Childlessness and Regret
I just finished Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s fantastic Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children (used copies on Amazon going for as little as 8 cents!). This book is full of great material on a wide range of topics, but let’s start with one of its central claims: Successful professional women are unusually likely to be childless, and they usually regret it.
Hewlett began by interviewing ten women famous for achievement in a range of fields. Her original goal was to hear the secrets of their success; but during the interviews she noticed two remarkable facts. First, “None of these women had children.” Second: “None of these women had chosen to be childless.”
No one said, “I sat down at age thirty and decided that motherhood was not for me. I planned on devoting my life to building a huge career. I wanted celebrity/power/money – children were an easy trade-off.” This is not what these women said. Rather, they told haunting stories of children being crowded out of their lives by high-maintenance careers and needy partners.
I was taken aback by what I heard. Going into these interviews I had assumed that if these accomplished, powerful women were childless, surely they had chosen to be.
Admittedly, as I told Will Wilkinson:
There are two kinds of regret: Regret where you wished you made a different choice given your constraints, and regret that you had constraints. I’m talking about the first kind of regret, and regard it as much more serious.
Which kind did Hewlett’s interview subjects feel? It’s hard to say for sure, but it seems like a mixture of the two.
Now of course ten interviews leave plenty of room for skepticism. But Hewlett also conducted a large-scale high quality survey, High-Achieving Women, 2001, and compiled a long list of interesting results. Note: In the survey, “high-achieving women” are basically those in the top 10% of the distribution of female income, while “ultra-achievers” are women earning over $100k in 2001. Survey highlights:
- 33% of high-achievers and 49% of ultra-achievers are childless at age 40.
- “Looking back to their early twenties… only 14 percent said they definitely had not wanted children… More than a quarter of all high-achieving women in the 41-55-year-old age bracket said they would still like to have children, and this figure rises to 31 percent among ultra-achievers.”
- Only 1% of high-achieving women had a first child after 39.
- 89% of young high-achieving women believe they can get pregnant into their 40s. In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization.
The last fact is particularly striking, for it suggests that most women underestimate the biological constraints they face. And as any intermediate micro teacher can tell you, underestimating your constraints is a reliable path to disappointment.
P.S. Here’s an energetic critique of Hewlett’s data work. Two key claims:
1. “High-achieving women between 28 and 35 are just as likely to be successfully married as other women who work full time, according to the national data.”
2. “Only 7 percent of never-married high-achieving women between 28 and 35 had had children, according to the CPS. In contrast, fully 32 percent of other never-married working women had done so. One hardly need look farther afield to explain why only 60 percent of high-achieving women had children at ages 36 to 40, whereas among working women generally the figure is 66 percent. High-achieving women are simply much more reluctant to take on single motherhood.”
Frankly, though, these points aren’t all that telling. After all, high-achieving women probably once had (or continue to have) better non-work opportunities than lower-income working women. “Get married and stay home with your kids for a few years” is much more realistic advice for a high-income woman than it is for a low-income woman, because they face very different pools of men.