Superwoman 2.0

Your biological clock. Your student loans. Your girly paycheck. Hey, you're having it all.

"A woman, if she wants to have children and a family, she needs to get her shit together very quickly," says Anna. "And most of us in our twenties, we're just exploring and stuff. By the time you get around to the late twenties, early thirties, you start to say, holy shit, I really have only five years to play with here." Anna left her last long-term relationship because marriage wasn't in the cards; the search for a life partner is one reason she agreed to follow her current boyfriend to San Francisco for the next six months.

Kemah, 24, approaches the question a little differently. She is majoring in film and theater at Hunter College and will be around $60,000 in debt by the time she graduates next year. She has resolved to have children whether or not she can find the right partner. "My thinking five years ago was that I have to get married to accomplish some of the things I want to do. Now that I'm getting older I think I can do it myself. I didn't grow up with my father and I don't want to depend on a man."

Alison (not her real name) understands firsthand the financial and personal trade-offs involved in motherhood. At 27, she lives in New Jersey and works full-time for a nursery school, attending Montclair State part-time to complete a degree in early-childhood education. Her son, now four, attends the center for free; she earns such a low wage that she would not be able to afford child care otherwise. "My co-workers and I call the nursery school 'divorce academy.' Most of us are single mothers and we see so many women come in who are barely making it—leaving their kids with us from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. because they're working two jobs just to make ends meet."

illustration: Anthony Freda


Sex & Money
This week, the Voice looks at the ways modern debt affects the traditional life choices of women and men.

  • I, Breadwinner?
    Your dad had a job, a wife, a house. You've got debt and fear of commitment. Hello, manhood.

  • Sorry, Kids
    Mom and dad have glimpsed your future, and it's not exactly bright
  • During her brief first marriage, Alison was a stay-at-home mom, but now that she is engaged again she has a very different ideal of marriage. "I want to work," she says. "I don't need him to take care of me, I just want to be with him because I love him." Still, she says, she wants to have more children in her second marriage, and "it will be nice to have some financial support."

    Other young women dismiss the notion of traditional marriage and children, because their own identity is more important. "I'm mostly not with men," says Emily. "I think there's less of a social structure for me to uphold that notion of a family."

    Young women today were raised with clear messages of achievement and self-reliance. They often outnumbered men at their colleges and graduate programs, and are making economic sacrifices for the fulfillment of their own dreams, without waiting for anyone else's permission. They have taken their equality for granted. Yet as they now struggle to establish themselves, they're realizing, for the first time, the betrayals of gender.

    Lagusta has been with her partner, Jacob, for eight years. They share expenses, and as a sound engineer and tour manager, he earns more than she. But they have decided against marriage. They recently bought a house in upstate New York, with help from Jacob's mother. Though they both contribute to the mortgage, she says, "My boyfriend has his name on the house and I don't. Am I slowly losing my independence? Any woman with any sort of consciousness has to ask."

    It's been almost a decade since a politically charged feminist movement drew in large numbers of young women. Meanwhile, economic inequality persists, casting a pall over women's choices. Staying on the career track? The pay gap has barely budged for the past 10 years; women hold 13.6 percent of board seats at the nation's 500 largest companies. Staying home with the tots? Even if your union survives amid a 50 percent divorce rate, you will still take the economic lumps driven home in Ann Crittenden's 2002 polemic The Price of Motherhood. Rearing children will cost a college-educated woman nearly a million dollars in lifetime earnings, and motherhood is the single best predictor of poverty in women.

    A crop of recent bestsellers, like Crittenden's book and Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, has focused debate on the internecine warfare between stay-at-home and job-holding women, not on how the current situation hurts everyone. "Women are defensively seizing upon the alternatives they have now without realizing that these are not terrific options," says Dr. Fels. "They incur losses when they try to combine really basic elements of life: having work they love and kids and family." Younger women may be tuning out their mothers' acrimony, even as they're making their own fraught choices about the future.

    The fact is that not all of us are going to beat the pay gap, shatter that transparent ceiling, and have it all. Whether our dreams pull us toward the Learjet or the Land Rover, we're going to feel torn. Confronting that reality can be painful, even shaming.

    Dr. Fels says that as women's access to education at all levels has improved, their second-class citizenship often doesn't kick in until after graduation. "Right now the disadvantages are invisible. It's not as clear as being let into a school, but institutions that employ people still ignore families and children," she says. "It's an issue that women feel is their problem, their personal dilemma, but is really a major issue for the entire country." The good news is that we're not crazy; the bad news is that the system needs a major intervention.

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