On a recent trip to D. C., I was out to dinner with some long-lost family friends and their very accomplished, 20-something daughter who’d just moved to the city after earning her Masters of Public Administration and subsequently landing a seriously fat job working for the government, something she’s always wanted to do. She’d come directly to dinner from the office — never mind that it was, in fact, a Saturday. She was tired, but lit up whenever she got to talking about what was going on at work. But the second she left the table, her parents expressed more than a little bit of worry: How will she ever meet anyone when she’s working so hard? A standard parental concern, of course, but she seemed pretty happy with her new gig. A gig which, it bears repeating, is seriously impressive — and one she’d worked really hard to score.
I have another friend, a single 30-something living a life in New York City that Carrie Bradshaw would have envied. I’ve known her and her family for years, and her mom always says, Oh, but I think deep down she really just wants to be a stay-at-home mom.
Then: lunch last week, with yet another friend. Young, super educated and very successful. Not that into kids, but considering freezing her eggs. (To the tune of somewhere around $12,000.)
And finally: just today I got an email from another friend — a journalist whose job has taken her around the world. In fact, she and her husband just returned from a year in Africa, an adventure they’d deemed too amazing to pass up. And they were right. Now that they’re back, though, they’re thinking baby thoughts. As in, at 36 years old, it’s now or… well, maybe never — which means not just baby thoughts, but thoughts about boarding the infertility express. (To the tune around $12,000… a round.)
All of which has me wondering: These are all women — happy women — who have experienced some seriously amazing accomplishments, women who are living lives they are pretty happy to be living. And yet, the perception is that there’s no way they could be really happy unless they have a man on their arm and a baby on their hip. Not to say there’s anything wrong with a man or a baby — on the contrary! — but these women are happy today. So why the constant focus on what’s “missing”?
The conspiracy theorist in me sees a touch of The Beauty Myth-variety dynamics at play. Here’s a bit of what Naomi Wolf wrote in the 1991 book:
The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.
Consider: Recent years have seen major changes in women’s position in society (we’re now the majority of the workforce, earning more degrees, and an increasing number of wives are the main breadwinner in a marriage) and in our behavior around marriage and motherhood (age of first marriage and first child are rising, and numbers of women who’ve chosen to be child-free are steadily on the uptick, as well).
Recent years also have seen an explosion in what might be described as a fetishization of these traditional female roles. Bump watches abound, and weddings have gone off the reservation. (After yesterday’s announcement that they’re getting divorced, Kim Kardashian’s $10 million dollar wedding on Aug. 20 to NBA star Kris Humphries breaks down to $138,888 a day. That must have been one hell of a cake.) Professional “glamour” maternity photos are becoming as ubiquitous as the professional engagement portrait.
I’m not saying that we don’t — or shouldn’t — want love and marriage and a baby carriage. But if we don’t, the cultural forces at work sure do their best to change our minds.
We have more choices than ever before, and we’ve been told we can have it all. But, instead of fully enjoying what we do have, how often are we worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t? And — worse! — when we’re not worrying over how we’re going to get the parts we don’t have yet, how much time are we forced to spend explaining that, no, we really are quite happy… time that could be spent, you know, actually being happy?