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Baby Panic

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Hewlett is a former economics professor who currently runs a nonprofit for parents' rights out of the New School, but foremost she is a mother. She has five children herself, including a 24-year-old, who lives on the brownstone's top floor, and a 5-year-old, Emma. Emma was born when Hewlett was 51, after four years of expensive fertility treatments; which would seem to upend her central thesis of female infertility after 42 -- "I'm one of the lucky ones, I guess," she says.Though her message may sound anything but pro-woman, Hewlett likes to cast herself as a feminist champion. She sees herself as picking up where second-wave feminists who fought for abortion and the ERA left off, an advocate for child care and protections for women in the workplace. In a clipped British accent, she talks almost completely in policy-speak, spitting out statistics to support her larger claims, using anecdotes of friends' and family members' regret over childlessness as case studies. Her advice to young women is blunt: "Be intentional." "You all figure out what you want in your professional lives and then go after it, and you must find a way to do that in your personal lives, too," she says.

When it dawns on her that I am most probably one of the entitled, overweening young women she's railing against, she looks me in the eye.

"Look, there are two approaches you can take," says Hewlett. "You can either stand on the sidelines and be critical. Or you can say: This is the game, and it is a game I want to play, because I want to end up with a husband and a child."

What, exactly, is it we've felt entitled to? Economic parity with men, certainly, and the freedom to sleep with whomever we choose with impunity -- the feminists who brought us to this moment had many other points, but in the end this is what came over the transom. Our contributions to the movement are scant, like rebelliously referring to women over 30 as girl when we were admonished in college to call each other woman. We didn't need to make a political issue of our gender; we already knew we were exceptional -- we were as clever as men, much more sexy, and with the exquisite capability to make babies, too.

With all these hallmarks of equality, romantic parity between the sexes seemed like the logical next frontier. A mate would not be someone with whom you had to play a game but rather a peer, an equal, someone who had spent as much effort developing his own individuality as you did yours. It wasn't a Blanche DuBois, "I don't want realism, I want magic" fantasy but rather a natural goal. Sure, there were doubts about whether Mr. Right actually existed, especially when we got older. Upon breaking up with my last serious boyfriend, I had a moment: Was I getting too old to throw away yet another relationship? Should I have made that one work, warts and all?

For an apelike Darwinian hand to suddenly fasten around our well-shod ankles right now seems downright cruel. "Mentally, I'm not at the point of babies and motherhood yet, but at the same time I worry I'm going to get left behind the curve and wake up in five years and realize that I've put too much emphasis on myself," says Dina Schonfeld, at 30 the director of research at an investment firm. "I really like the idea of being able to support myself and not having to depend on anybody else. I'm finally making money here. What was the point of going through the whole charade of 60-hour weeks and continuing-ed classes if it had to end so soon?"

It does seem like an exercise in futility if all the hard work and girl power and pretending that you were as likely to succeed as a man turns out to be just that: pretend. Even now, the story about female infertility has been played as a woman's issue, stuck in the same CNN half-hour as "How Pedicures Can Sometimes Cause Sickness." "Guys don't have to do anything," continues Schonfeld. "Meanwhile, we work as hard as they do, plus we have to worry about primping and is it peasant season. And now this. It's so unfair."

Single motherhood, adoption, and any number of other solutions to the problem at hand are all workable, but let's be honest, they're not the first choice. It might be no great strain to have a kid on your own if you're Calista Flockhart, but Alison from accounting probably can't afford a night nurse. Even if there is a young husband to count on, who can make do for three in New York at our age, especially when every new parent has a report of toddlers getting wait-listed at $17,000-a-year kindergartens? Once again, we're put in the position of wanting -- needing? -- to look for what our mothers referred to as "husband material."

Last weekend, on the way to pick up a puppy a friend of mine had bought from a breeder in Connecticut -- "even if it's not a man-magnet, I'll have a loving companion," she joked -- we talked about what all this might mean for the future. The news was definitely making us feel like men had more power over us than they ever had before, but it didn't necessarily mean that anyone was going to alter their behavior. Would it change the social order? Was it a harbinger of a new dating scene, one that looked less like Sex and the City and more like Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?

For many of us, like Dina Wise, the game may not be one we want to play -- husband hunting, settling for less, trading in a high-powered career to maximize the returns on our ovaries. "My grandmother used to use one of those made-up Yiddish words that meant 'for shit,' " says Wise. "It's like, 'I went out to dinner hoping to meet a guy I could have babies with, I put on an outfit, blew out my hair, and for what? I could've been at home watching Will & Grace.' " She looks out from those kohled eyes. "That's not a way to live your life."

So Wise isn't going to put any part of her life on hold. "Maybe -- not that I want to go there -- I'm looking at a turkey baster," she says. "Or adopting a child from Cambodia. I'll figure it out. I'm a New York woman -- I'm resilient." She laughs again, throwing back her head. "I know I can have it all."


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