A barren elite

Sylvia Ann Hewlett's book Baby Hunger might be unpalatable - but it contains a lot of truth.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

It doesn’t take much to become a modern-day heretic – as the US writer Sylvia Ann Hewlett found out, on both sides of the Atlantic. Her book, Baby Hunger: The New Battle for Motherhood, was published in the UK in May 2002, and provoked controversy by arguing that more and more ‘high-achieving’, high-earning women are not only ending up childless, but regretting it.

Baby Hunger was previously published in the USA under the more upbeat title Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children. The debate still rages across the US media (1). A recent article in the liberal-left American Prospect magazine, headlined ‘Creating a Lie’, set out to challenge Hewlett’s statistics and ‘the myth of the baby bust’ – although it seemed more bothered by the ‘antifeminist provenance’ of Hewlett’s arguments. In the UK, the reaction to Hewlett’s book was scarcely less touchy.

When I talked to Hewlett during the launch of Baby Hunger, she said that her thesis had sparked ‘two reactions’. She was accosted by ‘mothers asking what they should tell their daughters, men eager to talk about these issues’; but she has also been barracked by ‘very angry women, really angry at the world but taking it out on me’. Overall, Hewlett told me, ‘It has sparked a very important conversation. But the policy side has been neglected’.

It is not surprising that people have taken Baby Hunger personally – because that is how Hewlett presents her arguments. The book is based on a survey of high-achieving women that she conducted in 2001, but she presents much of the data as anecdotes and talks often about her own experience, as a professional (she started out as an academic, is author of several books and has been awarded a fellowship at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard University), and as a mother of five.

Baby Hunger contains policy ideas, but its five-point plan to help younger women with their child-bearing strategies is more like self-help. There has been a ‘bias in the coverage’, says Hewlett, an ‘emphasis on the heartbreaking stories’ of women who have left childbearing too late; yet Hewlett, too, highlights these stories. You could be forgiven for missing the policy – which, as Hewlett puts it, is ‘super-realistic’.

At Baby Hunger’s launch event at the London School of Economics, many of the audience were perplexed by Hewlett’s focus on high-earning women, who do not have the same struggle with childcare costs, or with mortgages dependent on two incomes, that faces middle-earning couples. Hewlett continually has to re-tell the story of the book’s origins: she started out to study ‘prominent, cutting-edge women’, and realised that lack of children was a common factor.

While Hewlett’s previous books have dealt with the difficulties facing low-income parents, she insists that ‘the high rates of childlessness are amongst professionals’. And in dealing with the problems facing this particular group, she focuses not on money and benefits, but on time.

‘Parenting is inevitably a time-intensive activity that occurs in the prime of life’, she told me. ‘We need a new generation of policies to cut back the time we spend at our jobs.’ For women at the top, she claims, long hours are a major barrier even to meeting a partner, let alone to raising children. Another advantage of focusing on these women is, she says, that ‘they have market power’ – the policies they fight for could ‘disproportionately benefit those at the bottom of the heap’.

No doubt a shorter working day could benefit a career-mom. But how much will it affect the prior issue: a woman’s decision about the whether and when to have children? If the lack of a financial barrier to childcare does not encourage professional women to have children, it is hard to see how access to more time might boost their fertility rate.

In discussing the limits of a policy-based approach, Hewlett talks about how, even when they can take paternity leave, men generally don’t – because, in the words of one young father, there is an ‘unwritten code’ that men don’t do childcare. You could equally argue that there is an ‘unwritten code’ today that young-ish professional women don’t have kids – and this has less to do with the pressures of work than with a broader ambivalence about why people should want to have children in the first place.

The issue of children, Hewlett says, ‘goes to the heart of what is sacred in your life’. For that reason, perhaps, the publicity for her book focused on the impact upon older childless women, who realised too late that they had missed out. This could also be why Baby Hunger seemed to generate more articles and interviews than sales – as some pointed out, why would childless women want to read about what they had missed out on?

But as Hewlett’s own research indicates, for many women today the idea of children is not sacred but one of several options, to be juggled pragmatically. If one-third of high-achieving women are childless, does this only indicate their attachment to their careers – or the ultimate weakness of their attachment to the idea of having kids?

Hewlett skirts this issue, by concentrating on practicalities. Older professional women, she insists, often do not actively choose to be childless: it becomes a ‘creeping non-choice’, resulting from the pressures of work. Younger women’s decision to put off having children comes from a misplaced optimism about how easy it is to get pregnant later in life.

Ultimately, for Hewlett, the problem is ‘structural’: the past few decades have ‘opened up enormous possibilities for women but the societal bases have stayed the same.’ There is a lot of truth in this. But I wonder if, in focusing on how women’s personal experiences fit into existing social structures, she underestimates the changes in our attitude to children on a broader, philosophical level – and particularly, how these changes impact upon men.

Hewlett seems rather hard on men, as though they haven’t changed at all. She takes this point – to a degree. ‘Men are sometimes in this twilight world’, she says. ‘They often lead their private lives on automatic pilot, but many of them feel seriously deprived, because they don’t have real emotional connections.’ Women, by contrast, are ‘more self-conscious in their relationships’.

It would seem to me that the younger generation of men coming through are every bit as ‘self-conscious’ about their relationships as are their female partners, and the ambivalence surrounding the kid thing is androgynous.

The key issue raised by Baby Hunger is that it is those at the top of society who are deprioritising having children, and as such breaks an important taboo. If the elite attaches no great importance to having children, this says something quite disturbing about how our society views itself, and its future.

But Hewlett only hints at this point. In focusing on women’s personal dilemmas, and on practical work/life policies, she ends up promoting a rather individualised, instrumental view of parenting and children, which seems to boil down to the idea that children make you happy, and if you don’t have them you are missing out. For a generation focused on the short-term and fearful of the future, this is unlikely to convince.

Baby Hunger, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Atlantic Books, 3 May 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK)

Read on:

Baby maybe, by Jennie Bristow

Scared of being Mother, by Jennie Bristow

An anti-independence culture, by Jennie Bristow

(1) Creating a Lie: Sylvia Ann Hewlett and the myth of the baby bust, Garance Franke-Ruta, American Prospect, Volume 13, Issue 12, 1 July 2002

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Topics Politics


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