Secrets (good and bad) no one is telling about motherhood

Way, way back in 2002 I wrote a book about the domino effect that occurs when women try to raise children, babies and toddlers in particular, and pursue full-time career simultaneously. The subtitle of the book (which has since been re-released as “The Two-Income Trap: Why Parents Are Choosing to Stay Home) was “Why Children and Most Careers Just Don’t Mix,” and its overall message was that the needs and demands of children are so great that to try and meet those needs and demands after being spent from a day at the office is fruitless. What’s more, it yanks the joy of motherhood right out of you.

I wrote that book to help women who’ve been taught to map out their futures without giving any thought at all to how their lives will change down the road when they become mothers. Not only are women surprised to find out how taxing motherhood is, they don’t anticipate how much they’d want to be with their babies.

Needless to say, I was lambasted in the media for daring to write a book that outlined the costs of working motherhood. But fifteen years later, the results are in.

A new report by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that women today “frequently underestimate the time, money and effort it takes to raise children and have a career at the same time, leading many to invest in their skills and then reluctantly leave the workforce when the true costs of being a working mother become apparent,” writes Lauren Weber at The Wall Street Journal.

Despite this reality, the message isn’t getting across to younger women. According to the NBER report, female high school seniors “are increasingly and substantially overestimating the likelihood they will be in the labor market in their thirties.”

So here’s a logical follow-up question: Why don’t young women understand what children, babies in particular, need? And why do they assume they’ll be just as career-driven in their thirties as they were in their twenties?

I’ll answer those questions with two more questions: Why wouldn’t modern women be in the dark about motherhood? And why wouldn’t they assume they’d never leave the workforce?

Since the day they were born, college-bound women have been groomed for a life at the office rather than for a life at home. No one told them their priorities will shift down the line. No one told them how overwhelming motherhood is without a career, let alone with one. Most importantly, no one told them how joyful motherhood can be.

In previous generations, women embraced this transformation and viewed marriage and family not just as the center of their lives but as the purpose of life. Modern women, by contrast, view a career as their life’s purpose and assume they can squeeze marriage and family in around this otherwise more pressing endeavor – if they squeeze it in at all.

The problem with this plan is that by the time the average woman hits 30, the likelihood of her deciding that marriage and motherhood, not career, is the most important thing in her life is astronomically high. Too many women needlessly wind up in a quandary when they become mothers. Many are shocked to discover that what they thought was important before they had children feels utterly irrelevant afterward.

If we know this to be true, why don’t we help young women better prepare for their futures? Why should young women map out their lives as though husbands and babies aren’t going to come along and happily put a wrench in those plans? Why don’t we change the question and ask not what motherhood’s effect on employment will be but what effect employment will have on a woman when she becomes a mother?

Of course the culture will never ask this question, so it’s up to parents to circumvent the narrative their daughters will invariably receive. I have a daughter who’s headed off to college in the fall, and like most girls she plans to get married and have children someday. Great, I told her. Here are three important things you need to know:

1. Whom you choose to marry will have more effect on your happiness and well-being than any other choice you make in life. So make sure you focus at least as much on getting that decision right as you do on nailing down a career.

2. Don’t assume you’ll always be in the workforce. Trying to juggle full-time work while raising babies isn’t just stressful, it’s unfair to your yet-to-be-born children. Babies have needs that must be met, and a mother is in the best position to meet those needs. The attempt to ‘have it all’ is futile. Something always suffers, and it’s usually the kids – as Indra K. Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, courageously admitted in 2014. Knowing this in advance can help you make smart decisions in life and in love.

3. Don’t forget that your body has an agenda of its own. You have a window with which to conceive children the natural way. If you put motherhood off too long, you invite unnecessary hardship – physically, financially and psychologically – into your life. For most women, this is completely avoidable.

That women today are unprepared for motherhood isn’t the least bit surprising. But the onus is on their parents and the culture, who insisted that women focus on their educations and careers to the exclusion of everything else. “If I could go back ten years,” Rachel Lehmann-Haupt writes in “The Aniston Syndrome,” “I would tell my younger self that she should deeply consider her future family…I wonder whether in fact my generation collectively screwed up.”