What Trying To Have It All Really Looks Like For Professional Women With And Without Children

March 18, 2016  |  

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In an ideal world, women can have it all–a fulfilling, though demanding, career; a thriving family; and an ample amount of leisure time. But as we all know, usually one of these desires has to give, and for some ambitious career women that means delaying or foregoing motherhood altogether.

Unfortunately, women who decide not to have children in lieu of focusing on their careers sometimes face extra scrutiny from others. “There’s a certain amount of shame that is placed on women who have perhaps chosen a career over starting a family younger,” said Gabrielle Union not long ago in an interview with Redbook magazine. “The penance for being a career woman is barrenness. You feel like you’re wearing a scarlet letter.”

Union’s own TV show, Being Mary Jane, gives a glimpse into the fictional struggle of choosing career versus family, but off camera the struggle is very real. As much as women are shamed for not being mothers, there is still a certain amount of backlash many career women face when they get pregnant. “The reality is that women are discriminated against in the workplace for being mothers,” Union added. “As much as there are strides being made–you get pregnant, your career takes a hit. You can’t have a bad day. Don’t you dare cry at work. Don’t raise your voice. Especially if you’re a Black woman in corporate America–now you’re ‘the angry Black woman.'”

In other words, their careers get  “mommy-tracked,” meaning employers might not seriously consider these women as management candidates anymore because it’s assumed they can’t be a devout mother and equally dedicated to their profession. “They may have been stigmatized for taking advantage of flex options or reduced schedules, passed over for high-profile assignments, or removed from projects they once led,” explained the authors of a recent Harvard Business School study entitled “Rethink What You ‘Know’ About High-Achieving Women.”

Having children can also affect your potential income. According to a National Bureau of Economic Research study, “having a child costs the average high-skilled woman $230,000 in lost lifetime wages relative to similar women who never gave birth.” We can’t say how much that figure influences women’s family planning, but the fact is women aren’t having children as much as they used to. The U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey in 2014 found that 47.6 percent of women between age 15 and 44 had never had children, up from 46.5 percent in 2012. It is the highest percentage of childless women since the bureau started tracking that data in 1976. And the number is largest for women between the age of 25 and 29 (49.6 percent).

Initially, life stylist and media professional Harriette Cole didn’t want children. “I had made a conscious decision as a very young woman not to have children, based on a traumatic experience I had as a child. So, when my husband and I got married, our plan was to enjoy our life together and build our careers. I was working at Essence Magazine at the time. He is a fashion and beauty photographer. We were having fun. I wasn’t thinking about having children at all,” shared Cole who left Essence to start her own company 20 years ago.

Eventually, Cole, who’s the founder of Harriette Cole Media, Inc., which offers media coaching, executive presence coaching, and etiquette training to entertainers, executives, and individuals, changed her mind about motherhood. “My husband always wanted to have children but was willing not to have them since I didn’t want to have any. He was absolutely ecstatic when I got pregnant the first time. But I miscarried. We were both relieved when I got pregnant three years later, at age 42, with our daughter,” shared Cole who vividly remembers the trauma of her miscarriage. “We hadn’t planned to get pregnant, but it happened. I was scared but getting accustomed to the idea. I was on a business trip to Mexico when I had the miscarriage. This was at 11 weeks. I was devastated. You see, I had figured out that I was wrong about my stance that I would never have children. I had fully embraced the idea and was welcoming it, and then this consciousness that I had been feeling within me slipped away. There I was in another country where I did not speak the language going through a painful procedure. When I got home the worst of it was that some people blamed me for losing the baby, saying that I was working too much and that I shouldn’t have been traveling. It was awful.”

After the experience of such scrutiny Cole has hesitant when she found out she was expecting again. “When I discovered I was pregnant the second time, I felt paralyzed. I didn’t want to tell anybody in case I had a miscarriage again and would be exposed to more blame. I was super busy with my career, having just finished writing a book, about to start a book tour for another book, and in the early stages of taping a TV series. I thought the world as I knew it was going to crumble. I thought my brand would fall apart. Indeed, I had no idea what my world would look like with a child in it. I was accustomed to traveling all the time for work and being nimble enough to do whatever I needed to do. I remember sitting on a bench feeling shaken to the core about what would happen next.”

On top of that fear, Cole was also dealing with mounting pressure to conceive. “My mother and my mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law were the agitators. I remember my mother giving me the gift of a picture frame for a baby’s room one year. When we did have our daughter, 10 years after we got married, my husband’s grandmother, who was 92 at the time, asked me why I waited so long. She was offended that I didn’t give her more time to be with my daughter.”

That family pressure is common, explained life coach Pamela Benford. “Pressure is simply being forced to do something you do not want to do or are just not ready to do at that time. The way of dealing with this successfully is having a spouse who does not want children, can’t have children, or simply doesn’t care.”

The more educated a woman is the more likely she is to never have had a child, according to Pew Research. Looking at race and ethnic group, white women are most likely not to have a child. Yet during the past decade, childless rates have risen more swiftly for Black, Hispanic, and Asian women, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. But for as much research as has been dedicated to trends, little attention has been given to some of the reasons women opt for careers over children. “In most cases I wouldn’t call it a stigma, I would say many women have chosen this route due to a means of survival, be it that most women find it necessary to make a living for themselves,” Benford said. “Due to the absence — or presence — of having a good husband or father for their children, they have opted to maintaining or becoming successful themselves without having to be dependent on someone else.”

Music industry veteran and owner of Organic Soul Marketing Jacqueline Rhinehart agreed. “The reason for delaying children, primarily for some, is number one being single, or having few resources such as back-up childcare, health insurance, and job security. Rhinehart married when she was 40 and decided not to have children. “Where I come from most women did not have children out of wedlock. They may eventually adopt, but none of the (22) women I went to high school and college with got pregnant as teens or 20s or 3os! No one had a child without marriage until the age of 37, when two girlfriends decided to have a child without a partner.”

Another aspect missing from data on childless women are the stories of women who don’t choose not to become mothers, but who can’t, like singer CeCe Peniston who suffered five ectopic pregnancies. “I wanted to have children and my ego was bruised as a woman. I was angry; I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t be blessed with children, but I realized I had other gifts to give the world,” said Peniston, who is now expanding her successful swimsuit brand, Sew Unique Swimwear by Cece Peniston. “Sadly society definitely looks at childless women a certain way. But it’s 2016 and we are independent women who make our own rules.”

Unfortunately that independence hasn’t quite caught on when it comes to a woman’s responsibility if and when she does become a mother. By and large, women are still very much expected to play by the rules regarding traditional gender roles, noted Benford. “Men and women have two separate roles in the family life or life in general. Order is utmost vital in the family structure and without it, it destroys the whole family system.” As a result of this mentality, women often find themselves in charge–or decide to take charge –of the home and family, leaving little room for career challenges.

Cole is hopeful more men will help out with child-rearing as our traditional roles evolve. “I see changes afoot. I know men who are stay-at-home dads and are doing an excellent job. I think the biggest challenge that women experience when they want to pursue a career and ‘have it all’ is that they often do not have the same kind of support that men have,” she pointed out. “In my case, because my husband and I had no family in New York, we paid for the privilege of having a child with both parents working, including a mother who traveled very regularly…Most challenging was when I was working for Ebony magazine and traveling every week between NYC, Chicago and LA. My daughter was very young. To create stability in the home, the nanny whom we love as family, came to my house everyday at 7 am–even when I was in town.”

Some women have found other ways of handling this problem. Xerox CEO Ursula Burns, whose retired husband took over the responsibility of raising their children as she climbed the professional ladder, once joked, “The secret [to success] is to marry someone 20 years older.”

While everyone might not be able to follow in Burns footsteps, they can taker a lesson from Rhinehart when it comes to stereotypes about women without children. “The stereotype is that the woman will have a cat! Payback for all the hardness she’s exhibited and nurtured in her successful career! Child, please there are a lot of lil’ Oprahs out here, enjoying the fullness of life the same as men have done–and probably, doing it better.”

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