My first book ? The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?
? was published last week. On Friday I was asked to speak about it at the Yale University Women's Center, where a lively discussion about women's career-versus-family choices ensued. Afterward a student approached me with a hesitant look on her face.
"I had a dream the other night," she said, so softly I had to lean forward to hear her. "I was standing in a linen closet, cleaning it out, and I had a child with me ? I guess it was my child ? and I was stroking his head. Then I heard on the news that a classmate of mine from Yale was running for president. I stood there thinking, 'We used to be in the same class, doing the same work ? and now he's running for president!'"
She sighed, looking forlorn. "And I'm reorganizing the linen closet."
The next morning, she had told her roommates about the dream. But instead of empathizing with the feelings of loss and regret that accompanied it, they accused her of not valuing "women's work" or being a mother.
As gently as I could, I replied, "Your subconscious is trying to tell you something. Listen to it. The reality is that you don't have to give up your own ambitions in order to have children. Millions of us have wonderful careers, well-adjusted kids and enduring marriages. You really don't have to choose one or the other, no matter how many people tell you that you do."
And yet, all over America, at every socio-economic level and in many different kinds of communities, young women continue to squelch that inner voice, convinced that they have to ignore its plaintive call. Instead of exploring their own potential and reaping the rewards, they confine themselves to the linen closet, sentenced to clean it out forever as if it were the female equivalent of the Augean stables.
Over the past few years, demographers have documented a striking new trend as growing numbers of women abandon their careers to become full-time mothers. The media ? which has spent the last three decades harping relentlessly on the difficulties of juggling jobs and children ? gleefully jumped on the opting-out story line, covering the decision to stay home as if it were merely a lifestyle choice that would relieve stress and ensure a happy household.
But nobody ever seemed to mention the risks women incur by giving up their financial autonomy and relying on a husband to support their families. Nor does the typical coverage discuss the implications of sacrificing one's individual goals and dreams; most stories about this issue assume that if a woman doesn't "have to work" out of financial necessity, there are no other reasons to do so.
The reality is that women who quit their jobs to depend on their husbands are taking a terrible gamble on their own futures. Half of them will end up divorced; others will be forced to cope with challenges such as a husband's illness, unemployment or premature death. If you add up all the risk factors, it instantly becomes clear that the majority of women who choose economic dependency will eventually end up on the wrong side of the odds.
The results ? both for themselves and their children ? can be catastrophic. But most women simply don't ? or won't ? do the math. Many stay-at-home moms also draw false reassurance from the assumption that they can return to work when their children are older. In fact, however, surveys consistently show that women who take time out of the labor force will find it very difficult to get back in and will suffer dramatic financial penalties. But for the most part, women are not being told the truth about such uncomfortable facts.
That's just the bad news half of the equation. Equally overlooked is the good news, which is the immense value of work for women. Those who find something meaningful to do and stick with it derive a wide range of benefits, quite apart from the income that elevates their children's standard of living and protects their futures. Work enlarges their worlds, provides intellectual and creative challenges as well as independent social networks, and fortifies them against the inevitable losses that accompany the empty nest. Working women are not only happier than full-time homemakers ? longitudinal studies even show that thay are healthier. Stay-at-home wives are considerably more likely to suffer from numerous medical problems. Notwithstanding the stress of the juggling act, multiple roles are actually good for women.
Mothers who give up their financial independence in favor of staying home usually cite the welfare of their children as the reason. In fact, however, social scientists have studied the children of working mothers and the children of stay-at-home moms for over forty years. Their findings? There is no evidence to suggest that it's better for a woman's kids if she doesn't work ? but there's plenty of evidence that she's putting their futures in jeopardy if she's not equipped to support them at a moment's notice.
Alarmed that so many women are making these choices without being fully apprised of the facts, I began to research this issue and ended up writing The Feminine Mistake. My goal was to provide women with one-stop shopping by collecting all the legal, financial, psychological, medical, labor force, demographic, child development, and other information that would be useful into one book. I had hoped that this offering would help them to make more informed choices that would better protect their own futures and those of their children.
I never dreamed that the book's publication would unleash a torrent of abuse from stay-at-home moms. But judging by the things they've been writing about me, they want to see me burned at the stake.
The witch-hunt actually started weeks before the book came out; stay-at-home moms who hadn't read it were already blogging about how much they resented what I was saying, or at least what they assumed I would be saying.
And then came publication day. I might as well have awakened to find myself in 17th century Salem.