Becoming a parent doesn’t make every mother want to stay at home (and it doesn’t make every parent want to run off to an office, either). More often, it simply changes the way we see work and the calculations we make about it.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Tonight, actress Alexis Bledel explained that after she and her husband, former "Man Men" star Vincent Kartheiser, had a child in 2015, she started to think differently about her career. "More than anything, I just think about what roles I take on, and make sure that it's really something that I feel passionate about if I'm going to leave home and go work," Bledel told Entertainment Tonight. “I just want to love what I'm doing.”
Bledel is obviously in the enviable position where she can decide to work all the time or never or anything in between, and her family will be fine financially. And whatever she does, she’ll be able to afford quality childcare as well. While Bledel’s life may not look like those of typical American women, her aspirations certainly do.
American women are much more likely than men to say that they want to be able to scale back at some points in their careers. For instance, a 2009 study by researchers at Vanderbilt surveyed men and women in top STEM programs and found that women:
placed more importance on part-time work and having a part-time career for a limited period of time, having strong friendships, giving back to the community, and living close to family; conversely, men placed more emphasis on having a full-time career, creating or inventing something that will have an impact, and monetary wealth.
Not surprisingly, the women with children were even more likely to value the option of working part-time. “Almost 40% of women with children…reported that having a part-time career was important, very important, or extremely important, while less than 15% of men with children reported that to be true,” according to the study.
While some feminists will be horrified by this disparity, the truth is that different activities will give different people a sense of accomplishment. Some of that reward may be cultural and some of it may be biological. Maybe men should be applauded more when they choose to cut back on work to care for their children. But feminists also complain that the bar for men is too low—that men who change a diaper or watch the kids while a mom is at work and manage to keep them from killing each other get a standing ovation, while it’s just part of the expectation for women.
As the daughter of two academics who had flexible schedules while I was growing up, the importance of having a career that was compatible with childrearing was never lost on me. My mother scaled back on her teaching when my sister and I were young, but by the time she retired a couple of years ago as the head of a regional think tank, she was working much longer hours than my father. Unfortunately, many of the women I went to school with assumed that marriage and childrearing were so far off that they chose careers without the slightest thought about such matters. Only later did they find themselves either quitting jobs at high-powered law firms or struggling to find something that would make use of their talents.
Surely, we should not disparage men who say that they find the prospect of making money, having a full-time career, or inventing something to be rewarding. But we should also be honest enough to say that many people—more often women than men—find that their jobs are not intrinsically rewarding in the same way that raising children may be. Alexis Bledel could be acting from morning ‘til night, which she clearly enjoys, but lo and behold it turns out, there is something else she enjoys more: her children.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and a columnist for the New York Post. Her most recent book is The New Trail of Tears: How Washington Is Destroying American Indians.