Column 2005-01-15, "Empty Nests, And Hearts"
David Brooks's column, as printed in the Times:
Over the past 30 years, the fraction of women over 40 who have no children has nearly doubled, to about a fifth. According to the Gallup Organization, 70 percent of these women regret that they have no kids.
It's possible that some of these women regret not having children in the way they regret not taking more time off after college. But for others, this longing for the kids they did not have is a profound, soul-encompassing sadness.
And it is part of a large pattern. Most American still tell pollsters that the ideal family has two or three children. But fewer and fewer Americans get to live in that kind of family.
For some, it's a question of never finding the right person to have kids with. Others thought they'd found the right mates, but the relationships didn't work out. Others became occupied with careers, and the child-rearing part of their lives never got put together.
But there is also one big problem that stretches across these possibilities: Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives.
For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.
Several years hence, she seeks to re-enter the labor force. She may or may not be still interested in the field she was trained for (two decades earlier). Nonetheless, she finds a job, works for 15 years or so, then spends her final 20 years in retirement.
This is not necessarily the sequence she would choose if she were starting from scratch. For example, it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70.
This option would allow her to raise kids during her most fertile years and work during her mature ones, and the trade-off between family and career might be less onerous.
But the fact is that right now, there are few social institutions that are friendly to this way of living. Social custom flows in the opposite direction.
Neil Gilbert observes in the current issue of The Public Interest that as women have entered the work force, they have adopted the male model, jumping directly into careers. Instead, he suggests, it would be better to make decisions based on what he calls the ''life-course perspective.'' It's possible that women should sequence their lives differently from men, and that women may need a broader diversity of sequence options.
Gilbert, who is a professor of social welfare at Berkeley, points out that right now our social policies are friendly toward this straight-to-work sequence and discourage other options. Programs like day care and flexible leave help parents work and raise kids simultaneously. That's fine for some, but others may prefer policies that help them do these things sequentially.
It might make sense, for example, to give means-tested tax credits or tuition credits to stay-at-home parents. That would subsidize child-rearing, but in a way that leaves it up to families to figure out how to use it. The government spends trillions on retirees, but very little on young families.
I suspect that if more people had the chance to focus exclusively on child-rearing before training for and launching a career, fertility rates would rise. That would be good for the country, for as Phillip Longman, author of ' 'The Empty Cradle,'' has argued, we are consuming more human capital than we are producing -- or to put it another way, we don't have enough young people to support our old people. (That's what the current Social Security debate and the coming Medicare debate are all about.)
It would also be good for those many millions of Americans who hit their mid-40's and regret not having kids, or not having as many as they would like. As it says somewhere, to everything, there is a season.