By Kristine Cherek • July 21, 2016•Writers in Residence, Issues, Balancing Private and Professional Life, Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
As a little girl I did not dress up in princess costumes. I couldn’t imagine my future wedding. I did not dream of the day my prince would come. Instead I dreamt of court rooms, board rooms, and corner offices. There would be no glass slippers in my future. Unless, of course, the glass slippers were Louboutins that I purchased for myself.
I was raised by a Gloria Steinem-loving, unapologetic feminist mom. Hers was not an enviable position. She was a single mom raising three young girls in the 1970s – a time period in which NO ONE in our community was divorced. She made it her life’s mission to raise children who were educated, self-sufficient, strong, and independent. There were no Disney Princess movies, pink bedrooms, or frilly dresses in our household. We read Little Women and watched documentaries on the Equal Rights Amendment. When I wanted to take ballet classes she signed me up for baseball instead. We finally compromised on gymnastics: still powerful and strong (for her), but graceful and sparkly (for me). Through the influence of my mom and my very intense gymnastics coaches, I was raised to be tough, aggressive, and confident (after all, if you do not possess these qualities as a gymnast, you will land on your head and it will hurt). I was raised to believe that women – and even little girls – are powerful, strong, equal, and can achieve anything they dream of if they are willing to put in the hard work.
For everything my mom did to create a sense of strength and equality within me, she could not change the outside world. She could not shape societal views. She could not take away the judgment and inequality that I - and so many other women of my generation - would come to experience in our future lives.
The Reality of Today
In many ways our society has made great strides toward equality since the 1970s. Yet in many ways not much has changed. Every day women are valued based on our relationships to men. We are measured by our marital status. We are judged by our maternal state.
Every day women hesitate to announce pregnancies for fear that it will negatively impact our careers. We fear being sidelined to the “mommy track.” Women are viewed as somehow less dedicated to our careers, less available, or even less capable of competing in the professional world once we have children. Women struggle to preserve our careers during maternity leave and struggle even more after returning to the working world. We endure the snide comments of co-workers who joke about the “3 month vacation” (i.e., maternity leave) we necessarily take after the birth of a child. We constantly must prove that we are just as capable, just as dedicated, and just as motivated despite our marital or maternal status. Every day we are treated as if we are somehow different in the professional world.
Even today, some believe that women should not even BE in the professional world. If you doubt any of this (and I suspect that some of you do), look no further than the candidates vying for the highest offices in the land today. How can one believe that women have achieved equality in the professional world when a major party candidate for Vice President of the United States believes that women belong in the home and NOT in the workplace? . How can one believe that women ARE treated equally when a major party candidate for President of the United States believes that, “Putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing.”? . While some may not experience it on a daily basis or even at all, the bias is real. The judgment is real. The inequality is real.
Judgment is not reserved for professional women with children, of course. Single women, divorced women, and married women without children are the subject of judgment, too, just of a different kind. Women are viewed as somehow lacking, less worthy, or someone to be pitied if we are not married with children. If you doubt this, look no further than the magazine rack at the grocery store. You will find no shortage of stories detailing which starlet is FINALLY wearing a ring on “that” finger, or whose husband is cheating on her, or whether that 40-something actress will FINALLY have a baby. It is as if society is saying that a woman is not complete in her own right; that her completeness will come when she is married with children. How can women be viewed as equal in the professional world if we are viewed as incomplete beings when on our own?
“Why Don’t You Have Kids?”
I cannot even begin to estimate how many times I have been asked this question.
I am a 40-something, married professional who does not have children. I had a successful career as a corporate lawyer. I now teach at a law school. I’ve won awards. I write this awesome blog. I have a wonderful husband and the most amazing friends. I do pro bono work for non-profit organizations. I run marathons. But I am rarely, if ever, asked about any of these things.
Instead, I am asked the “why don’t you have kids” question ALL THE TIME. I am asked by acquaintances, co-workers, people I just met at cocktail parties, people I barely know, wives of my husband’s business associates, ladies at the nail salon, even the checkout clerk at the grocery store. Once a female acquaintance actually said to me, “I feel so sorry for you. Your life must be so . . . empty . . . without children.” See above. My life is pretty great, actually. And it is far from empty.
Here is the really interesting thing: I do not think my husband has EVER been asked the “why don’t you have kids” question. Not once. By anyone. Why is that? Why, as a society, are we so fixated on a woman’s maternal status but we do not even acknowledge the same issue vis-à-vis men? Why is a woman’s life viewed as somehow incomplete if she is not married with children while a man’s life can be perfectly fulfilled by his career alone? Why don’t we treat women and men equally when it comes to our collective views of marriage and parental status?
Not everyone aspires to be a doctor, lawyer, or internet mogul. So why do we assume everyone aspires to be a mother? Women will never be truly equal in the professional world - or in society in general - if we continue to categorize and measure ourselves based on marital and maternal status.
Please Stop Asking These Questions
Let’s stop defining women by their marital and parental status. Let’s stop asking single women when they are finally going to find the “right guy.” Let’s stop feeling sorry for those who are divorced. Let’s stop asking childless women why they do not have children. Let’s stop pressuring newlyweds with the “when are you going to have a baby” question. Let’s stop treating maternity leave as a vacation and start seeing it for what it really is: exhaustingly difficult work. Let’s stop assuming that working moms are somehow less dedicated to their careers. Let’s all stop judging one another based on our martial and parental status. Let’s stop viewing women as wives and mothers first, and professionals second. Instead let’s just view women as equal people. Plain and simple. Because until we do all of that - until we stop measuring women based on marital and maternal status - women will never have an equal place in the world.
Create Your Own Happily Ever After
Why do we assume “happily ever after” must include a spouse and children? Why do we assume that single or divorced women must feel unfulfilled, regardless of their accomplishments? Why do we assume that mothers cannot be equally successful in the professional world?
As best summarized by Jennifer Anniston in a recent blog for the Huffington Post, “We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves.” . When are we going to start BELIEVING that? When are we all going to start LIVING that?
To the women of the world, it is time to create your own “happily ever after.” It is time for us to each define what completes our own lives. If you want to get married and have children, please do so. If you want to continue progressing in your career after having children, then make it happen. If you want to take a step back from your career to spend more time with your kids, more power to you. If you love your single life, stay single. If you are in a committed relationship but do not value the institution of marriage, stay just the way you are. If you are married but do not feel the desire to have children, please don’t. For being a parent looks, to me, like the most difficult job in the world.
Be single. Be unmarried and in a committed relationship. Be married without children. Be married with children. Be something else altogether. I don’t care which option you choose so long as you choose the option you really WANT.
Please do not let others’ perceptions or judgments define you. Do not bow to the conventions of society. Define your own success. Create the life you truly want to live. Do not allow others to treat you as less capable in the workplace just because you have children. Do not allow others to pity you just because you do not have children. Demand to be viewed as equal, regardless of whether you are single, divorced, married without children, married with children, or otherwise. Do not judge others based on the choices they have made. Life is difficult enough without all that judgment.
Buy your own glass slippers. Stop waiting for your prince to come save you. Save yourself. And create your own happily ever after.
Follow me on Instagram @kcherek and on Twitter @kristinecherek.
. See Eric Bradner, Pence in 1997: Working Mothers Stunt Emotional Growth of Children, CNN, July 18, 2016, available at http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/18/politics/mike-pence-mothers-day-care/.
. See David Wright, Trump in 1994: ‘Putting a Wife to Work is a Very Dangerous Thing’, CNN, June 2, 2016, available at http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/02/politics/trump-wife-comments-abc-interview/.
. See Jennifer Aniston, For the Record, The Huffington Post, July 12, 2016, available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/for-the-record_us_57855586e4b03fc3ee4e626f.