professional success at the expense of other life experiences — including the potentially incredibly enriching experience of having a child — can also lead to disillusionment and burnout, as Lisa Miller wrote in The Cut’s “The Ambition Collision,” “When a woman delays children and partnership into her 30s to earn money and establish independence and then sees how her paths are blocked, it is perhaps no wonder that something like anguish is the result.” Will a portion of this generation of women miss out on the experience of having a child, simply because it has become so financially and logistically daunting?
My mother never 'had it all,' but worse than that, sometimes she only had a very little bit of the things she actually wanted. And this is something millennial women recognize and fear.
In itself, the fact that many well-educated women view professional success as key to happiness, rather than marriage and babies, is undoubtedly a good thing. But it also makes the choice to leave your career and work identity behind even harder.
At its core, this uncertainty about having children comes down to the knowledge that some kind of sacrifice will have to be made. As my mother noted, she never “had it all,” but worse than that, sometimes she only had a very little bit of the things she actually wanted. And this is something millennial women recognize and fear.
“My mother worked full-time at a pretty high-stress job. I rarely remember seeing her smile or laugh or relax when I was young. She was constantly exhausted and frustrated and clearly unhappy. I saw [her] overlooked for promotions she deserved while fathers got them, even though she constantly worked late and from home,” says Leigh, 28, a journalist who is “85 percent sure” she doesn’t want kids.
“I fear that I’d barely be able to spend time with our babies — no bedtime reading, no weekend park days, all that idyllic sh*t you picture.”
“I don't want to tread water for 15-plus prime years of my career and still probably burn out before I've gotten where I want to go,” says Leigh, unwittingly articulating the nightmare about my future that I have most nights. “Mentally, emotionally, the price is too steep.”
Even when women are partnered and in flexible careers with livable wages, like Ariel, 29, who is married and runs her own tutoring and test prep business in New York City, they still struggle with how children are going to fit into the equation.
“I desperately want kids, but I have no idea how to make it work with my career choice/path,” she says. Because her job requires her to work with kids outside of school hours, “I fear that I’d barely be able to spend time with our babies—no bedtime reading, no weekend park days, all that idyllic sh*t you picture.”
While I don’t think my mother struggled as much as Leigh’s did (or at least, she was good at pretending otherwise), I do wonder if she would have actually been happier if she had chosen to be a stay-at-home mom from the get go. Would taking care of us full time have satisfied her in a way that giving 50 percent both at work and at home didn’t?
Knowing my mother, my instinct is probably not — I think she would have been bored and frustrated and resentful, just as I would be if I decided to quit my job tomorrow and stay home full-time with my son. I don’t think either of us could survive giving up so much of ourselves. I don’t think anyone should have to.
I realize that to some, mine sounds like an entitled millennial perspective. I'm sure there are many women in their 60s who put up with far more crap than I do — Mad Men-era workplace sexism, 18-hour workdays, unsupportive and uncommunicative partners who could barely muster the energy to microwave TV dinners, let alone actually raise their kids — who are rolling their eyes right now. They're probably posting this story on Facebook with the status, "Ej Dickson, what made you think it wasn't going to be hard?"
I can also imagine a lot of those same women and probably a few men will point to data that suggest that, in some ways, things have never been better for working moms. We have more support at home, in the form of the rising (though still relatively minuscule) number of stay-at-home dads. Dads are taking a more active role in parenting (even though, all things considered, moms are still putting in far more work). And we have strong (though not exactly economically diverse) cultural representation of working mothers, in the form of women like Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, and Michelle Obama.
And yet, despite the myriad advances for women in the workplace, our workplace culture is still not remotely supportive of parents, especially mothers. Employers are notoriously resistant to providing services like on-site day care (only 17 of the top Fortune 100 companies actually offer it). And while an increasing number of large companies are offering employees the option to work remotely or more flexible work hours, such employers are still the exception, not the rule. (Let’s not even get into the fact that many companies still won’t hire women in the first place on the mere suspicion they might get pregnant.)
As women continue to ponder the question of whether or not to have kids, they know the clock is running out — and they also know that the system is not going to change before their childbearing window closes.
According to social scientist Ellen Kossek, who studies gender, the family, and the workplace at Purdue University, companies’ lack of family-friendly policies is indeed a problem. But it’s not nearly as big an issue as the general stigma surrounding working mothers that pervades even the most forward-thinking workplaces. When a mom has to duck out of the office to take their child to a doctor’s appointment, or bow out of an after-work happy hour so they can pick up their kid from daycare, companies can do little to temper the antipathy other employees or supervisors might feel toward her. And even if a company does offer flexible hours, the rapid pace of our current work life means we’re worried about how our absence reflects on our perceived job performance anyway.
“Companies have real problems implementing policies in ways that don’t create stigma,” Kossek tells Bustle. “Employees won’t use flexible work hours if they think they won’t be stigmatized, even though productivity should be valued according to what you contribute, not just face-time.”
The oldest millennials have at most eight years left to have a biological child, which is not nearly as long as it is likely to take politicians and the culture at large to decide it makes sense to support working mothers.
As young women continue to ponder the question of whether or not to have kids, they know the clock is running out — and they also know that the system is not going to change before their childbearing window closes. The oldest millennials have at most eight years left to have a biological child, which is not nearly as long as it is likely to take politicians and the culture at large to decide it makes sense to support working mothers. If nothing else, this is perhaps the biggest conundrum facing millennial women thinking about having kids: as empowered and ambitious as we are, we cannot deny the fact that we are fighting a losing battle against time.
“I do hope that longer maternity leaves and equal pay are in a better place by the time I have a child,” Tessa, 29, a writer and teacher in New York City, admits. “But I’m not holding my breath.”
So, let’s review our options. Women can just not have kids — a trend that's certainly on the rise.
As William Frey, a population expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, tells Bustle, there has been a downward shift in the American birth rate in recent years. “Fertility has still declined overall and for women in their teens and 20s, but increased in their 30s and 40s,” Frey says, citing 2016 data from the Centers for Disease Control. In 2014, 47.6 percent of women of childbearing age reported not having any children, the highest percentage of childfree women since the U.S. Census Bureau started recording that data.
As we gradually continue to emerge from the shadow of the recession, Frey is hopeful that this trend will reverse course: “I think at least for the millennial generation that was hamstrung by a recession, delays of careers, homebuying, marriage etc., there will be later childbearing,” Frey says. “But this may not be as severe for the next generation.”
Still, that leaves many women in this generation frozen in a state of ambivalence, torn between their desire to have kids (a desire that has, despite the trends in birth rate, stayed relatively consistent over the past few decades) and their utter inability to figure out how to make it work given the demands of their careers.
If the birthrate does continue to decline, Kossek warns that we're in for a host of unintended consequences. As our generation ages, we could find ourselves enmeshed in a “looming elder care crisis,” where no one will be left to care for us in our old age. (Similar predictions have also been made about Italy and Japan, where birth rates have also plummeted.) This may "[create] a serious problem in our social safety net,” Kossek says.
The second option is to scale back at work or temporarily drop out of the work force, but this option is only available to women with a certain amount of economic privilege: it’s all well and good to stop working for a few years if you have a partner who can foot the bill. (Nor does this decision come without consequences: for every year of their careers out of the work force, women lose about 2 percent of their salaries.
Then there’s the third option: we simply keep going as is. We try our damnedest to make balancing kids and motherhood work, even if it’s very, very difficult, and even if it feels every day like we’re careening toward an inevitable flame-out. Rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that the system has beaten us, we continue to work within it; and the only feasible way to do this is to continue, well, working.
This, ultimately, is the most exhausting option, and the one that I am currently pursuing. But the day when I foresee coming to the same conclusion that my mother did — that I made the wrong choice by refusing to choose between work and parenthood to begin with — still looms before me. I can't quell the refrain that plays constantly in my head: "I shouldn't have to feel this way." No mother should.
Like the clueless, entitled, arrogant millennial that I am, I refuse to accept the narrative that parenthood requires total sacrifice. I refuse to apologize for the rapaciousness of my ambition or shrink it. I am angry and resentful that I still live in a world that asks me to do that simply because I had the temerity to procreate. All of us should be angry and resentful about that. What to do with that anger and resentment, however, is still very much an open question.
When I was writing the final draft of this piece, I shut myself in my room and promised myself I would emerge in time to put my son to bed. I decided that I would file the story, then I'd read my son his book and sing him his special good night song, as I do every night. The piece would go massively viral, my inbox would fill with uniformly positive messages from fellow moms thanking me profusely for my eloquence and insight, and maybe some parenting website would give me an award for Coolest Mom with Amazing Skin and Hair in the process. I've got this, I thought. Maybe my mom and Sarah Jessica Parker just weren't hardcore enough to handle working parenthood. That was it.
As usual, my mom was right.
But when I finally left the room, I saw that my son had fallen asleep in his father’s arms. Almost immediately, images of the next 10 or 20 years of my life flashed before me: as a result of meeting deadlines or finishing edits or answering emails, I would spend the majority of my son’s childhood missing everything that I actually enjoyed about being a mother. I would be broke, depressed, exhausted, sexless; I would become the frazzled harridan that Leigh remembered her own mother being, the mid-level management burnout the young women in the survey were afraid of becoming. Even if I tried to cheat the system, even if I tried to “have it all,” I would have effectively made a choice anyway: the choice to be less of a parent and less of a writer, to operate at 50 percent in both capacities at all times instead of 100 percent in one or the other.
I picked him up and took him to his bed, but the moment I set him down, he woke up, his giant eyes widening, his tiny body springing to attention. He grinned broadly at me. “Hi,” I said. I spent the next 40 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get him back to sleep, as I had done a hundred nights before, and would for thousands of nights more. I actually laughed out loud.
Just like my mother, I had told myself I could fulfill my work obligations while simultaneously reaping the small joys of motherhood; I’d told myself I could have it both ways, and it had backfired spectacularly. As usual, my mom was right.
Sometimes I think I should have done things differently. Maybe I should have patiently stacked the things I wanted to achieve in my career, one on top of the other, and sealed that stack of blocks with cement before inviting a baby to come along. When I look at my sleeping son's tiny, heavy little body, I'm so grateful for my naiveté, and I am also pissed. Either because I don't have another option or because I'm stubborn, I am determined that I will make this work. But below me, there's a generation no longer game to take on this particular mantle of female torture — and for them, deciding whether to have kids is becoming less about personal choice and more about survival.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the period during which women's participation in the work force has declined. It has been corrected.