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There is a secret out there, a painful, well-kept secret: At mid-life, between a third and half of all high-achieving women in America do not have children. A nationwide survey of high-earning career women conducted in January 2001 shows that 33 percent of them are childless at ages 40-55, a figure that rises to 42 percent in corporate America. By and large, these high-achieving women have not chosen to be childless. The vast majority yearn for children. Indeed, many have gone to the ends of the earth to find a baby, expending huge amounts of time, energy, and money. They subject themselves to humiliating medical procedures, shell out tens of thousands of dollars, and derail their careers. Mostly to no avail. After age 40 only 3 to 5 percent of those who use the new assisted reproductive technologies (IVF and the like) actually succeed in having a child--no matter how much they spend, no matter how hard they try.
Why has the age-old business of having babies become so very difficult for today's high-achieving women? They are better educated, command higher salaries, and enjoy greater access to careers than any generation of women before them. In addition they have longer life spans and many more reproductive options. Yet all of this new status and power has not translated into better choices on the family front--indeed, when it comes to children, their options seem to be a good deal worse than before. Woman can be playwrights, presidential candidates, and CEOs, but increasingly, they cannot be mothers.
We will begin to learn how and why this has happened by sharing the stories of nine high-achieving women from the breakthrough generation. Wendy Wasserstein, Stella Parsons, and the other women featured in this chapter grew to maturity on the crest of the women's movement, fought hard to succeed in careers their mothers could only have dreamt of, and realized--in many cases too late--that among the sacrifices they were expected to make were ... children. For them, combining career with family has been a seriously difficult if not impossible challenge. Now in their mid- and late forties, with their childbearing years essentially behind them, they invite us into their lives to share their struggles. Their stories offer insight and understanding and provide valuable information. It behooves the next generation to pay attention. By doing so, twenty-something women might be able to avoid the cruel choices that dogged the footsteps of their older sisters.
I don't want to suggest that young women are thoughtless or naive. They know it's rough out there. When they look at the senior women in their organizations they cannot help but notice that rather few of them have rich family lives, that many seem isolated and lonely. My concern is that many of today's young women seem convinced that their circumstances--and choices--are vastly improved. They believe that employers these days are more accommodating, that men are more supportive, and that women can rely on getting pregnant deep into their forties. As one 29-year-old woman lawyer told me, "the pioneer women of the '70s and '80s paid some kind of special price for their careers. For us, things are different. We plan on having it all."
But is such easy confidence warranted?
I think not.
As we shall discover in chapter 2, women in their twenties and thirties are dealing with the same cruel trade-offs. Indeed, if anything, these trade-offs are deeper and fiercer than ever. To pretend otherwise, to imagine that somehow these dreadful choices have gone away, merely covers up and obscures the real challenges.
Thus, the voices from the breakthrough generation must be heard; young women have much to learn from their stories. The plotline of these lives is important: what worked, what went wrong. But the emotional arc is crucial as well. It is profoundly important to understand what these women now regret, and what they glory in.
Let's begin with Wendy Wasserstein--a woman who after a ten-year struggle finally did get a child in under the wire. In all kinds of ways Wendy was one of the lucky ones. In September 1999 Liz Smith broke the happy news in Newsday.
One of Broadway's most gifted playwrights and New Yorker par excellence has had a baby girl at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The baby was most welcome since Wendy had been yearning for motherhood for eons, but the infant was premature so she will be hospitalized for a little while. (The father's name has not been announced.) Congratulations, dear Wendy. You did it your way.
The Liz Smith piece put a brave face on a difficult reality. Wasserstein had developed an age-related medical condition that triggered an emergency caesarean in the sixth month of her pregnancy, so Lucy Jane was born three months premature and had to stay in the hospital for the first ten weeks of her life. The enormous emotional and practical challenges then facing Wasserstein were compounded by the fact that there was no father to share the wrenching trauma of having a child in neonatal intensive care. But hey, no one promised it would be easy having a child at age 48.
The New York Times has called Wasserstein "the voice of the breakthrough generation" for the very simple reason that the triumphs and tribulations of this extraordinary cohort of women thread through Wasserstein's work as well as her life. These women reaped the benefits of the equal rights legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, which dramatically increased the range of opportunities available to them. On the career front the news was nearly all good--barriers were knocked down, and for the first time women could attend Yale University, play soccer, and take out a mortgage. In their private lives, too, they found themselves in uncharted territory, and here the results have been decidedly mixed.
Wasserstein is a woman thoroughly in touch with the opportunities wrought by modern feminism. In an interview in January 1999 (just before she finally succeeded in getting pregnant), she was emphatic on the subject: "I think the women's movement saved my life. In fact, I know it saved my life.
My mother sent me to Mt. Holyoke because someone told her "Smith is to bed, Holyoke is to wed." And had I gone to Mt. Holyoke in the 1950s I would surely have gotten wed and ended up as a housewife in Scarsdale. A whole part of me--the creative part--would have died. But suddenly this thing showed up which expanded possibilities. The women's movement gave me the right to find my own voice--and the belief that my own voice was worth finding. It's extraordinary--that an idea can do this for someone.
Yet for Wasserstein, the women's movement did little to help with that other set of goals that revolve around marriage and children.
For me the reproductive thing has been huge. I mean, if I were a man I would decide at this point to marry some attractive, accomplished 34-year-old woman who wanted children and was willing to put her career on hold to raise our kids. Maybe I would have to take on an extra job writing movies to support us. But I could do that. No problem.
Instead of this standard, male scenario, I have just spent seven years trying to have a child on my own. I started off low-tech with two years of Pergonal. When this didn't work I moved into high-tech reproductive territory. Over five years I did GIFT (gamete intrafallopian tube transfer), seven cycles of IVF, and even tried surrogacy. A woman named Marcy flew in from Alaska to be implanted with embryos created out of my eggs and some donated sperm. But the whole effort didn't pan out. Somewhere along the line the embryos deteriorated--in packing or storage--and were unusable. Marcy went back to Alaska.
By this point I've gone through so many procedures--and been injected with so many drugs--I can't even keep track of them all. What did I get out of all this? All I've proved is that I can't get pregnant, that I'm really not a girl.
At first I thought I was up for anything. You show up, the doctor shows you a range of high-tech options, and there's this powerful thing--the promise of a child. But before you know it you've flunked the third year running and you're beginning to feel used and abused--not to mention broke. You sit in clinics that are wallpapered with pictures of babies, but despite the fact you try as hard as you know how, you don't get to have one of those babies.
I'm no longer sure that this technology is remotely empowering. You take a woman of my generation, someone who is seriously accomplished, but is in her forties and hasn't had a child. This new technology becomes a way of telling her that whatever she accomplished, it isn't enough. And then when she fails to get pregnant--and most of us do fail--it erases her sense of professional competence and erases her confidence as a woman. I know these procedures left me feeling more depressed than at any other time in my life.
There is more than a hint of bitterness here. I haven't talked to Wasserstein since her successful pregnancy, which obviously transformed what she feels about ART, but back in the winter of 1999, she was hugely resentful about what these technologies had done to her life.
"Why is the nasty, painful stuff around sex and reproduction always dealt with by women?" she railed.
There were IUDs when I was in college and now they are injecting us with God knows what. Why is it never the men? Or at least when it involves men it's Viagra--something potent and pleasurable.
It can be frightening, this yearning for a child--it's hard to fathom the desperate urgency. And I guess I haven't given up. I mean, I still have these adoption lawyers calling me, and I'm thinking of having one more stab at IVF. For me, coming to terms with this thing might mean battling on until I actually have a child.
Hesitant, defiant, her voice trailed off. Two months later, this remarkable and valiant woman became pregnant with little Lucy.
So there we have it: a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, one of the most admired women of my generation, helplessly mired in a struggle to have a baby--her enormous accomplishment irrelevant to the task at hand. Indeed, as I discovered in many hours of conversation with Wendy Wasserstein, these very accomplishments hindered her ability to have a family. Over the years, her considerable success has been immensely threatening to men. One long-term boyfriend, for example, threatened to break up their relationship if her play Uncommon Women moved to Broadway. The play made it and the boyfriend walked out. When she turned 40, Wasserstein finally gave up on finding Mr. Right and began seriously trying to have a child on her own. It was then that she ran full tilt into another set of problems--problems that centered on her own declining fertility.
Nowadays, the rule of thumb seems to be that the more successful the woman, the less likely it is she will find a husband or bear a child. For men the reverse is true. The more successful the man, the more likely he is to be married with children. One pair of figures from corporate America says it all: 49 percent of women executives earning $100,000 or more a year are childless, while only 19 percent of 40-year-old male executives in an equivalent earnings bracket do not have children.
This glaring gap between the ability of high-achieving men and women to have children is underscored by the Wasserstein family itself. The very week Wendy Wasserstein was dealing with preeclampsia and the premature birth of baby Lucy, her sister-in-law was settling in across the hallway at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Claude Wasserstein, 34, wife of Wendy's brother, Bruce, was at the hospital for the birth of their second child. Claude is Bruce Wasserstein's second wife, and the bouncing eight-pound baby boy she delivered in September 21, 1999, is Bruce's fifth child. As with so many men, fame and fortune for Bruce Wasserstein--an exceptionally successful investment banker--has been accompanied by beautiful wives and many children. This happy coincidence of fame and family did not materialize for his equally successful sister, Wendy. Nor does it for most high-achieving women.
Of course, in the end Wasserstein did have a baby, and early one Sunday morning in September 2000 she talked about her miraculous journey. She was back at Mt. Sinai Hospital giving the opening address at the annual RESOLVE conference--RESOLVE is a nationwide organization that provides information and support to those dealing with infertility. Attending the conference were over five hundred people--couples and single women--all in the throes of infertility treatment. Wasserstein took this opportunity to explain how she finally got her child.
"After seven years of failure I thought I had quit trying," she said. Then, at a restaurant, she ran into one of her first fertility doctors, who told her that new technology would give her a 50/50 chance for a child. Six months later she was pregnant, facing an entirely new set of challenges.
In her sixth month Wasserstein was diagnosed with preeclampsia. She was hospitalized and the pregnancy stabilized, but sixteen days later her condition suddenly deteriorated and the doctors decided to deliver the baby by caesarean section. On the afternoon of September 12 Lucy Jane was born, 14 inches long and weighing 790 grams, or one pound, 12 ounces.
Wasserstein described the first time she held her daughter. "Lucy Jane was almost weightless. Her tiny legs dangled like a doll's. Her diaper was the size of a cigarette pack."
During Lucy's stay in the hospital, Wasserstein experienced some heart-stopping moments. The evening of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, she arrived back at the hospital and found that Lucy had needed a blood transfusion and now had a respirator tube taped over her nose and mouth. Another time she arrived and noticed that Lucy's tiny knit cap had been cut down the center.
Wasserstein panicked and ran down the corridor in search of a doctor. It turned out they had taken another brain sonogram; Lucy's brain ventricles were enlarged and needed to be monitored.
But pint-size Lucy Jane had an iron constitution. Not only did she take these medical crises in stride, she grew and she flourished. Ten weeks after birth she was allowed to go home.
Wasserstein finished her Sunday morning talk at Mt. Sinai on an emotional note.
"Lucy Jane is one year old this week. And she is thriving. That is the first miracle," she said. "The fact that I was able to make the choice to have this baby--that it was medically possible, that it was culturally possible--that is the second miracle."
I looked around the Stern Auditorium. There was hardly a dry eye in the room.
Later that morning I met up with Stella Parsons, 45. Stella and I are old friends--back in 1991 we had been part of the same Clinton transition team. She was in town for the RESOLVE conference and we had arranged to meet. We sat in a corridor at Mt. Sinai...
Excerpted from Creating a Life by Sylvia Ann Hewlett Copyright © 2004 by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
|Preface to the Original Edition||1|
|1||Stories from the Front Lines||31|
|2||The Sobering Facts||83|
|3||High-Altitude Careers and the "Price" of Motherhood||119|
|4||Predators and Nurturers||159|
|5||Infertility: The Empty Promise of High-Tech Reproduction||201|
|6||The Time Crunch||253|
|7||Having It All||289|
Posted April 10, 2003
This book is an eye opener to say the least. It talks about the odds that the women of today face. Whether it's long hours on the job, no time for a social life, misfortunes during a pregnancy, or the problem of infertility, women seem to be on the wrong end of things. One example of the statistics presented is the percentage of professional women working long hours and earning high salaries while raising a family versus women with less demanding jobs while taking care of their families. This was a wonderful book, which included stories from women, and even some men. It will make you think twice about the important aspects of your future. She has come up with detailed lists and descriptions of how to manage your life in order to achieve your career dreams as well as personal goals. The only negative of this book was that it seemed a bit repetitive in places. That should not discourage you from reading this book, however. It is a worthwhile read for anyone who is starting out in a career and hoping to become a parent someday. It is wonderfully informative about the conditions women who dream of being mothers one day face in this demanding working world.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 20, 2003
I found that the book provided interesting insight. Women today are so educated on when to have kids and how many by what age. No one really discusses the effects of children on your life as a whole; your work life, your home life and you social life. Mrs. Hewlett discussed this point in great detail. It made me relize that a plan is necessary, even when you're young. I would recommend this book to women looking for a way to plan when getting started in life. Don't wait till it's too late.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 2, 2002
Actually, the author's findings are pretty much on target when it comes to what is taking place all over the country. If you are 35 or older, ask your own doctor. Just like me, millions of women wanted to have babies later in life. My OBGYN said at 35, it was very risky but not totally out of the question. AT 35! Wake up ladies - want a safe pregnancy and healthy babies who progress into normal children - get started straight away before age 30! If not - don't blame people who warned you.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 1, 2002
Hewlett's claim that she wanted to write a book about successful women and then uncovered the tragedy of how many of them 'forgot' to have children is disingenuous. She has an ax to grind - she can't stand the fact that some women haven't reproduced (the author herself just HAD to have a baby at age 51 despite her husband's reluctance). So she gathers data from discredited studies, asks misleading questions, and then draws her so-called conclusions. For instance, she says only 14% of women she surveyed wanted to be childless yet almost 50% of those surveyed were. Yet she arrived at that 'conclusion' by asking women if, while they were in college, they thought they would have children. But, interestingly, she does NOT ask them if they still think they want children. She just assumes they do and, q.e.d. they're unhappy and unfulfilled. Too bad this author gets so much spotlight. She has so little to say, and no data to support it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.