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If you’re a woman between the ages of, say, 18 and 30, then chances are good you were raised by a mother who aspired to be an ’80s superwoman, a CEO-domestic goddess in shoulder pads—and so, minus the shoulder pads, do you. Creative satisfaction, along with money, romance, and gorgeous offspring, is part of our deluxe have-it-all package. And yet, in the years between college and settling down, we run smack into some harsh economic realities that can leave us sounding like women on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
“Just make me sound not too insane,” pleaded one woman who reluctantly agreed to talk about her situation.
“I’m in this really hard place and I honestly don’t know what to do,” said another.
And, “Is this making any sense at all?”
Sometimes we feel like the madwomen in our own attics, and no wonder. “The decisions facing young women are very complex and tough issues,” says Dr. Anna Fels, a psychiatrist and author of the recent Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives. “There’s no cultural consensus on how to lead your life anymore.”
On a limited budget of time and money, we have to somehow prioritize making a living, making our mark, and making a family. As hard as this economy is for young adults in general, it’s that much more complicated for women, who not only earn less but want more. Both men and women of this generation are taking on unprecedented debt for their educations, but at 76 cents on the male dollar, women have a harder time working their way into financial stability. They’re also more likely to take time out of the labor force, which slows the career climb and drags down earnings.
A study conducted in 2002 by the Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement found that more than half the single young women in the United States are living paycheck to paycheck, compared to only 42 percent of single young men.
Often, we run into serious debt while pursuing big dreams.
Lagusta Yearwood, 26, is a chef with her own gourmet-vegetarian meal delivery service, lagustasluscious.com. She has struggled to get the business up and running while paying off about $45,000 in debt from student loans and from living on credit cards while in college and culinary school. “I was an English and women’s studies major [at the University of Rochester], and now I’m a cook,” she says. “I’m happy I went to college, but if I’d known I would come out with so much debt and wouldn’t be making money from my degree, I wouldn’t have gone.”
Emily, 30, recently quit a long-term freelance job as a photographer for a daily newspaper. “In the newspaper world, men are more aggressive, sometimes at the cost of sensitivity,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to stick my camera in the face of some woman whose child died three hours ago.” She has gone back to more personal and creative work—one recent project follows a woman truck driver cross-country—but she’s struggling to pay for health insurance.
Anna, 32, the daughter of Russian immigrants, majored in business at SUNY-Albany to please her family, and has held well-paid consulting jobs for the past 10 years. Finally, last November, she made a change. She was accepted to Columbia’s master’s program in international affairs, but deferred for a year. “If I leave my job, which I’m making good money in, to go 100K into debt, that’s just fiscally a really stupid, stupid decision,” she says. Now she’s trying to figure out a way to get the degree while working part-time.
A lack of funds, as well as time, is keeping Lisa (not her real name) from finishing her first film, a documentary about the Middle East. She estimates her finished project will cost up to $80,000, and only when it is done will she be able to move on with her chosen career, not to mention family and children. “I really truly want to get married,” she says. “I’m 29, I wouldn’t mind having my first child at 33, but I want to finish the film before that. That’s my first baby.”
Marriage has traditionally been the means for women to provide for themselves and their children. Of the dozens of women on the 2004 Forbes Richest People list, nearly all of them made their fortunes through marriage. But few twentysomething women today are counting on a breadwinner.
“I feel like girls are really brought up to imagine their lives with a partner,” says Sara, 27, who is getting her MFA in creative writing at Columbia. “I can imagine myself in a long-term relationship but not in a way that has any impact on the way I think about my economic life.”
For those who want a partner and children—and that’s by no means a universal desire—there is a clear push to establish your own career and identity first. Meanwhile, the detested biological clock is running. The average age of first-time moms edged up almost four years between 1970 and 2000, from 21 to 25, driven by a rise in births to thirty- and fortysomethings. Since the mid 1970s there has been a fourfold increase in the percent of first births to women 30 years and older.
“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.”
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.