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    Is Having Children the Right Decision for Professional Women?

    Excerpted from
    Getting It Right: How Working Mothers Successfully Take Up the Challenge of Life, Family, and Career
    By Laraine T. Zappert, Ph.D.

    My husband and I are either going to buy a dog or have a child. We can't decide whether to ruin our carpet or ruin our lives. - Rita Rudner

    Experience: What Professional
    Women Say About The Decision

    I Might Want Kids

    If there is one issue that induces sleepless nights and angst-filled discussion among young professional couples, it is the topic of having children. Although many professional women say they want children, once the topic is broached, a whole host of compelling questions emerges: Do I want kids? Should I have them? What do I know about them? Will I be a good parent? Will we? Not to mention: What will happen to my career? And even further: What will happen to the rest of my life?

    One of my patients, a pharmaceutical researcher in her late thirties, recently described her thinking on the issue of having kids:

    I wish I had some kind of a sign that it was the right thing for me to do. My husband really wants them, but I'm not so sure. I think I do-and certainly that's what all my friends are doing-but somehow I never really had a clear sense that I definitely wanted children.

    I mean, I like kids okay, but I haven't spent a lot of time around them, and I don't feel all that comfortable with other peoples children. I think other women just have more of an instinct about this sort of thing. I wonder if that means that I shouldn't have them.

    Certainly not every woman wants to become a mother, nor should every woman feel compelled to be a mother. Many of us question our suitability for assuming the motherhood role, particularly if career and professional interests figure prominently in our lives. However, not having a clear and convincing sense of how we would be as mothers often evokes serious doubts about our parenting capabilities. Somehow our uncertainty about becoming a parent translates into an indication that we are unsuited for motherhood. From both the clinical and research perspective, however, I can say that there is little, if any, evidence to support this notion, and we do ourselves a great disservice by falling prey to the faulty logic that often underlies this assumption.

    From the clinical perspective, it is absolutely a fact that women approach the issue of having children with varying degrees of certainty. There are definitely women who have known since childhood that they wanted to have children, and some of these women were fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to test out their parental talents on younger siblings and neighborhood children. For many professional women, however, the issue is far less clear.

    Most professional women today have had few opportunities to test their parenting readiness, and even fewer of us have had the opportunity to truly become familiar with caring for young children. Families have gotten smaller at the same time that we, as women, have concentrated on our studies (and sports) rather than engage in more traditional female activities, like baby-sitting. As a result, large numbers of us find ourselves completely bereft of relevant experience. For women who are used to organization and planning, the thought of doing something for which we have limited, if any, preparation, and for which no good manuals exist, can be exceedingly daunting.

    The issue is further complicated by the fact that the decision to have children is rather irreversible - one cannot simply decide to return them if things don't work out-and the time horizon of a woman's fertility further limits our options if we wish to conceive our own children. Add to this quandary the lack of relevant information about the effects of having children on one's career, as well as the effect that children have on the other important relationships in our lives, and the cause of the anxiety plaguing so many of us is readily apparent.

    What If I Don't Think I Want Kids?

    A different but equally anxiety-provoking set of issues exists at the other end of the spectrum. For those professional women who are fairly certain that they do not want to have children, the significant biases toward a maternal role for women in our society represent an inescapable pressure. The feelings evoked by a decision to not have children surprise many women, not unlike my patient, a graphic designer approaching her fortieth birthday:

    I can't believe the pressure that exists to have kids today. Everywhere you go, people are having two, three kids. It's become the expectation. If you say you're not sure you want them, people look at you like you're some kind of social miscreant. My mother-in-law has all but accused me of ruining her son's life because I won't acquiesce. I spent most of my life working, and I'm at a point in my career where I can kick back and enjoy it. I don't really want to start in with diapers and all that.

    It appears that no matter which way we lean on the decision about having children, anxiety figures prominently into the process. Because the stakes in this decision process are so high, this is not a decision to be made from the perspective of anxiety and fear.

    How Do I Co About Making Such a Profound Decision?

    The first step in any good decision-making process is to take a look at what is known. What do professional women who have been there and have made the decision say about their choices? Here, the data from our Stanford study is particularly instructive:

    • What do the women say about their decision to have children?

    • How have children affected their careers?

    • What effects have their children had on their relationships with their partners?

    After reviewing the data from our Stanford study, we will take a look at strategies for sorting out concerns and identifying ways of making more informed choices on this issue.

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