I've hesitated about tackling this particular topic, but with the recent proximity of Mother's Day and the 50th anniversary of The Pill, I figured there was never going to be a better time to address it. My hesitation stems from a reluctance to drag biology into the equation and to bring up some unpleasant home truths that can't be advocated or educated away.
The luxury (and make no mistake, it is born of privilege) of a quarter-life crisis or simply a period in one's twenties where you're unsure of how you will earn a living for the next 30 or 40 years is not equally afforded to women of child-bearing years and child-bearing inclination. While advances in birth control have given us unprecedented control over our reproductive lives, we still haven't come to the point were we can outsmart mother nature on a mass scale. Women have only a finite period in which to get pregnant and give birth to children without (barring existing fertility issues) medical intervention and these years typically coincide with the time during which we're attempting to launch and establish our careers. This is reality, people. But we're not supposed to think about these competing priorities and if we do think about them, we better never ever mention them to the menfolk (because only straight ladies want to have babies, silly!), lest we look desperate, because desperate is unattractive. There is nothing worse than unattractive, amirite?
I liken it to Nancy Friday's thoughts (though she's not the only one to raise the point) on how "good girls" of her era didn't prepare for sex. It was somehow permissible (or at least forgivable) to get swept up in the moment and just give in, not so being purposive and deliberate about deciding when and how to be sexually active. Good girls didn't plan for it. Now, it's gauche to acknowledge that you think about your fertility (other than in the capacity of preventing pregnancy), that you do in fact have a timeline in mind (especially if you want multiple children) for when you'd ideally like to get pregnant and that this enters into your career and relationship decision-making. You can either choose to be (or to play) willfully ignorant of biological constraints or to be painted as a baby-crazed ticking time bomb (see the tabloid and gossip industry treatment of one Ms. Jennifer Aniston if you need an example). Lovely.
And what about men? The prevailing ladymag wisdom is that they must be treated with kid (heh) gloves and that we must be vewy, vewy quiet (think Elmer Fudd hunting rabbits) and not scare them off by evincing a frothy-mouthed desire to get knocked up before the dessert course of the first date. Har, har. I've seen both sides of the coin. Complaints from an acquaintance about how every girl he dated wanted a ring on her finger and a baby in utero ASAP (well, he said in her "stomach," but I'll charitably give both parties the benefit of the doubt and assume he and his dates know where fetuses hang out), but I've also met my share of twenty and thirtysomething dudes who are dying to be dads. And while men have it easier in that they can father offspring until they're the age of
Hugh Hefner, Larry King, Methuselah and that becoming a parent doesn't necessitate a withdrawal (even temporarily) from the workforce (and the attendant loss of career momentum), they do face the reality that they can't accomplish this goal alone (at least to the degree that women can). Unless we're talking about the Governator, they still require someone to gestate their chromosomal contribution. Not to mention that I'm sure there are few outlets and opportunities afforded to men for pining aloud about one's paternal impulses.
The issue of balancing careers and kids garnered a bit of media attention about six or seven years ago with the publication of Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life and the fact that Oprah herself devoted a show to the topic. But the tenor of the discussion focused around fear-mongering to women about how terrible they'd feel if they waited until too late to get aboard the baby express and then had to face the reality that they couldn't get pregnant. It wasn't so much about taking charge of one's fertility, but getting it before it got you.
It shouldn't be an antagonistic relationship and it shouldn't be painted as something cringeworthy and regressive to admit to that you want a family as well as a career and that you've given thought to how you're going to manage both of these goals. Just like you don't suddenly get swept up into becoming a sexually-actualized person, striking a balance between future motherhood and career success doesn't just happen. It requires effort, planning and a careful consideration of what trade-offs you're willing to make at which life stages.
Given that Gen Y women reportedly expect to have it all, why are we not publicly (and in mixed company) acknowledging this reality? Is it because of the maddening frustration that for all of the advances feminism has given us, we are still forced to confront our basic animal biology and our inability to fully bend it to our wills? Is it that we fear it will undermine our hard-worn legitimacy as ostensible workplace equals (although the lack of wage parity undermines the whole equality thing all on its own) and throw into question our career commitment? Is it that we've bought into the laughably tired stereotype of men being skittish commitmentphobes who must be beguiled into anything that smacks of adult responsibility and shielded from the truth of female reproductive reality (Look at our subject break into a cold sweat upon hearing the word "tampon" Horrors!) at all costs? Or is it because we've been conditioned to believe that nice girls just let nature (when it comes to love, marriage and the baby carriage) take its course, even if nature doesn't necessarily have our best interests at heart?