Full Time Mothers
campaigning for real choice for families
Family Policy, Family Changes; If You've Raised Kids You Can Manage Anything; What Mothers Do; Endangered; Why Love Matters; A Mothers' Rule of Life; Seven Myths of Working Mothers; Choosing to be different; Baby Hunger; The Miseducation of Women; Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families; Broken Hearts; Mother Love; The Smart Woman's Guide to Staying at Home; Ghosts from the Nursery - Tracing the Roots of Violence; Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century - Preference Theory; The Social Baby; Expecting Adam; Good Food for Kids; Access to Maternity Information and Support; Single Parents in Focus; The London Baby Directory; Marriage-Lite: The Rise of Cohabitation and its Consequences; Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better
I decided to read this book out of curiosity as the author happened to be at Girton College, Cambridge during the same years as myself, though I did not know her. This was in the 1960s, when women were being encouraged to seek fulfilment in a career and where the wish for marriage and a family, though recognised as a legitimate aspiration, was not something one would admit to publicly. I have a vivid memory of a fellow-student's comment as we headed reluctantly for the careers office, 'Let's face it. We don't really want careers, do we? We want to get married and have children.' I laughed and nodded.
Sylvia Hewlett is clearly made of sterner stuff. On graduation she went on to do a Ph.D at Harvard, then settled in the US, marrying and doing a series of high-powered jobs. The theme of her book is simple: it is that if women want 'high altitude' careers and then spend years struggling to achieve this ambition, their chances of being able to 'nurture a relationship' (American for 'marriage') and have children are very slender. In other words, to 'rise to the top of the corporate ladder' (American for success in business or a profession) usually means sacrificing love and children until it is too late.
'But we know all this,' you might say. Yes - but obviously it sometimes takes years and the pain of permanent loss for many well-qualified women to recognise that you cannot have your cake and eat it, too. My wish to review this book arose from a feeling of compassion for all those women on the 'front line' who learn too late that, however interesting a career can be, it is rarely as absorbing or enriching as raising children and watching them develop into unique individuals. 'Baby hunger' is just that - a longing for children of one's own and a realisation, too late, of how extremely powerful this yearning can be. For all the good things that feminism has achieved, it has not been able to change this aspect of womanhood - the deep instinct of maternity.
There is some anger and frustration in the book aimed at men (rather unfairly in my view) because their virility is not tied to a 'biological clock' and because they seem to manage demanding and successful careers and a wife - usually younger, prettier and less qualified than the women whose voices fill these pages. Ms Hewlett notes that men often feel threatened by women who are their intellectual equals and choose not to marry them.
By the time women can relax and focus less on an 80 hour working week, they are in their 40s. The book grimly points out with a myriad of statistics that female fertility drops severely in the 40s and natural conception becomes much harder. High-tech reproduction, or IVF, is largely unsuccessful with older women. The book rightly criticises those IVF clinics which massage the figures so that older women are not aware of this until they have spent much money and been subjected to all kinds of invasive tests to no avail.
Ms Hewlett's recommendations to counter this stark scenario are rather obvious: don't leave marriage and having babies too late; and do find careers that allow for a 'home/work balance'. As a mother of 4 children herself, 3 achieved with difficulty in her 30s and one after IVF when she was 50, and having experienced the trauma of the miscarriage of twins in the 6th month of pregnancy due to overwork, it seems to me surprising that nowhere in the book does the author come to a very basic conclusion: you cannot have a full time, demanding job and be a full time mother. There has to be a sacrifice somewhere along the line. In FTM, we choose 'home'. Others make a different choice. But these choices and sacrifices and the way nature designs women's bodies (and men's natures) are a part of life. Perhaps in America achieving women are raised in a culture where they feel compelled to compete with men on an equal footing in hugely demanding jobs? Yet there is much heartache in this book when such women begin to realise that the lives they lead, crammed with credentials and qualifications, are not the lives they secretly yearn to lead, or the lives they want to look back on when they grow old.