jessie

Does “Having it All” require “Settling”?

Recently a friend alerted me to Lori Gottlieb's article in The Atlantic Monthly advising women in their twenties to "settle" when it comes to finding a mate:

Don’t worry about passion or intense connection. Don’t nix a guy based on his annoying habit of yelling “Bravo!” in movie theaters. Overlook his halitosis or abysmal sense of aesthetics. Because if you want to have the infrastructure in place to have a family, settling is the way to go.

Well I did not take kindly to this advice. I think Gottlieb's perspective is sexist and harmful-it's directed only to women and promulgates the idea that as a woman ages she becomes less desirable to men. Rather than encouraging women to think about "perfection" in terms of commitment and character, Gottlieb validates the idea that a life partner is ideal in their appearance first and their ability to support and enjoy a committed relationship second. But I haven't been able to stop thinking about it either.

Recently I've been feeling more and more like having children will be like "settling" for me.

[Continues after the jump]

I don't really feel ready for the personal sacrifices raising children entails. But I know that when I'm 60 I'm really going to wish that I had had kids. I also know that my mid-twenties are the best time in terms of my health and my children's to start a family. So I'll endure the things I dread - I'll get fat and bloated, I'll lose sleep (and my complexion), I'll give up traveling and disposable income and high heels. All for a little brat pack of my own.

I think many women would argue that those things I'm dreading sound rather frivolous in comparison to the joys of raising children. These compromises aren't identified as "settling" with respect to having kids the way they are with respect to getting married. But it's really no different.

Gottlieb anticipated negative reactions to her observations as anti-feminist and unromantic. I also anticipate negative feedback to the confession that I'm not wild about the idea of having children but thinking about it nonetheless. But I also think that among women like me - young, professionally motivated and accomplished - these feelings aren't unique.

9 Comments

complainant

I feel the same way but instead of feeling pressured to have kids before I'm ready, I have instead thought a lot about adoption and decided that it would be better for me to wait until I really want kids (even if I can't biologically have my own without fertility treatment at that point) than to have them before I am ready.  I have seen so many women who resent their children, and I really don't want to be a victim of the feminine mystique.  Also, there may come a time when I'm ready, and I can just adopt.  I know a few women who adopted babies in their forties, and it has worked out really well for them. 
I also think it's okay to not want kids and that more women need to be okay with who they are if they're not the maternal type.  I have had several good role models in this respect, women who have had great careers and who now, in their retirement years, have wonderful marriages and a lot of disposable income (and beautiful houses that are not at all child-proof).  One couple we know takes off for 6 months out of every year to live in a new country and have been all over the world.  They absolutely do not regret that they never had children.  I think it's a myth that, as jessie said, "But I know that when I'm 60 I'm really going to wish that I had had kids."  Every woman who doesn't want kids now thinks she'll regret not having kids, but the truth is that not every woman is meant to be a mother, and that's okay.  I think that it's important to realize that having kids is a tradeoff, and it will make certain aspects of life more difficult (or impossible) and that since we all want different things out of life, this tradeoff will come out differently for different women.  There are benefits to having kids, of course, but those benefits appeal more to some than to others, and society has a huge interest in making child-rearing seem appealing and an innate part of the female experience, which I think is a load of crap.  Women make most of the sacrifices when it comes to raising kids, and we should think long and hard about it before we cave in.  If more women decided NOT to have kids, society would need to provide incentives, and we might actually see some meaningful changes in how parenting is valued, who does the parenting, and the kinds of support parents get. 
I used to feel a lot like you do, Jessie, and I played with the idea of getting pregnant, but then I realized that it isn't a sure thing I'll ever want kids or that I'll regret not having them, and since then I have really made an effort to try to look at myself closely to make sure that I make decisions for the right reasons and not just because I have been socialized to think a certain way.  I think all women are socialized to think that they cannot be complete or happy without children.  I know that this isn't true.  Also, for some people, being really involved aunts or uncles (whether biological or "adopted" by close friends) to other people's children or getting a "little sister" mentee, etc. can be a better fit than having kids of one's own.  Also, having kids before we're ready isn't good for anyone, I don't think.  With adoption, you can wait with no pressure from your uterus until you know for sure whether you are ready to be a parent.

sintecho

Thanks for bringing my attention to this article, Jessie.  I agree that parts of it really turned me off, I think partly because Gottlieb used brash language to describe something that I've come to think of as "be realistic."  I came to the hard realization in my early twenties that years of watching Disney movies as a child had severely corrupted my sense of reality. No one I dated was good enough because none of them lived up to the Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty/Little Mermaid Prince Charming I'd been expecting.  I grew up thinking there is a soulmate out there for everyone (despite my mom's single friends who had never found said soulmate), he or she will be a man if you're a straight woman or a woman if you're a gay woman, will be living somewhere you can meet him/her at the right time, will speak a language you speak, etc.  Maybe there is a soulmate out there for everyone, but logically and historically speaking, there isn't a whole lot to back this version of reality up.  After all, less than fifty years ago, women were basically marrying the first guy they dated, they weren't living with their boyfriends before marriage, and they were pretty much waiting to have sex until marriage. A guy could easily look like soulmate potential in that situation.  Also, the idea of "settling" was just part of reality because you were probably going to marry someone from your town, and you knew those options from the very beginning.  Now, the options are limitless.  We can go anywhere and often move to several cities in our lifetimes.  The potential to meet that one soulmate seems greater because we're so mobile, and we marry on average much later than before.  However, in most places in the world today, this idea of soulmates or searching for perfect love is not one that resonates with most women.  Either marriages are still arranged or else people marry for far more practical reasons.  And are they less happy than we are?  I don't know.  I think that in the "old days," happy marriages were something you built and that love between partners grew with shared experience and time.  I think that this version of married love is far more practical and realistically attainable than the whole soulmate thing.  I don't want to be the complete jaded unromantic, but while I don't agree with everything Gottlieb wrote, I do agree with her point that "part of the problem is that we grew up idealizing marriage—and that if we’d had a more realistic understanding of its cold, hard benefits, we might have done things differently. Instead, we grew up thinking that marriage meant feeling some kind of divine spark, and so we walked away from uninspiring relationships that might have made us happy in the context of a family."  I don't agree you should just marry whomever, but I do think that if you have a fair amount of attraction to a person and otherwise find him to be intellectually stimulating and kind, then it might be worth it to stick it out with that person rather than to leave what could be a very good relationship (i.e. 80% of what you're looking for) in search of the elusive soulmate (the 100% perfect match).  I think there's a thin line between settling and being realistic and that if you want to wait for a soulmate, you have to be okay with the fact that you might be alone for a very long time. 

jessie

As I wrote to my girlfriends when this article first circulated:The thing is that pragmatic, as opposed to romantic, marriages used to be the norm. Until recently, only princesses lived in fairy tales.  But romance, like so many other luxuries, was commodified and mass marketed to "modern" women. So here we are, just 50 years after the first "diamond is forever" commercials, and diamonds are for everyone; the average wedding lands the happy couple in $30k of debt; and the divorce rate is higher than ever.
 
What Gottlieb calls "settling" might also be called prioritizing. When I tell people that my parents decided to get married after only knowing one another for a couple of days, people always imagine a whirlwind romance - crazed passion, etc. Actually though, they spent most of the time talking about having kids. After a couple days they knew they could count on one another to be there for their family and that was enough. But I don't think either of them thought they were settling. I think they thought they were just incredibly lucky to have found someone with the same life priorities. If, like Gottlieb, you're breaking up with people because of their appearance, their movie-watching habits, or their chosen profession, then your priority was not to find a life partner, it was to find a life accessory - something to make you look good, something that matches with everything. I do have a prblem with identifying this in gender specific terms. I also have a problem calling this "settling" as opposed to just pointing out the way that pop and consumer culture have created these new romantic pressures for women.

Katie

I take issue with a few things in this article and they are likely because it is written by a woman who regrets* (*gasp*) having a baby without a man and I am a reader who has had two babies with a husband whom I no longer love but am stuck with.
First, she writes:All marriages, of course, involve compromise, but where’s the cutoff? Where’s the line between compromising and settling, and at what age does that line seem to fade away? I actually don't think that the line fades away at all.  I think it becomes much clearer when you've been married to the same guy for more than 10 years and he still isn't compatible with you.  Even clearer when you look around and you decided to start a family with this person that is less than perfect so you realize you are stuck with that person, at least until the kids are 18 yo.  Traits that you may settle for in your 20s or 30s just may end up making you very lonely, yet married, in the future when you realize that you're in a loveless marraige and that maybe you shouldn't have settled.
Second, she writes:But then my married friends say things like, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you don’t have to negotiate with your husband about the cost of piano lessons” or “You’re so lucky, you don’t have anyone putting the kid in front of the TV and you can raise your son the way you want.” I’ll even hear things like, “You’re so lucky, you don’t have to have sex with someone you don’t want to.”
The lists go on, and each time, I say, “OK, if you’re so unhappy, and if I’m so lucky, leave your husband! In fact, send him over here!” This could only be written by somebody who thinks that having any husband at all is better than no husband.  She could easily insert, "So what if your husband is abusive, at least he helps you change the diapers!"  How would that go over?
I think that you have to carefully look at the perspective from which this is written.  It is most likely true that having two parents team up to raise kids is easier than doing it alone.  However, I think the real myth in our society is that women need to sacrifice their personal happiness just so that they can have a family.  Having children is  HUGE sacrifice.  When they are babies it is all encompassing.  As they grow it is more than all-encompassing, if that is possible.  Why would you want to find yourself in 10 years with a man that you settled for just so you also have to face the fact that the kids have taken every bit of yourself that you have to give (and more) and that on top of everything you are with a person that you will never truely love. 
Don't marry unless he is Mr. Right and don't have kids unless you are married to Mr. Right and intend to stay married, no matter what.
 UPDATE: by personal happiness I mean that which is outside of motherly happiness.  Children bring unbelievable joy but we are multi-layered beings who look for happiness from multiple aspects of our lives.

Elizabeth

This post by Amy Richards makes some of the same points that complainant raises, namely that the author began "to question [her] inclination toward having kids: was it a 'choice' or a programmed response from [her] gendered conditioning?"  The author advocates  examining "why the majority of [women] want children and did this choice preclude [women] from truly being equal to men, as was hinted at in past generations."  She states that she thinks "we often have to reject the assumptions or cast away 'natural' choices—be it kids or make-up—and then re-choose what we want. That process of rejecting and challenging often exposed authenticity."

veronica

Obviously she feels the grass is greener. I feel rather sorry for her for that. And I'll agree that marriage is very idealized and that more realistic models are needed (especially with so many young people who grew up without their parents as a model of marriage). To take a slightly less malignant view of Gottlieb's point, I guess I would say "Before you decide your loving and dependable partner is too boring to live iwth for the rest of your life remember that life is not a James Bond film and that loving and dependable count a lot". I would never forgo a deep connection with the man I was going to marry. But it doesn't have to be all roses and hot air balloon rides either. I hope that is what she's really get at, though I think she expressed it poorly, clouded as it is by her "grass is greener" bitterness at her own situation.
But I do think that people who have children should be aware they ARE settling. I'm not saying it is a bad thing. I am happily married with a child and I would choose both over again. But on a much more serious note than Gottlieb, I think women lawyers need to know what they are doing when they have a child. They're settling with respect to their career. A husband is an adult who can give and take and wait for you and be understanding (and you can do the same for him). A child's needs do not wait for when the partner says you can go at night.
 To take your list of "frivolous" opportunity costs:  "I'll get fat and bloated, I'll lose sleep (and my complexion), I'll give up traveling and disposable income and high heels". Those are all pretty much true. <ul><li>OK so when you get fat it isn't the same as when you just gorge on junk - it has shape and tautness that can be very attractive. But yes it will change your figure, probably forever. Wear all the cute little black dresses you can now.</li><li>Losing sleep cannot be described. You think you lose sleep when you pull an all nighter or two in a row at a firm, or to get a paper in on time at school - you have yet to meet the "every 1 hour" waking infant. I used to long for just doing an all nighter or two and then being able to sleep straight through to get over it. No such luck. My son woke every two hours or less for a whole year. There is nothing I can imagine under the Convention Against Torture that is not matched by lacking sleep chronically. Since sleep can't really be saved up there's not much you can do except when you are pregnant sleep as much as you can before the birth so you're starting behind.</li><li>Yes kids are very expensive - but there's actually a good trade off there - they have REALLY cute stuff. I actually enjoy shopping for my son's toys now more than I used to enjoy shopping for clothes before. Honest.</li><li>High heels need not be a thing of the past - but wear out your beloved ones before you have a baby, your shoe size is likely to go up a half size during pregnancy and not come down again. I still wear heels, and it was an excuse to get new ones too.</li></ul>But even bigger sacrifices or "settling" are involved in having a child. I actually believe that in the current NYC law firm environment there is no such thing as a family friendly job. I think women who think they will have small children during their pre-partnership years are commiting to either disappointment or long-hour childcare and not seeing their child much. Sad but true. I urge women law students to do one of 2 things: either get together and fight it now while you've got market power as graduates, or settle - ie go into public interest law or a non-legal career or academia. And if you fight be aware you could lose.
I think the state of the profession for women is as bad as its ever been - just along different fronts.
 

mythago

How can you "know" how you'll feel at 60? Why do you think your mid-twenties is the best time for you to bear children?
I'm not challenging you to provide answers to *me*, but your post seems to make a lot of assumptions it's not clear have much of a basis. Can you really be so sure that, forty-odd years from now, your regret at not having children is going to be worse than having them? That if you wait until you're thirty (whoa—old!) to have kids that will really be suboptimal?
This isn't meant to be scolding, but having children because you're supposed to, or you might be sorry someday—but don't want them now—is a very bad idea, and it's not fair to your children. Plenty of women don't have biological children and don't end up miserable old cat ladies.

jessie

These are fair questions - the answer is that the decision to start a family, like all other major life decisions, is ultimately dependent on very personal characteristics and proclivities.
Family is important to me.  I have a big, close one (I lived with my grandparents for much of my childhood, talk to not just my sisters and parents most days, but to most of my cousins at least once a week, etc.).  I feel confident in predicting that I will want to have a big family of my own eventually because my relationship to my family has been the defining one of my life.
As for having a family sooner rather than later, this is also very personal but very appropriate for me. If you want to have a big family it's much easier to start early. As for adopting, while I'm not opposed - and of course supportive of those who choose to adopt - I have in my own family been witness to the very real challenges (financial, biological, legal, and emotional) that are associated with adoption and not child-bearing. Finally, there are important health benefits for biological mothers (pregnancy has been shown to significantly reduce your risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as help build immunity against many common viruses) and significant health risks for children born to older women. 
The point is these opinions are about myself, based on my own experiences.  They should not be taken as advice to all women, even those in a similar situation.
Lastly I think it's important in a media climate in which pregnancy and motherhood is worshipped (you can't stand in line at the supermarket or log on to cnn.com without being inundated with images of glowing mothers to be and actresses proclaiming motherhood the greatest role they've ever played), I think it's important to recognize that many women may be ambivalent about having children, and that those feelings don't mean they aren't great women or that they can't be great mothers.

mythago

To be a little clearer, I'm (again) not suggesting that you owe me an explanation, or that your choices about what is right <i>for you</i> are mistaken. (Although to be a little more blunt, it's not true that any woman past her mid-twenties is an "older mother" or that 30 is some kind of magical cutoff for when your eggs start to curdle. When <i>you</i> feel is best to have children is entirely your business, but there are a lot of lies peddled about how women who wait until they're 30 to have babies are doomed to be sterile, or something.)
In a culture where pregnancy and motherhood is worshipped, I think it's equally important not to assume ambivalence is meaningless or "you'll feel differently once you have kids". Of course it's true that you can want to be a mother very much and still be apprehensive about iit. But it's also true that there is a lot of pressure on women to ignore that ambivalence: Oh, of course you'll love them when they're yours. You'll feel differently when you're a mother. Every woman feels that way. It doesn't mean anything.
A bit long-winded, but the short version is that there's a difference between being sure you (generic-you) want something and still having some ambivalence about it, vs. talking yourself into something you don't want because "I'll be sorry if I don't" or "everybody feels that way".

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