This book takes the name Ready from the mouths of the women I spoke to, who said about themselves that they started their families when they felt ready, at or after 35. And they thought they were readier than they would have been earlier in their lives.
Key words in that last bit are they and their lives. Other women feel ready earlier, and more power to them. In contrast with the not-so-remote expectation that every woman would start her family in her early twenties, the good news is that now a woman can start her family whenever she (and often her partner) personally feel ready, not on a prescriptive time table set by social convention. Some women don’t want kids at all, though they still want romantic lives, and that is now an option too. “Thank god for birth control,” as one of the women I interviewed put it.
But there are other ways of reading the word Ready–and one way, apparently, sees an implied “readier than thou” take. That’s not the book’s attitude, but perhaps it may seem so on a quick read through. After all, the personal feelings of the women I interviewed were backed up by evidence that women who wait have higher long-term salaries than women with comparable degrees who start their families earlier, by a greater likelihood that later moms will be married or otherwise stably networked (meaning they have help and money), and by evidence that women who start later live longer! Several pieces on the book have understood me to argue that later moms make better moms, or that I’m joining in the fabled War among the Moms (the same war Miriam Peskowitz suggested was a media creation a few years back).
On the contrary, I offered all that info in contrast to the usual negative line we get in the media about later moms (most discussions of later motherhood focus on fertility decline, with no exploration of why so many women choose to delay, let alone of why so many succeed). Fodder for a long-delayed discussion of all the different strategies moms are taking to best provide for their families and themselves in all segments of our often family-hostile world. It could be taken as the basis for an argument against starting earlier–if, that is, the whole idea of expanding women’s options were ignored. Or of increasing support for all moms and their kids, and learning from what real women are doing, rather than bossing them around.
In my book, we’ve had enough of that bossing. At long last women begin to get to write their life stories by their own lights. And they don’t all tell the same tale. This book happens to be about the radically new story of women who start their families much later than their mothers did. Of course there are other stories too.
Nor do women today write their stories in a world where everybody gets equal opportunity. For many moms, starting families later provides an effective shadow benefits system–higher salaries and more clout to negotiate family friendly schedules at work. In the current environment, waiting for these benefits makes sense for many women (though that’s not the only reason women wait–see post below). For most women, education is also part of the story behind delay. But those aren’t the only factors that determine whether a woman feels ready for family. And readiness isn’t always required for a happy family–lots of people turn unplanned pregnancies into something wonderful. After all, that was pretty much the way of the world until 1960. But there were a lot of drawbacks to the old way–for many. Nowadays, we can choose when and if we start our families. And readiness, however we define it for ourselves, becomes an important part of that decision-making process.
But the fact that delaying family links to increased benefits raises the follow-up question: Why aren’t those benefits available to everybody? Why should women have to wait for family in order to get a decent wage, health benefits and some time to spend with their kids?
Why that’s so now, I’d argue, has much to do with the low status that women have had til recently in the work world–and our change in status is linked in some measure to the rise in the delay phenom. But the scene is nothing if not dynamic. It seems possible that the trickle up of women into the upper ranks of business may soon lead to a trickle down of straightforward (not shadowy) family-friendly benefits to women (and men) and their families at all levels of society and regardless of their age at first birth. If we can get it together to recognize that all our nation’s kids are essential to our common future–rather than taking the view that “it’s your family, it’s your problem,” we’ll be moving toward real positive change. We’re already farther down that road than ever before, though there remains a good way still to go.