In Ready I explore the many reasons the women I spoke with gave for having started their families later. Though every woman had her own particular story, there were five big and basic grounds for delay:
getting an education
establishing at work
finding the right partner
self-development (seeing the world, figuring out who you are)
and, among lesbians, the combination of coming out and identifying as a gay mom.
Many women cited more than one reason–several cited four or five. There’s plenty to say about all these reasons–in fact they could fill a book. In this post I’ll focus on the interaction of delay and work (the outside-the-home kind).
Everybody has opinions on birth timing — because it defines the fabric of our lives, and it has big consequences. Ask the next person you run into their experience with birth timing, and see if you don’t end up in a long and intense conversation.
Lots of later moms invest in work before family because they want to be able to give all their attention to learning the ropes in their field in the initial stages of their careers. After they’ve put in an intense period of apprenticeship, they feel that they can step back a bit at work–still getting the job done well on the basis of their experience and their established networks–but having time to concentrate to their home job too. Adjusting to motherhood, getting to know your baby, and learning the skills that allow you to rear that baby well, all take time.
Devoting their twenties and a good part of their thirties to career, meant that many of the moms I spoke to also felt they were making more money than they would have if they’d had kids earlier. I checked this against census data and found that they were right–comparing full time workers with the same degrees all of whom were in the same age range at the time of the census (40 to 45 and 35 to 39), those who’d started their families earlier made markedly less than those who started later (see chapter 3 for lots more on this). We can figure that the higher salaries linked to starting later had to do with those women getting their degrees earlier, spending more overall time in the workforce, and moving up the ladders of experience and position before kids.
These women also said they felt that delaying family had given them more clout in their workplace–which they could use to negotiate flexible and family-friendly schedules that would not have been available to them had they had not proven themselves over the years to their employers. And as a result of that clout, they were able to stay in the workforce either full time (with flex) or part time (with benefits).
There are lots of cultural ripple effects here!
For one, it seems to be true that the trickle up of women (many of them later moms) into the upper levels of business means that we’re seeing more and more discussion of family-friendly policies, and sometimes of actual implementation of those policies. These may be moving us toward a world where the overall view isn’t that “it’s your family, it’s your problem,” but one that recognizes the importance of childrearing to the common wealth.
Though family friendliness may not seem an obvious plus for the bottom line to some employers, down the line employers do benefit from kids: they all need the customers and workers of tomorrow. In the short term, as more and more are recognizing, family-friendly benefits are needed to retain and grow the talents of women workers. Not only are women important contributors to the national talent pool, but they’re important in terms of sheer numbers. As the boomers retire, you’ll have a huge client pool and a smaller group of workers to serve them. Need those women in the workforce!
If and when these recognitions take hold on a big scale (say when we all have access to good child care, and to sick days that allow us to stay home with an ill child, instead of having to choose between keeping our jobs and tending our young), the need to create your own shadow benefits system through delay might disappear. Which could affect the number of women choosing to start families later. Since that’s not the only factor that leads to later motherhood, it wouldn’t disappear the trend, however.
The business case for waiting is evolving — the dynamics of later motherhood unfold as we go.