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Saturday, April 23, 2005

Over 25 and planning a baby? It's too late

If the only path to career/home balance utopia is to start planning in your mid-20s, we're all screwed. Or at least my generation of women who is already in their early 30s with a baby, is screwed.

This is the advice of the Boston Globe's Penelope Trunk last week in an article entitled, "New generation puts the focus on family." She wrote: "Good planning starts in one's mid-20s. And then you need to have a very substantial conversation about it with your partner."

Well that's all find and dandy, but that guidance is teetering upon some pretty enormous assumptions. First, it assumes that you have a partner when you're in your mid-20s. I was fortunate to have landed Father in Chief early in life. But the plethora of matchmaking web sites indicates that not only is finding a mate big business, it isn't easy nor does it come with any guarantee that it will happen by a certain point in our lives, i.e.: in our mid-20s. Trunk's guidance also assumes that you know early on that you want to have a family. I can wholeheartedly say that when I was in my mid-20s, the idea of having kids was about as appealing as scraping off my knuckles with a cheese grater.

Trunk starts her article with the story of a couple who is about to get married and who have a life-long game plan. "It's cake-tasting time for Carin Rosenberg and Erik Lawrence. They're getting married on July 2, and like many engaged couples, they're excited to start life as a team...They have a plan for a baby (lots of hands-on parenting) and careers (no out-of-control hours), and while they will each have advanced degrees, there are no plans for high-powered jobs."

Okay, she doesn't mention how old this couple is, but they sound rather idealistic. I'm not bashing idealism, but deciding that high-powered jobs are out, could make building a realistic career-path very difficult. And how exactly do they define "high powered?" I think it's pretty fair to say--and Trunk even points out--that most career-worthy jobs are unfortunately 40-hour (or more) work weeks. That is why so many of my super-talented mom friends are no longer working in their respective fields. We are all underemployed because our former employers could not merge parent and paycheck.

So I think it's great that this couple is going to try and avoid long hours, etc. Hell, I think no company should expect people to work more than 40 hours a week. But let's be honest here: people make job choices based on how much it pays, what kind of health insurance it offers, how long does it take to get there. Period. Yes there are other things we consider, like do we like the people, do we like the business, is there good potential for growth, etc., but fundamentally, we need the basics first.

Trunk offered three guidelines to follow to achieve the work/parenting balance you want: 1) Build expertise to gain flexibility; 2) Live below your means and forget the big house; 3) Marry someone whose career aspirations are consistent with yours.

Sure we can forego the fancy house and the expensive cars for more modest lifestyles to aim for the right parenting/career balance, but most people want to put food on the table and save for their kids' college educations.

And that third item is absurd. Trunk wrote: "If one person makes four times as much as the other person, the discussion will not be among equals when there's a snow day and someone has to stay home from work with no notice." I'm not really sure what this sentence is even saying. Make sure you don't marry someone who makes more money than you do because you're going to get screwed if you had hoped to share the sick-child responsibility.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for planning. But sometimes life gets in the way of the plans that we set out for ourselves. Going into a job knowing that you eventually hope to get a flexible schedule is great. Trying to avoid jobs that you know force you to work more hours that you want is great. But fundamentally this is like feeding the wrong end of the dog. We should be focusing on the corporate end of the equation, examining company policies and rewarding those that allow family-friendly policies, like job-shares, better maternity leaves, and flexible schedules.

7 comments:

  1. That article sounds insane. How do you know your career won't turn into a high-powered one or one where you need to put in long hours. Sometimes that just happens and you're not going to just up and quit a whole career because you're successful. Isn't that basically what she's saying? Don't strive to be successful. I tried to be smart and realist in my late 20s when we were planning babies, but our careers hadn't gotten off the ground yet--and mine hadn't even started yet. We had no idea. There's no way to know.

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  2. These people must be very young if they actually think they can plan their life out in such detail in advance.

    On the other hand, I do think it's important for partners to be on the same page about this kind of thing. If you fundamentally disagree on things like sharing responsibility for parenting, or prioritizing time for family rather than work, that could be a problem. It's a different story if you both have that priority but have to struggle to make it real. In that case you both are in the struggle together.

    In our case we kind of stumbled into the situation we find ourselves in now, and we're lucky we live in an area with relatively low housing costs. We certainly didn't plan this, and though we knew we wanted kids we didn't think in concrete terms until quite late in the game (by which time we were in our 30s).

    And geekymom, obviously not everyone will make that choice, but some of us do. I've blogged exactly about the tradeoff I've made as a dad between "success" in traditional terms, and spending more time with my kids. I've also blogged about how hard it was; and why I think it might be even harder for women to do this than for men. Obviously I'm not saying everyone should make this choice. But I do want to point out it is possible.

    But the real problem, as Mother-in-Chief points out, is elsewhere. It's the lack of any real support for families, for parents, coming from the government, from corporations. It's the focus so much on the bottom line that the human element of employees' lives takes the hit.

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  3. I think it's good to have general ideas of what you want as far as family is concerned, and you and your spouse or partner should agree on the basics. But the specifics? There's just no way.

    Like this: "Marry someone whose career aspirations are consistent with yours."

    If the advice the writer is doling out is for folks in their early and mid-20s, that's completely unrealistic. Career aspirations change. In my early to mid-20s, I was in a completely different field than I am now. And at that age, I certainly had no intention of becoming a lawyer (blech--who wants to be a lawyer?!). And then, when I decided to go to law school, it was "Well, being a lawyer might be OK, but no way am I working for a big firm...."

    Goals are good. Plans are simply laughable.

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  4. chip, yeah, I agree. I think we need to rethink success in a big way. I define success as being happy with what you do. There may be garbage collectors who enjoy their work, but most people wouldn't say they're successful. And, you and MIC are exactly right that the impetus is in the wrong direction. Companies should be rebalancing the work, not forcing couples to give up successful careers.

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  5. but gk, the fact that people say, oh a garbage collector is not successful, means they are only looking at his/her job. That leaves out family, kids, all the other aspects of life which are, in this mainstream view, totally irrelevant to measuring success. And that's what is missing for our society's view of "success". I've blogged on this whole issue of "success" if you're interested, that way I don't have to hijack MinC's blog comments...

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  6. Another point I think worth mentioning is that if one of the parents has a "succesful" job, aka makes enough money, then the other parent gets to be home with the kids part-time/full-time. There's no harm in having the kids in day care or with a babysitter some of the time. Then that would achieve the goal of flexibility, at least for one parent, if that is what the couple is trying to achieve.

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  7. Ah -- these comments all ring true. I asked for FOUR fewer hours a week at work and I am now being paid as if I take a day and a half off work every week. I think it's my employer's way of letting me know he doesn't want to accommodate my reduced schedule, but doesn't want to tell me no outright. I chose this job precisely because I thought it would give me a chance to practice my profession and still have flexibility to be with my child. Our own plans for flexibility are all for naught unless we change society's perceptions and expectations of what it means to be a working parent.

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