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One day, my grandmother and I were sitting on her burnt orange, microfiber sofa discussing everything from pop culture to the latest family gossip.

“You know, *Anna and Chris are both extremely successful and wealthy. But they’re in their mid-50s and don’t have any children,” she said, referring to our cousins. “See, you’ve got to be very careful with that sort of thing. You look up one day and have all the money in the world, but nobody to leave it to.”

Those words have stuck with me for quite some time. My grandmother is of the generation when you married, worked a job (not a career, there’s a huge difference), and you had children. Our grandmothers worked, but their children had a home cooked meal every night, the house was cleaned, clothes were washed, and the majority of childcare fell to the women. But children were the joy of a woman’s life. Desiring to be childless was rare; and women without children were viewed just as my grandmother viewed our cousin—somewhat of a failure as a woman.

However, the number of women today who don’t want to marry or raise children is steadily rising. The women of Generations X and Y call their own shots more than their mothers, and their mother’s mothers, ever did. Women are consciously choosing to chase dreams, build careers, and make a name for themselves before even thinking of starting a family. I am one of those women. But what about the ambitious women who do want a family, but run out of time?

While Anna was focused on her career, years were passing her by. She had the intention of dating, but her work consumed her. But she still had time. As she aged, the pickings of eligible men decreased dramatically, if only for the reason that women outnumber men. Anna finally met the love of her life, they married, and both continued to work in their demanding fields. They lived and breathed their careers. They discussed having children, but the time never seemed right. Besides, they wanted to enjoy marital bliss for at least two years before conceiving. Anna’s 50th birthday celebration rolled around and she realized that biologically having a child was probably not in the cards for her. She never meant for this to happen. But time slipped away from her as she was embarking on her career.

Of course, there are countless women who have it all—the career, a healthy marriage, and children. Yet when I think about the most successful woman in the world, Oprah, her wealth and power aren’t all I think of. Her aloneness is linked to the magnitude of her success. I wonder if, for Oprah, it was all worth it.

Naomi Campbell, Janet Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, and Vivica Fox are only a few other women in their 40s, with fame, glamour and success, but no families of their own. Perhaps by choice, but maybe not.

I understand patriarchy has conditioned women to believe that their greatest achievement is the having of children. I don’t agree that this traditional construct should be imposed on us. Women are not a monolith; and we all have different ideas of what we want for our lives, and how we define success. But for the women who believe that Clair Huxtable was the epitome of the ideal woman, and aspire to be Clair-ish, how do we slow down long enough to make sure that all of our dreams come true, and not just the one that earns us an office overlooking the East River with the six-figure salary?

An ambitious woman is a beautiful thing. But the cost of chasing our dreams was never supposed to be so high; so high that we forfeit the opportunity to have the very things we once considered to be a part of the equation.

As our mother’s daughters, we were taught to take care of ourselves above all else. Inevitably that created a generation of women whose focus reached far beyond staying in the home, cooking three meals a day. We desired to be the masters of our fates, knowing we could make it with, or without, a man. But what some of us didn’t learn was that success usually comes with a hefty price.

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those mentioned in this piece.

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  • Dee

    The flip side of this are the career women who regret having had ther children. You would be surprised at the number of women who are honest enough to tell you that they could have done without them.

    • justaroundthecorner

      That’s interesting. They have the option of placing their children up for adoption. Have they considered that? I guess we would all have to live two lives to know for sure which road not taken would leave us with the least regret. In another life many of those same women might have said that they regret not having children (and some still wouldn’t).

  • Jencendiary

    Women could have it all, if men stepped up and did half. In married families with children, where both parents work, the men in the equation did 30% of domestic duties and child raising – in comparison to the woman’s 70% – on average.

    Imagine being a majority of the reason your kids are not wild animals, your house is liveable, and then going out and working just as hard as your spouse but for less pay and less opportunity because there are still institutional bars against women at the salary and promotional levels.

    I’d say, “Eff it.” and run off to join the circus myself. . .

    • justaroundthecorner

      I guess it’s really time to examine more closely how women define “having it all” then compare their definition with men’s definition of “having it all.”

      There are about three times the number of black women in college as there are black men. The jobs that black men have traditionally held in both manufacturing are increasingly being threatened by international competition which is destroying the job markets in manufacturing as well has professions such as engineering and software development. The salary comparisons between black men and women fail to accurately account for long term structural and persistent frictional unemployment nor do they take into account other issues of job security so that arguments which rely on such comparisons have become dubious in the contexts in which they are made.

      Other factors to be taken into account when making salary comparison’s have to deal with sociological influences. Examples are the extent to which some women view their salaries as supplemental to their husbands and prefer promotions less aggressively than their male counterparts. In fact many women prefer men as marriage partners who earn more than them and disdain men who don’t . Women are also more likely to work part time and have to take more time off from work after child birth. These are just a few of quite a number of reasons for the salary differential between men and women.

      Single childless women between 20 and 30 are earning 8% more than their male counterparts:

      http://www.braintrack.com/college-and-work-news/articles/young-women-earning-more-than-men-10090302

      http://www.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2010-09-01-single-women_N.htm

      With an even greater disparity between black males and black females. Black males soon won’t be trying to have it all, we’ll be dreaming about having anything.

      Though, for example, it’s hard to figure the relative contribution of household handiwork and lawn care to house cleaning; the fact that men contribute less time and effort toward domestic chores and childrearing duties is more complicated than the simple arithmetic that fair apportionment of expense (time, effort and finances) is just a matter of dividing by two.

      Men and women enjoy and benefit from marriage in different ways which have been evolving as a result of the women’s movement as well as a changing economy. The social contract between black men and women has been evolving (from a man’s perspective) in a way that rewards them less than in decades past while increasing the rewards for women.

      Marriage was a key rite of passage for black men. Black men had greater status in the household as principle breadwinners and decision makers. Let me be clear that I celebrate the advancements that black women have made and continue to make. I believe in womens equality and that women (and men) should not be coerced into any roles that they don’t choose. However, with women’s equality the rewards of marriage and parenthood have lessened for black men while the expense and burden of expectations has increased for us. It is still attractive but much less imperative for us (and probably women too).

      Women will have to choose to do less at home or men will have to choose to do more. If men decide that the rewards of marriage and child rearing aren’t enough for them to do the added 20% then we have as much a right to that decision as women have about their roles and contributions. After over a century of emasculation in this country many black men don’t want to be Mr. mom or Mr. Wife. If you accept that men and women are different then you have to expect some differences between men and women in the degree and kind of things that gratify us and how we tolerate and manage stress.

      The black men that are comfortable blurring roles aren’t deemed as or more desirable to women as men who are higher earners with high status careers. This is likely to change for worse since but the proportion of men who blur sex roles will rise only because increasingly fewer people will marry. Witness that more than half of our children are in single parent families (http://www.theroot.com/views/poor-state-black-families) and we can see that black women and men chase their dreams of having it all but increasingly the dream is outrunning us.

  • I did the career thing delaying having children. Now I’m in my 40’s with HUGE regrets and no babies. I’m in a committed monogamous relationship, but now I’m infertile.

    It’s real y’all. women have babies when they can and men have them when they want to. don’t fall victim to the “I can have it all” syndrome. That is an illusion. If you know you want to be a mother, make it happen as soon as your grown.

  • Brandi

    This is timely for me. I recently endured a two hour conversation with a preachy, male, friend of a friend that was upset with the way society is turning away from traditional values. His view was that feminism has tricked us into placing value on the wrong things as women. According to him, men don’t value stability in women, so it is pointless to pursue grad degrees and high powered careers, at least if you want a husband. His advice to me was to focus on learning to cook and keep house, and prepare for having children. His words: “A woman that is at the office all day and comes home to clack out emails on her laptop is not attractive to me. Show me a woman that can cook a delicious meal with my baby on her hip and chat with her mother on the phone all at the same time, that’s what I’m looking for.” Wow. Obviously I had issues with this. First, being a housewife is a luxury. Most familes need two incomes. Do I want to spend 8 hours of my day making $10/hour, or do I want to bring home $100k a year? What happens if my husband decides he wants something younger and hotter? How do I provide for myself and my family if I’ve paid no attention to career growth? What would this world look like if only men worked outside of the home? Obviously there is something to be said for what men truly want in women. The key is trying to reconcile that with what I want in myself. Still trying to figure it out…