What Do Women Want?

May 13, 1999 |Anne Morse

Morse reviews Danielle Crittenden's book, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman

The attractive young matron had her priorities right.

She liked to work, but she knew what really mattered: Family. She wanted to have babies, and she wanted to have them while she was still young. When would she resume her career? "It could be three years, it could be ten years, it could be forever," she shrugged.

Who is this, some unworldly young intern for Concerned Women for America? A youthful member of College Republicans?

Not on your life. It's Sarah McLachlan, folk rock singer and founder of Lilith Fair. And her decision to end Lilith Fair in favor of having children just might be the harbinger of a new trend.

What do women want?

It was a question Freud asked, in some frustration. And ever since he asked it, plenty of people have tried to find the answer.

In recent years, among those who have tried hardest to answer this question were feminists. What women want, they proclaimed back in the 1960s, is the same job opportunities afforded men, equal pay for equal work, and the same sexual freedom men enjoy. No more fifties hausfraus with children clinging to them as they cooked dinner for their husbands (and if we can believe June Cleaver, wore pearls while doing it).

Many women listened to the feminists — after all, most of them seemed bright and well-educated — and acted on their advice. They flooded college campuses, then poured into the workplace, landing the kinds of jobs their grandmothers could not have even imagined women doing: Running companies, blasting into space, becoming Marines and jockeys and nuclear physicists.

The rest of feminists' advice was put into practice as well, as women went on the Pill and began sleeping with their boyfriends. If they occasionally contracted a disease — well, there were always antibiotics. And if they accidentally got pregnant just as they were about to be promoted into that dream job — well, there was always abortion. Children? They'd have them someday, maybe — as long as having a family didn't interfere with their exciting careers.

After 30 years, women have made tremendous strides — strides most of us would be loath to give up. But perhaps it's time to ask an important question: Not, "Are women succeeding on an equal basis with men?" but "Are today's women happy?"

A new book says "no."

Danielle Crittenden, former editor of The Women's Quarterly, recently published a book called What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman. She suggests that despite women's many gains, they seem unhappier than their mothers and grandmothers.

"Women today are more likely to be divorced or never married at all than women of previous generations," Crittenden writes. "We are more likely to bear children out of wedlock. We are more likely to be junkies or drunks or to die in poverty. We are more likely to have an abortion or to catch a sexually-transmitted disease."

If we have children, we are more likely to work full time — even if we want desperately to stay home with our babies. And we're still doing most of the housework.

Sadly, it seems that today's crop of college women are about to repeat the mistakes their elder sisters made. Crittenden interviewed women on campuses all over the Northeast, asking them about their future plans and what they thought of feminism. Most were reluctant to attach the word "feminist" to themselves. Nevertheless, Crittenden says, feminism "had seeped into their minds like intravenous saline into the arm of an unconscious patient. They were feminists without knowing it."

It showed up in their decisions to have casual sex, and to put off having children until they had established careers as bankers, lawyers and professors. Some planned to have children on their own for fear that husbands — the brutes — would interfere with their careers. "Virtually every young woman I interviewed put her job aspirations ahead of any hopes for marriage or children (even if she claimed to want those things eventually)," Crittenden writes.

But these young women ought to open their eyes and take a good, hard look at where their decisions may lead them.

For example, feminism practically commands women to engage in sex outside of marriage to prove how "liberated" they are (Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan, cheerfully advised women to sleep their way to the top). Many women follow the script to the letter — only to find themselves facing disease, pregnancy and abortion, as well as heartbreak when live-in relationships abruptly end, or when a date never calls again after a sexual encounter. Try as they might, women cannot seem to force themselves to treat sex as casually as many men do.

A second feminist dictum is the importance of delaying marriage until your thirties in order to jumpstart your career. Many women do just this: They turn down marriage proposals in their twenties — only to find that thirty-something men prefer to marry twenty-something women. Or, thanks to the availability of unencumbered sex, many men are unwilling to marry at all. What grandma said turned out to be true, after all: Why marry the cow when you can get the milk for free?

And even when thirty-something women DO find someone to marry, the years of independence, of thinking only of their own needs and wants, tend to make both husband and wife unwilling to make the compromises marriage demands.

What's more, after finding Mr. Right, these women often find themselves unable to bear children. The problem is so widespread that some companies now offer in vitro fertilization treatments as part of their health benefits, evidently hoping to attract those smart, career-minded women who waited just a little too long to start a family.

As Lisa Schiffren observes in The Women's Quarterly, "In the long run the greatest cost to women of uncommitted sexual relationships ... is that the window for getting married and having children is way smaller than one can possibly foresee at, say, twenty-five."

And if you succeed in starting a family, the feminist creed tells mother to squeeze them in around their careers. They should be very careful not to let their children define them, because if they do, they risk losing their identities. Again, many mothers take that advice. They plan to put their newborns into daycare and cheerfully tell colleagues they'll be returning to work as soon as they can squeeze back into their dress-for-success suits. And if we're absolutely miserable leaving our kids behind each day, as a majority of working moms say they are? Well, it just proves we're still captives of a patriarchal and sexist society — and we ought to get over it.

But this advice is as unrealistic as all the rest. "Until you are holding your baby in your arms, you can't know how you're going to feel when you become a mother," Crittenden put it. "Motherhood is about as defining an experience as any human being can undergo.... Suddenly, you can't stop thinking about your child." For all the feminist insistence that the world of Ozzie and Harriet is dead, Crittenden says, "the truth is that women themselves wish to stay home with their children if they possibly can."

It turns out we should not have listened to the feminists — at least, when it came to how we should live our private lives. "In all the ripping down of barriers that has taken place over a generation," Crittenden notes, "we may have inadvertently also smashed the foundations necessary for our happiness ... there are a great many women unhappy because they acted upon the [faulty] wisdom passed along to them by the people they most trusted."

Crittenden's own advice is wiser. She advises women to avoid sleeping around before marriage, to marry young and to have children fairly soon. There will be time enough, she says, to pursue a career once the kids are in school. After all, she notes, we will likely work some 40 years out of our lives — but we will have young children at home for a short time.

If much of her advice sounds familiar, it's because you read it in the scriptures first. Song of Solomon describes the delights of the sexual relationship — within the context of marriage. The Proverbs are filled with passages describing the joy of having, and training up, children. And Proverbs 31 gives us the picture of a woman who combines home and career — by working FROM home.

For everything, there is a season — a time for every matter under heaven. (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And that's a far more fulfilling model for today's young women to choose. There is a season for schooling and romance, marriage and sexual expression, a time for rearing children and yes, even for a career.

Evidence suggests young women are finally beginning to put down a high-heel clad foot and tell feminists to buzz off. According to American Demographics, "market analysts are predicting a values shift for Gen Y lovers among kids whose dating, mating, and child-rearing habits may be more like those of their grandparents than like the cast of Melrose Place." For example, a 19-year old named Ryan announced he planned to tenderly court his future wife, and sleep with her for the first time on their wedding night. Market consultant Liz Nickles says young girls plan to toss out words like "juggling" — as in juggling marriage, kids and full-time career. "For these young women, it's not so much doing it all but rather selecting certain elements and crafting your lifestyle," she explains. "For instance, they'll have that career, but they'll work from home instead."

Feminist claims notwithstanding, we may be able to "have it all," but not all at once. Nor will we be happy if we try to have career success at the cost of neglecting the children we love. We will be making life decisions again and again, throughout our lives: Should I marry now? Should I go back to work, or give a few more years of full-time mothering to my children? Should I go back part-time or full-time? Should I quit my job to care for my ailing parents?

As a society, we ought to work for policies that help women who reject the supermom role — and help our legislators understand what's really bothering modern mothers. "In all the public discussion of the problems faced by working mothers," Crittenden says, the fact that "we love our children more than anything else and want to be with them as much as we possibly can — goes unmentioned." That means that instead of making it easier and cheaper for mothers to dump their kids into daycare, we ought to be helping them find ways to stay home with their children — such as cutting the huge tax burden on families, and eliminating the marriage penalty tax.

It's not easy to resist either the siren call of sexual freedom or the disapproval society still aims at women who give up careers to take care of children. For help with both, we must turn to our faith and like-minded friends — and good books like the one Crittenden has just written.

What do women want? As Sarah McLachlan demonstrates, we want the same things women have always wanted: To have work that satisfies and enriches us, and to love and be loved by husband and children. But during an age in which we receive so much wrong-headed advice, we have to work a little harder to figure out how to achieve them.

Copyright © 1999 Anne Morse. All rights reserved.

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