Listening to Myself

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Arranging things differently

This morning, David Brooks has a column (sorry, registration required) that discusses something I've often thought about and discussed with my husband. He discusses the possibility of accepting more flexibility in the sequencing of women's lives, so that it might be easier for families to raise children. It's what I've somewhat inadvertently stumbled into, I suppose, and it would be really neat to see it happen on a more wide-spread basis.

The basic premise is this:
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.

I think this could be a fantastic idea, and it could really help a lot of women feel a heck of a lot less stressed out in their lives. Sometimes I wonder if the go to school, go directly to college (and perhaps even grad school) and straight into the workforce meme is a bit too overemphasized. I find it amazing that we expect 18 year olds to make decisions about what they want to do for the rest of their lives - and that the idea of having a family or work and family balance hardly even surfaces.

An additional thought... as for that graduate program designed for parents, I think it would be great if grad schools would offer classes during the day. I know from personal experience that trying to do the night class bit with a child at home is pretty rough - having to leave at 5 and get back at 11 is not an easy thing to do with a family at home. I would much rather be able to do a part time program where I could take classes during the day, as that is much easier on the rest of the family. And also, once children are in school, it is the time of day that would be least disruptive to parents. Grad schools right now seem to only be focusing on people who can either do a full time program during the day, or people who can do a part-time program at night. Neither of those situations describe parents.


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