Ten years ago a New York Times article marked the beginning of a new chapter in the so-called "mommy wars." The piece, which was so provocative it inspired a 60 Minutes segment, highlighted the number of highly educated, successful, Gen X career women who were choosing to "opt-out" and become stay-at-home mothers. Last week The Times caught up with some of those women. While there were some success stories -- depending on a very fluid definition of success -- there were some serious horror stories. The most horrifying of all to any woman who has ever grappled with whether leaving the workplace is a mistake, is the story of Sheilah O'Donnel, a woman who gave up a job earning half a million dollars a year to become a stay-at-home mother. Years later her marriage crumbled, leaving her struggling to get back on her feet financially and professionally with three children in tow.
Now, 10 years later, her advice to her own daughter is very different from the advice she gave 10 years ago when she sang the praises of full-time motherhood. "This is the perfect reason why you need to work. You don't have to make a million dollars. You don't have to have a wealthy lifestyle. You just always have to be able to at least earn enough so you can support yourself."
But I couldn't help wondering if there was another piece of advice that, while completely politically incorrect to say out loud, might have made all of the difference to her story, and could make all of the difference to her daughter's future: have only one child.
The reason? Because all of the data shows that women who have fewer children end up better off financially, a message that feminist writer Linda Hirshman tried to convey when the initial story of the Gen-X Stay-at-home mom revolution came out 10 years ago. Though a mother herself, Hirshman was branded a child-hating, mother-hating, man-hating lunatic. Now a decade later, as a generation of women searches for the perfect compromise to balance their professional ambitions with their parental ones, Hirshman's advice -- have one child, not two or three -- sounds quite sane, or at least more sane than the other options which seem to be either become financially dependent on your husband while raising a brood of children, or remain childless altogether.
When I caught up with Hirshman to ask if she was surprised to hear that a decade later some of these stay-at-home mothers were struggling, she said emphatically, "No. I'm not surprised." She was sympathetic, however, because as she noted, "We keep telling women different things every 10 years. We tell them to work one decade, and then stay home another decade. Then we tell them to go back to work. They've failed if they work. They've failed if they stay home. But we don't keep telling men different things. We tell men the same thing consistently." But she added that she stands by something she told me in a previous interview, "The second child makes it more than twice as hard."
To Hirshman's point data from 1997 published in the American Sociological Review found that women suffer a 7 percent economic penalty in earnings per child. Two later studies published in 2001 and 2003 found the penalty had decreased slightly, but was still 5 percent per child. These penalties exist without accounting for the additional financial penalty that women who have been out of the workplace for an extended period of time due to full-time motherhood encounter. This means that a woman with several children who also has a work gap on her resume is at a lifetime financial disadvantage.
Susan Fales-Hill who wrote for several hit TV shows, including A Different World before becoming a successful author, explained that these economic realities played a role in her decision to have only one child. While she was adamant in conveying she believes every woman and every mother should make the choice that works best for her, she also said that in her case the time out of work that two children may have required was simply not a sacrifice she could make. "I took a very pragmatic, realistic approach. Personally, I assessed all my resources: financial, emotional, familial support. I was honest with myself about what kind of parent I wanted to be -- hands on -- and what sacrifices that would take. I was willing to do it for one, but not two, as I felt it would keep me out of the loop for too long."
Further illustrating the impact that multiple children can have on the opt-out debate is O'Donnel's own story. According to the account in The New York Times, it was after her first two children were born, not her first, that O'Donnel began to struggle to balance work and family, and was forced to take a less demanding role and pay cut. According to Linda Hirshman, who makes the case for all mothers to work outside the home in her book Get to Work... and Get a Life Before it's Too Late, the energy and time required to raise multiple children is virtually incompatible with today's workplace realities no matter how smart and determined a woman is. Calling children "a really wonderful and rewarding part of the human experience," she said that her advice to have one child was actually a response to those who tell women that if they are serious about their careers they should have no children. "I actually said what I said to encourage women to have children and have career ambition. I think people who say don't have children are trying to scare women into not being ambitious for themselves." But she stressed, "have one child, not two."
Besides it being tough to juggle a successful career with raising multiple children, the other harsh reality is that it is much tougher to raise multiple children as a single parent. With divorce rates above 40 percent in America, and the number of children born out of wedlock skyrocketing, the economic reality that it is much easier to financially support one child on one's own than multiple children often catches up with women when it's too late. Furthermore, having more than one child makes leaving a marriage, even a bad one, a daunting prospect for those who have spent much of said marriage financially dependent on a spouse.
Hirshman believes that the renewed debate about opting out is part of a much larger conversation regarding women's changing attitudes about their place in society. With the number of female college graduates now outpacing male graduates, and more educated women now delaying marriage, while some skip it altogether, Hirshman believes we've officially reached a tipping point where more women have begun to question the "bad bargain" that was long a reality of American womanhood. When asked to explain what the "bad bargain" entailed, she explained that it was working hard in the workplace every day, then marrying someone who expects you to work just as hard at home shouldering most of the housekeeping and child-rearing while he didn't.
In essence Hirshman is saying that more women are finally beginning to question, "Who needs this?"
To be clear, the choice to have children, and how many, should ultimately belong to a woman and as long as she can be emotionally and financially responsible for that child, her choice should be free of judgment. But if women are looking to achieve anything close to the myth known as "having it all," the more children they have, the harder it will be. That's not judgment. That's simple math. There are only 24 hours in a day. I say "only" because if you're dividing those hours between a career, one child, another child, another, and a spouse, something's gotta give. Unless of course you are superwoman. Very few of us are.
So maybe, just maybe, Linda Hirshman had it right all those years ago. Having one child may not only be the key to work-life balance. It may be the key to sanity, happiness and ultimately women's equality and empowerment.