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  • Venker says having it all, all at the same time, can’t be done—at least not successfully. Women who claim otherwise aren’t balancing—they’re juggling. Tweet This
  • “The problem with the career first, marriage maybe narrative is that it deleted the old way, but it didn’t replace it with anything new,” Venker writes. Tweet This
  • Venker argues that placing career achievement first creates a domino effect that shrinks the fertility window for women and the pool of marriageable men. Tweet This
Category: Women

I’ve been reading Suzanne Venker’s books for years. Her latest, How to Build a Better Life: A New Roadmap for Women Who Want to Prioritize Love & Family, may be her boldest yet.

When a friend reminded me that her daughter’s birthday was coming up, I may have delivered a hard sell with my pleas to “buy this book.” But I knew she’d forgive me. The book is gold for Generation Z and Millennial women who want to do exactly what the subtitle says—prioritize marriage and family. According to Venker, if young women are honest with themselves, this includes most of them.

Years ago, I interviewed Venker about a book she’d written with her aunt, Phyllis Schlafly, called The Flipside of Feminism. The article caused a stir—it was highly controversial and the most commented on piece Huffington Post Divorce had published thus far. Venker told me that young women had been groomed to focus on their careers and taught not to “think of marriage and motherhood as fulfilling in itself.”

Since that interview, the marriage rate has plummetedCohabitation is up. Venker’s new book is no less bold than her previous ones. But this time there seems to be a deeper urgency. The cultural pressure for women to focus solely on their careers is that strong and unrelenting. I’ve witnessed it, too.

Given her credentials, Venker could have filled her book with comments from writers and relationship professionals. Instead, we hear the words of young, accomplished women who come to her for coaching.

Their tone is also urgent. They want marriage, and they want babies. They want a career. Many are burdened by student loans. They’re frustrated and “shooting blanks” when it comes to navigating their lives, despite assurances they could have it all.

Why are these young women so ill-equipped? Venker says it's because they were raised “radically different” from previous generations of women. They weren’t taught how to find a good husband or manage money. They were told raising a family required two incomes. They were instructed to focus on education and careers.

Venker offers an apology “on behalf of your mothers,” whom she categorizes as a few Gen-Xers like herself but mostly Baby Boomers who “seriously screwed up” preparing their daughters for the real world. “The problem with the career first, marriage maybe narrative is that it deleted the old way, but it didn’t replace it with anything new,” Venker writes.

Ouch. I’m a Baby Boomer. My two unmarried daughters are Venker’s target audience. Both have careers in categories she deems most incompatible with marriage and family—medicine, law, and politics. I was a lawyer myself.

Still, why weren’t these young women taught work-life balance? Venker says having it all, all at the same time, can’t be done—at least not successfully. Women who claim otherwise aren’t balancing—they’re juggling, their lives filled with chaos instead of calm. She argues that wealthy feminist icons like Sheryl Sandburg who goad them to keep their foot on the career gas pedal full throttle are burdened by their own guilt and offer no useful advice. 

Family courts are equally complicit. My female divorce judge shamed me for leaving the law to become a stay-at-home mom, telling me I needed a job other than the one I already had raising our children. 

But I wasn’t alone, and neither are the young women Venker counsels. A recent survey found that 63% of married mothers prefer working part-time or not at all. Eighteen percent of parents are stay-at-parents, most of them moms. 

Changing course or setting a new one won’t necessarily be easy. She acknowledges young women are bombarded 24/7 by media illusions of glamorous lives. She recognizes the natural longing of wanting to be part of a tribe. But Venker is consistently encouraging, another merit of this book. She doesn’t serve up pie in the sky like the “reach for the stars” variety that young women already get. Rather, she delivers step-by-step practical advice, such as the following.

Don’t listen to your peers who have been fed the same anti-family pablum. Tune out the media and pop culture that tell you wanting marriage and family constitutes settling for a lesser life. Instead, quietly examine your own mind and prioritize the kind of life you want. Embrace the truth that you are enough without having to prove your worth to anyone by attaining a certain pedigree. If you choose calm over chaos, pick a flexible career that will allow you to stop working when you have children or scale back. Convinced it’s impossible to live on one salary for a time? Venker demonstrates how. If for nothing else, read this book for the disturbing facts about children and day care. 

She reiterates that men and women are different. Women’s bodies bear babies. Hormones produce differences between the sexes in their brains and behaviors. Placing career achievement first creates a domino effect that shrinks the fertility window for women along with the pool of marriageable men. How sad that young women have to be educated about these basics!  

But Venker notes the most important step is choosing the right guy in the first place. A steady, dependable earner who respects a woman’s value. Beware of those co-opted by the culture and raised without strong male role models. Venker points out, rightly, that many young men and women are children of divorce, thereby lacking good role models for achieving a long-term marriage. There’s even a chapter on dating. 

“Whom you marry and how that marriage fares will have more effect on your happiness and well-being than anything else you can do,” Venker emphasizes. Indeed, as Brad Wilcox points out in his groundbreaking new book Get Married, the combination of marriage and motherhood correlates to far higher rates of happiness for women than remaining single. And as for the career factor? Married women are wealthier, too! 

An “uh-oh” fired in my head. Despite my age and background, I recognized some parts of myself among the women in Venker’s scenarios and found myself ticking off a fair number of worthy men I’d spurned during college and law school. 

I’d never choose differently if it meant I couldn’t have my daughters, but otherwise, where I had gone wrong? I’d been the first female in my family to attend college, but my family hadn’t educated me about men, either. Sure, I saw examples of what the other women in my family had done—marriage, babies, and part-time, non-professional jobs. They didn’t knock their own choices or coach me to reach for career stars instead. Looking back, I suppose the culture had an outsized influence. I’d read, too, that women were giving birth later in life, so I know I figured I had all the time in the world for whatever I wanted. I was placed on the academic track in school. My thirst for books and knowledge has always been great, and books promised a wide world beyond my small-town upbringing. 

And yet isn’t that always the way of the young? If I’d had Venker’s book in hand back then, would I have charted a different course? I’m not sure. I was hard-headed. I hope the women of today who she’s writing to at least take the time to pause. The realities and the culture have changed dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s. I like to think I’d want a friend like Venker now. 

If you did things backwards in your 20s, Venker assures you that you’re not doomed. Nor is she some raging right-winger telling women to go back to the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant. Most of her advice comes down to this: “You are normal for wanting a life that prioritizes love and family. Being successful in a career field is a perfectly fine goal, but perspective is sorely needed. It is normal to want to nurture. And it’s enough.” After all, she’s a successful career woman, wife, and mother. 

I did things backwards, too. But I like to think that I did some things right. When I first held my eldest in my arms, a switch flipped in my brain. I knew instantly that I could no longer work at a job that often had me coming home close to midnight. So I quit and found part-time work. When that got to be too much with a second child and required travel, I became a full-time stay-at-home mom, a decision I’ve never regretted even though it cost me in family court.

Although Baby Boomers are not her intended audience, I think older moms who want to help their daughters prioritize love and marriage will find Venker’s book valuable. Perhaps one day she’ll also write another one for older moms who lost their way.

Beverly Willett is a former lawyer, author of Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection, and the co-founder of the Coalition for Divorce Reform.