Let me begin with a disclaimer. I have been happily married to the same man for 30 years. I have worked as a lawyer at the same job for 33 years, most of them part-time while I raised our three children, all of whom grew up to be well-adjusted, successful adults. Although mine has been a blessed life, the formula I chose does not work for every woman. My point is that, constructing a gratifying life, especially for women, is not the product of luck or happenstance, but a deliberate process that requires identifying goals, setting priorities, and intelligently reaching necessary compromises. Where can today’s young women find guidance as they set about the process of building their lives, striking their balances, and making their individual choices? When it comes to giving advice pundits are too immoderate, parents too conflicted, and academics too, well, academic.
There is no shortage of writing about modern women. A New Yorker article from last year by media critic Ken Auletta (“A Woman’s Place,” July 2011) recounts the life of Sheryl Sandberg, a wildly successful businesswoman who espouses Gloria Steinem’s objective of a world in which half the CEOs are women and half the stay-at-home parents are men. Auletta describes Sanberg’s satisfaction at having put together a life in which, regardless of the two-career parents’ demanding travel schedules, one parent has dinner with the couple’s young children every night. There is just a hint of wistfulness that dinner with the entire family is not the daily norm. Kate Bolick questions the very desirability of marriage in her November 2011 Atlantic article, “All the Single Ladies.” She begins by exploring why highly educated women often do not marry; she ends with a catalog of her own failed relationships and offers a justification for women who decide that they do not need men after all. This skepticism of traditional roles is found throughout French intellectual Elisabeth Badinter’s recent book, The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women (2010), in which she decries society’s relegation of women to the role of “female mammals.” The problem with these messages is that they encourage young women to think the modern woman’s existence can consist only of extremes. Nothing in an ambitious young woman’s experience appears designed to prepare her to reflect in advance on what she wants from life or to equip her for achieving her goals.
To a large extent, the responsibility for guiding daughters lies with parents. Many young women, however, have Baby Boomer parents who, based on their own youths, subscribe to the theory that a certain amount of youthful drifting and dreaming not only is acceptable but to be encouraged. As the saying goes, parents should give their offspring roots, but also give them wings. Such Boomer parents encourage their emerging adult children to “find themselves,” free from parental tugs or influences. Although some parents continue to see the value of direct guidance—Badinter, for example, argues that behind every strong woman is a strong father—many, especially mothers, have abdicated their job of instilling daughters with a sense of purpose and have retreated to the role of being merely their daughters’ friend.
Another measure of responsibility for producing young women without a plan lies with colleges and universities. The time, place, and circumstances present in college are ideal for young women to begin charting the course of life. The greatest numbers of equally able, age-appropriate, eligible men are found during the college years, making them ideal for monogamous dating, that time-honored experiment that is often the precursor to marriage. For some, the college years mark the end of the conveyor belt of education that upwardly mobile women are expected to ride and the time to anticipate life as an adult.
Instead of creating a culture that encourages young women to explore meaningful relationships with men, however, there is an atmosphere at many colleges and universities in which random, seemingly anonymous, sexual “hook-ups” are favored over dates. Committed couples are an aberration. Women apparently believe that when they are ready for a serious relationship, one will magically materialize. Most colleges and universities offer some variant of Women and Gender Studies programs, women’s resource centers, or both, that purport to explore issues that are unique to women. But what practical relevance does a book about a male college professor who underwent a sex change operation (Jennifer Finney Boylan’sShe’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, 2003) have to do with the future life of the average young woman barely out of her teens? How do treatises about the plight of downtrodden women in underdeveloped countries assist an ambitious, highly educated, female college student in America think about the life she will encounter upon graduation?
All colleges and universities have professors who offer their students sage advice about what graduate school is best and which one is most within that student’s reach. By now this advice is at least as applicable to women as it is to men; one study shows that in seven out of ten graduate fields, women outnumber men by an overall ratio of 58.9% to 41.1%. But few professors warn young protégées that the price for entering academia is losing control over where to live because the market for academics is so tight that Ph.D.s must go where the jobs are, whether in Calais, Maine or Nome, Alaska. Most colleges and universities have career centers, and the good ones are skilled at placing young graduates in lucrative positions at top consulting, I-banking, or advertising firms, which now hire women in almost equal proportions to men.
Few career counselors at colleges and universities, however, advise students about the practical consequences of choosing such jobs: that living out of a suitcase five days a week or keeping a sleeping bag under one’s desk are not jokes, but a way of life. Few career center counselors ask female students whether they want a profession that has them working 80 hours a week, whether they want a relationship with a man, and if so, how they would handle a career that takes her one place and him another. Where in college are young women asked to consider who they want to raise their children if they opt also for a career, a husband with a career, or both? Are these prospective mothers content with the idea of placing their children in institutional daycare centers? Are they prepared to spend a major portion of their income on in-home child care in order to have the luxury of greater control over their children’s day-to-day lives? Is the “mommy track” right for them? Will they choose to interrupt high-powered careers to raise their children themselves?
In some ways, graduate and professional schools are worse, for they encroach on what biologically are the best years for conceiving and bearing children. Graduate education focuses even more heavily on career at the expense of life choices than does the undergraduate experience. The three years of law school, for example, are typically followed by a push to obtain the most prestigious judicial clerkship (or two) and then a job at a high-powered law firm. Law school graduates—now over 50% of them women—routinely embrace the fantasy that they will use the extravagant salaries large firms offer them only long enough to pay off staggering student loans before deciding on what they really want to do with their lives. What they fail to anticipate is that the culture of large law firms continually sucks young associates into working grueling hours with the allure of growing paychecks.
There are, of course, exceptions. A family friend who teaches at an Ivy League law school frequently finds himself in demand as career advisor to soon-to-be graduates because, in addition to teaching, he has engaged in the private practice of law. When students come to him asking for advice about which job offer to accept, one of his first questions is where the student was raised and whether the student has considered returning there. Almost universally, and especially among the women, the reaction is dismay. The student protests that she has spent decades trying to escape home and can see no reason on earth for returning there. Coming from a parent, the suggestion to return home smacks of selfishness and unwillingness to “let go,” but coming from a professor, it carries some authority. By going home, young female careerists can gain a distinct advantage both professionally and personally.
At home, people know the young woman’s reputation, while employers tend to have an investment in the success of an employee they have watched grow up and mature. At home, the young professional arrives on the job already versed in the local culture and mores, the infrastructure, the prominent personalities and institutions. Perhaps most important, home is usually where extended family is. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins not only are independently valuable influences on young children—and their parents as well—but extended family can be enormously helpful in easing the practical complications associated with childrearing. This remains of particular importance for women, who continue to assume the lion’s share of responsibility for the daily supervision of offspring.
Of course, parents should not play Capulets to their Juliets and force their preferences on their daughters. Neither, however, should parents consider that their role as advisors ends with their child’s adulthood. Parents should recognize that advice to a child remains valuable no matter what the child’s age. For every stage of life the child reaches, one or both parents have been through it. That experience can help to direct daughters especially, whether they choose to mimic the mother’s model, the father’s, or draw from both. Parents need continually to engage their daughters in a dialogue about the choices facing them at every juncture.
As for educational institutions, by no means should they compromise their primary purpose of fostering intellectual and academic rigor or teaching career skills. Nor should they coddle young women or encourage them to do anything other than achieve their full potential. However, by adding to the mix of intellectual discourse and career advice a realistic, holistic conversation about how to build a life, women’s resource centers can serve a real purpose for female students. They should not waste their energies on such questions as whether men can be feminists or whether women should watch football games while men cook Thanksgiving dinner and do the dishes. Academia should take advantage of its captive audience to encourage young women, at a time when the majority of life’s great decisions and choices remain in front of them, to recognize that life consists of a number of pieces that only considered reflection and careful planning can fit into a puzzle that suits each individual woman.