The Baby Dilemma

All this time that women have been defending the freedom to choose abortion, it's been getting harder and harder for women to choose motherhood. Neither Time nor Ms. has made this into an official issue yet, but there are a lot of would-be moms in that loudly ticking 25-to-35 age range who feel trapped, stymied -- anything but free to choose. The first person who laid it out for me was Hannah, a college student in her late 20s. Some of Hannah's friends just aren't interested in having kids. The good news is that they feel freer to say that than did women a generation ago. But the ones who want children -- like Hannah -- can't figure out how they'll ever have enough time, money, or support to raise them. Since my talk with Hannah I've heard the same thing from a lot of other women around her age -- in person and on-line: "I have no desire ... to wind up a single mom, like most of the women I know who have had babies," one E-mailed. "Having come from a single-parent household, and a poor one, I feel that it would be irresponsible to have a child without being able to commit vast resources of time and money to his or her development," said another. "I wouldn't want to raise a child alone, and I don't really believe that one can know that a relationship will last for the next 18-plus years," said a third. "Cynical child of divorce, that's me." Newt Gingrich tells them to find a man to marry, but their experience gives them no faith in that answer. This generation, the first product of the 50 percent divorce rate, was raised by feminist mothers whose main message was "Don't depend on anyone but yourself." "Happily ever after" doesn't come from getting a man, but from getting a career. That's not a solution to the baby dilemma, though.DREAM CAREER "When we were growing up in the '80s the papers were full of reports about the impossible stress of being a 'supermom,' " a friend told me. Could she take a few years off? I asked. "This is the '90s," she answered. "Anybody who has a job had better hold on to it." Like other women she doesn't want to harm the kids she would have by neglecting them because of the demands of work. My friend, though, is among the lucky ones who have that career. Shifts in the job market are pushing many others -- especially women -- into low-wage jobs. "My main reason for not having children is lack of funds," said a health care worker in her 30s. "I think I would be a good mother, but I would hate to bring a child into the world when I can't even support myself financially as yet." Despite all these obstacles, it's obviously possible to have children -- people do it all the time, many with a lot of joy. Many marriages last, and many fathers support their children, whether or not they live with their kids' mother. Lesbian couples are raising children in two-mom homes. Many parents are working out flexible job arrangements that leave more time for children. And many parents are building child-rearing ties with other adults, from new shared-housing experiments to old- fashioned godparent support.THE FACTS, MA'AM Still, these worried non-mothers are on to something. Consider:* Taking time off work for raising children permanently lowers women's earning power, according to a study by economists Joyce Jacobsen and Laurence Levin.* Mothers, married or single, are more likely to be low-wage workers than women without children, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR). And women's average hourly earnings are still only 75 percent of men's.* "Two-thirds of all women with children will spend at least part of their lifetimes as single mothers," says the IWPR.* Poverty, the demands of parents' jobs, and low-quality child care threaten the healthy development of millions of U.S. infants and toddlers, according to a 1994 Carnegie Corporation report. It doesn't have to be like this. Most societies have found some way to support children and the adults who care for them. A friend of mine who spends a lot of time in Brazil says that the close networks of extended family and friends there provide a web of support for parents and kids. Reports from the Swedish government show that even in this age of cutbacks, Swedish parents receive three years of paid time off when babies are born, a sizable child-support allowance from the government, quality child care, and the guarantee of a 30-hour workweek till their kids are eight. But in our look-out-for-number-one culture, children are a burden and a nuisance. Public and private neglect of kids means limited and trapped lives for many of the people left holding the babies -- mostly women. Women won't really be free to choose to have children -- or to participate equally in the rest of life -- until there's a massive reordering of work, communities, and public money to meet the needs of kids and their caretakers. Is that utopian? What's the alternative?

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