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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.


Book 30/100: Creating a Life by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Creating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a CareerCreating a Life: What Every Woman Needs to Know About Having a Baby and a Career by Sylvia Ann Hewlett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Around the Year Book Challenge Item #9: A book mentioned in another book

So, this challenge item was mightily easy for me. One of my biggest problems when I read non-fiction is that non-fiction tends to cite other works, and by the time I've finished one non-fiction book, I've got a list of 10 more on the same subject that I want to read. That's how I came across this book, which was definitely mentioned in Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness, and was also possibly/probably mentioned in The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother? and/or The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much?. At any rate, I know I came across it referenced in more than one book.

After reading it, I can see why it's such a divisive book in the feminist community. On the one hand, Hewlett cannot, and should not, be faulted for her emphasis in this book, which is that women who want to have successful careers and children need to put some serious thought and planning into how to make that work. She spends a lot of time driving home the fact that women do not have "endless" time to decide on the issue of children, and that not acting fast enough can lead to a de facto decision not to have them. She also cuts through the myth that reproductive technology can allow "anyone" to get pregnant at any time in their lives, which is definitely something women should have open eyes about. Perhaps it's because I've never worked in industries as "high-powered" as the women profiled in this book, but I was surprised by how "common" Hewlett makes it seem that women expect to still get pregnant "well into their 40s." Perhaps it's a sign of this book's age (first published in 2001), but I and most of the other women I know have received quite the opposite message: start popping out babies ASAP or else.

So while Hewlett's urging for women to be proactive about the decision about children while they still have a good chance of having them is important, her insistence that women must "plan" for this sits somewhat less well with me. While women who want a family need to welcome opportunities to meet and build a life with someone, Hewlett's implication that you could "schedule" this sort of thing the way you can schedule a career trajectory was somewhat off-putting. Although she never comes out and says it, the tacit message seems to be that it would be better to "settle" for someone while the getting is good than it is to wait for it to happen naturally. And although it would have been nice for me to have the luxury of thinking of starting a family earlier, I have no regrets that I waited as long as I did for the "right man" to come along, nor do I regret the many years I spent as a single woman that were absolutely crucial to shaping my identity. In addition, Hewlett seems totally blind to the flip side of having children earlier than one might want, which is the possibility of resenting them for the strain they put on your work, your career, and your relationship. Instead, the message seems to be that if you have the opportunity to marry/start a family in your twenties, you should do it, no questions asked.

Another troubling thread in this book was the insinuation that successful women will/do have more trouble finding a mate, so that perhaps they should be willing to make some "compromises" in their ambitions to do so. She profiled several women who seemed to be in promising relationships that didn't survive because eventually the dude just couldn't deal with the woman's devotion to her work -- but my thought about those guys is, if he can't handle a strong woman, Good riddance! But Hewlett seems to say that a good relationship may be one of the sacrifices you'll make as a career-driven woman, when any relationship that requires a woman to be less than what she can or wants to be is NOT a good one to begin with.

Although this book was published over 15 years ago, work culture has changed very little in that time, and the dilemmas Hewlett poses between work and family for women are still alive and well. Like other books of this nature, Hewlett calls upon women -- who are already stretched too thin -- to also take up the charge of changing workplace culture. As daunting as it can be to do that, the feeling I took with me after reading this book is not that women need to work harder and plan better to "have it all," which is the message Hewlett means to impart, but that women DO still have to choose, and that one should, at the very least, become clear upfront about which aspect of her life she would rather sacrifice while we wait for the U.S. to catch up with the rest of the developed world when it comes to work-life balance.

The woman profiled in this book are highly competitive and highly driven. Work swallows their lives. And while I have gone through periods of my own life when it felt like this was the case, I was not happy. The big question in my mind was whether these women loved what they did enough to make all the stress and sacrifice worth it. That was never really addressed, and so it was hard for me to fathom why women would stay in jobs for so long that shredded their health and personal lives.

Of course, this book deals with such intimate topics that it's bound to push a few buttons, and I still feel pretty ambivalent about it. But I rated it four stars anyway because a) Hewlett is not responsible for my own emotional reaction to her work; and b) it IS good for women to be aware of these issues even if it is painful; and c) it is eminently readable; the pages turned fast once I got started even though initially the subject matter seemed daunting to me.

I very much wish that this book had become irrelevant by now, but sadly it has not. And that might be what I liked about it least of all.

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