COLUMN

Dilemma of the working parent

Barbara Amiel December 23 1985
COLUMN

Dilemma of the working parent

Barbara Amiel December 23 1985

Dilemma of the working parent

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

Last week I sat with a woman just like me in a London, England, fertility clinic. She had just learned she would never have a baby. The doctor who had been treating her did not break the news himself. He sent her instead to the nurse-adviser trained to deal with weepy women. The nurse was a nice lady. It wasn’t her fault that as she spoke all the woman could see was a large black crow sitting on the nurse’s shoulder. The crow was just sitting there, its beak hard yellow, ready to gnaw out her insides. She hoped it would.

Outside my window the lavender bushes have no flower on them, only resilient, spiky leaves. On my record player, Mirella Freni is singing the Easter Mass aria from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, her voice soaring in prayer. All sopranos pray for love at least once an opera, and we all pray for it more than that in life. I was allowing myself to wallow.

This column, though, is not for wallowing or for the personal disappointment of being childless. It is for young girls.

I am 45 years old. Behind me is a career of some small achievement, a lot of late nights, a life of both pleasure and hard work—the two inextricably mixed, feeding on one another. It is a story I share with many women to some extent.

When we were young, there seemed nothing that could not be solved by ambition and hard work or some practical solution. We grew into womanhood just at the time we were coming into our own. We felt no urge for a baby, except during those sudden moments when a friend or relative would put a sweet-smelling powdered bundle into our arms and a pink hand with barely visible nails would reach out of the crocheted shawl and clutch us. We put our responses down to the sentiment of the moment, that sudden rush of feeling, the urge to hold and stroke and nurture. We wanted more than sleepless nights, more than mornings sterilizing formula bottles, more than months and years of picking up after a child and watching the parade go by.

So we waited. Our energy was focused single-mindedly on our “careers.” After all, the magazines were full of stories of first-time moms in their late 30s, even 40s. All the child-

less women we knew who were in our age group were familiar with their names: there was actress Ursula Andress, who had her well-publicized baby at age 42. There was clever American author Nora Ephron, 38, married at the time to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. Her pregnancy coincided with so many magazine stories on the phenomenon of older women giving birth that Ephron mused wryly that she was finally on the leading edge of a trend—love, marriage, careers and then babies. Heck, it seemed we could have everything.

Everything? Well, perhaps, for the very exceptional or the very lucky, everything is possible. For some of us, who learned too late about the difficulties we might have in conceiving, it turned out not to be possible. Medical difficulties detected in the mid-30s can be beaten—but not as easily as those detected in the mid-20s. It is estimated

that 25 per cent of married women are now facing problems of infertility. No one is quite certain what is causing the problem. Most doctors feel that at least part of these statistics has to do with postponing pregnancy too long. One can’t speak scientifically, but when nature is thwarted by contraceptive drugs, induced abortions and new trends, such as later marriages and women in high-stress jobs, it seems likely that some price has to be paid. In time, nature will adapt. But time in that sense can mean thousands of years.

There is no overwhelming conclusion to all of this. Changes in the role of women will continue, and most of those changes are beneficial to both women and society. In fact, it is unfair to blame the feminist movement or overweening ambition for the ambiguity many women feel about having a child in their early years. Some glandular demands simply assert themselves too late. The truth is that a lot of women don’t get the hormonal rush, that maternal instinct, at an early age. When this feeling is absent, most go

out and get a job. The difficulty comes when women set their sights not just on a job but a career.

A career differs from a job in that it requires a dedication to the labor force and a stream of energy outside regular working hours that is virtually incompatible with married life, let alone motherhood. If there is one mischievous and wrong idea that feminists have helped spread, it is the idea that motherhood and early two-parent careerism can somehow be co-ordinated if both parents are liberated enough to share parenting. The cruel truth is that a baby takes a great deal of time and energy. Babies are not incompatible with a job, but they are incompatible with serious ambitions in the work place. The idea that a man and a woman, each beginning the pursuit of serious careers, could somehow “share” parenting is ludicrous. The dilemma cannot be solved by having two people work halftime on the way up the executive ladder or you will end up with two failed careers. Serious careers cannot be pursued only three days a week.

Frankly, it is difficult enough for two people who both want highpowered careers to be married at all, let alone have children. This is no news, of course, and it is the reason most women faced with the dilemma between family and career have chosen to have their children first. This makes biological and sociological sense, but it does mean coming face to face with that unpleasant notion called “delayed gratification” if you are an ambitious woman. This sort of attitude is increasingly difficult, fed as it is by the glossy-magazine view of a life in which we can all have everything.

I mention these home truths not to discourage women from becoming symphony conductors or architects, nor to suggest that young people in love shouldn’t get married and help each other pursue their career ambitions—without children.

I bring it up to put a teeny weight on the pendulum of women’s liberation—a pause, just an extra beat, while we catch our breath and assess our options. I mention it to try and make sure that the large black crow that some of us see every day now may cast his relentless shadow over fewer women. There is nothing more unbecoming to one’s physical and mental complexion than regret at what might have been.

The idea that a man and a woman, each pursuing serious careers, could share the job of parenting is ludicrous