Just over a decade ago, I wrote a book whose main theme was about the cost of delaying marriage and motherhood to my generation of women. We'd grown up in the 1970s and '80s, during a period when our mothers were casting off their marriages like old dresses; entering the workforce for the first time in huge numbers; and the feminist movement was decreeing that men were as necessary to women as bicycles are to fish.
The message to us was clear and unwavering: Don't waste your time getting married young like we did. In fact, don't waste your time getting married, period. Put off having children until later. MUCH later. Focus on your education and then your career. It's in your work that you will find your identity and achieve your independence; it's from your work that you are going to derive the most satisfaction in life. And it was upon your work, not a man, which you could depend to support you in the long haul (hey, they was boom times). Marriage, kids -- those are afterthoughts. Things to be considered down the road, if at all.
The lesson we eventually drew, however, was quite different. Urged to "celebrate our sexuality" with multiple partners throughout our 20s, many of us became acquainted with rather less celebrated aftershocks: STDs, abortion, "commitment issues," and maybe most of all, loneliness. Much as we might try, we could not reprogram our hearts. The majority of women continued to express the desire to marry and become mothers (at least in anonymity to pollsters; it was not something you'd admit to your girlfriends). But we still had no idea how we were going to achieve these things -- how to fit them in with our careers? How to fit them in with our so-called independent identities? And how to fit them in before... we couldn't?
That was the kicker. If you stumbled along this way into your 30s, suddenly you found yourself looking around and wondering where the men went. And just as we couldn't reprogram our hearts, we discovered that we couldn't reprogram our biology either. Babies? Did someone just say babies? Where? Where?!
Thus many of us found ourselves making the accidental journey into single motherhood, reproductive technology, and adoption.
My eldest daughter is now 20. I began researching my book before she could read. In the space of time since my book was published and she has grown up, I've watched her generation shake off the stigmas attached to marriage and motherhood. Traditional weddings, with all the trimmings, have become fashionable again. She and her friends don't hide their delight with babies and small children (I remember me and my friends rolling our eyes at such behaviour). And they talk seriously about how they will mesh their careers (because of course they will have them, economy permitting) with marriage and motherhood.
And yet, they seem to be as perplexed as we were about how to do so -- to "have it all." My daughter cites Beyonce as an inspiration. True, celebrities of Beyonce's stature in my time weren't singing about "what we leave behind" (at least beyond our staplers and investment portfolios):
I was here
I lived, I loved
I was here
I did, I've done, everything that I wanted
And it was more than I thought it would be
I will leave my mark so everyone will know
I was here
I want to say I lived each day, until I die
And know that I meant something in, somebody's life
The hearts I have touched, will be the proof that I leave
That I made a difference, and this world will see
...or lifetime monogamy (as in "1 Plus 1"):
Hey! I don't know much about guns but I... I've been shot by you
Hey! And I don't know when I'm gonna die, but I hope that I'm gonna die by you
Hey! And I don't know much about fighting, but I, I know I will fight for you
Hey! Just when I ball up my fist I realize that I'm laying right next to you
But I do notice that parents will spend thousands of dollars, if they have them, researching colleges for their children; we will spend hours agonizing over every grade, every step our children take towards setting themselves up for a career. But how many hours do we spend talking to them about how and what it means to share a life with someone? About the selflessness and generosity it takes to be a wife or husband, a mother or father -- and that such selflessness and generosity are not stifling things, nor are they identity crushing things? Indeed, these are the very qualities that will lead to the most enlarging and enriching experiences of our lives. I know parents who will speak frankly to their 12-year-olds about how to use a condom -- but would shy from "asserting" any advice about marriage or motherhood. And yet the latter advice is desperately and urgently needed, more so than ever.
Now another study has just come out confirming what should by this point be the obvious: that postponing pregnancy too long has its perils.
The [study] says some women may be waiting too long to start their families, perhaps because they over-estimate their chances of successfully conceiving with fertility treatments, if the need arises.
It says women in their 20s and 30s need better reproductive counselling so that they have an accurate grasp of what waiting to start their families does to their chances of conceiving.
"Better" reproductive counselling. Yes, that's what needed. Sure. And maybe "better" and more realistic life counselling as well.
Follow Danielle Crittenden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dcrittenden1