When Michael and I got together as teenagers and decided that we were going to try and make this budding romance into a forever relationship, I made him promise me one thing: that when we had kids, he would be a stay-at-home dad. Still recovering from oldest child syndrome (aka having to take care of my younger siblings), I never wanted to be burdened with being the primary caretaker of our future children. I’d had enough of that already, thank you. The only problem? That eighteen-year-old boy was about to go to college for engineering. And I went to school to learn about television. And I’m guessing you can do the math on that.
Now that we’re approaching the “we might be almost ready for kids” phase of our relationship, the economic reality of our marriage is coming crisply into focus, and we’re beginning to realize that Michael might not be able to make good on that promise. For the most part, my thought process up until now has waffled between, “Well then I’ll just need to figure out a way to make more money than Michael!” and “Maybe we can time it so that we have a kid when one of my younger siblings graduates college and we can just kidnap them and make them our nanny because Karma is a bitch?” And when I’m not waffling, I’m otherwise applying a heavy dose of denial to the situation. Maybe we’ll hit the lottery! Because the frustrating truth is that I know when we have kids, the expectation is that I’ll be the one to make the career sacrifices in order to care for our kids. Because, math. And it’s exhausting just having to think about what it’s going to take to fight that status quo.
None of this is new information, though. It’s been long established that women are expected to shoulder the primary responsibility of child rearing (as evidenced by every dad who ever claimed he was “babysitting”). And that having kids without putting your career on hold means a lot of uphill climbing, not a whole lot of sleep, and probably always having to negotiate with your partner on who’s going to get the daycare pickup/softball drop-off when one of you gets called into a late meeting at the end of the day (there’s a whole other post to be written about how our work culture values child-rearing at large and men’s role in that process.) What is surprising, however, is discovering that millennial women like myself are less likely to be up to that challenge. As a recent New York Times article reports:
The youngest generation of women in the work force—the millennials, ages eighteen to early thirties—is defining career success differently and less linearly than previous generations of women… You might call them the planning generation: Their approach is less all or nothing—climb the career ladder or stay home with children—and more give take.
Which sounds great, in theory. This recession graduate is all for work-life balance. Except, then there are these statistics:
A survey of Harvard Business School alumni, released as part of the school’s new gender initiative, found that 37 percent of millennial women and 42 percent of those already married planned to interrupt their career for family. That compared with 28 percent of Generation X women and 17 percent of baby boomers.
The surveys also revealed that some younger women believe today’s economy has made it harder to be a working parent. In the Harvard survey, fewer young women than older women said they expected to successfully combine work and family or have a career equal to that of their husband.
It’s the latter part that I find so disheartening. It’s not that I believe every woman needs to work, or that there’s anything inherently wrong with striving for a more flexible career (because lord knows this fifty to sixty hour workweek most of us are pulling on the regular is simply unsustainable in the long term, especially when you have more than just yourself to take care of). I get that it can’t be all hustle all the time. But when did we (because millennials means me too) become more resigned to the status quo than Gen Xers or even the baby boomers? Did the recession simply break us of our resolve?
Actually, my hunch is that the recession has everything to do with it. Those of us who are now of child-bearing age were among the most affected by the economic crash, with its empty promises of a fulfilling career, or any career at all for that matter. It makes sense that we would place less value on matching the career success of our partners and more value on achieving balance, because where did our ambition get us last time? Broke and disappointed is where. But the problem is, opting for flexibility doesn’t fix the structural problem. We’re still feeling the impact of the recession today. There are jobs again, yes. But the work demands are only getting more intense, the hours longer, and the expectation is that we be grateful for any of it or we can have none at all. And I’m worried that if we simply take that lying down, opting to shift our expectations instead of society’s, that we’re only going to make it harder on ourselves and—perhaps moreso—the generation that comes after us. Or as this piece puts so succinctly:
When people argue that women should be the ones that quit and stay home because they make less, all they do is perpetuate a messed up cycle:
1) We as a society pay women less.
2) We tell them that since they make less, they should be the ones who stay home.
3) We feel justified in paying them less.
I’d be lying if I said all of this doesn’t play into why Michael and I have waited until now to think about kids. I wanted my career to feel like it was in a position worth fighting for, even if the math was in his favor. I wanted my career to feel like it was in a position worth fighting for, because the math is in his favor. Though there is a silver lining. According to the Times:
Men’s attitudes are also beginning to change… For example, 13 percent of millennial men said they expected to interrupt their careers for children. That is more than the 4 percent of Generation X men and 3 percent of baby boomer men who said the same—but significantly less than the 37 percent of women who said so.
Which leads me to two conclusions. First, Michael was way ahead of the curve. And second, while it’s crucial that men’s expectations around careers and child-rearing are shifting, we’re going to have to shift our expectations with them if we want more than good intentions. Because it’s possible that millennials are working to define a new normal. But I also want to make sure we’re not reintroducing an old one.