In an effort to prop up public preschool, despite not demonstrating interest in improving the schools that are already failing, President Obama recently made quite an awkward statement on how he thinks women should make choices.
“Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result,” he said. “That’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
This should go without saying, but it’s not a politician’s place to tell people how to navigate their choices in life. Women and men both make tradeoffs when they have children, and it’s not the government’s role to mandate the same “choice” for every family. In fact, that tends to make it not a choice (but who’s paying attention). The worst part is that the president wrongfully assumes having children is what holds women back in life.
After my third baby, I had the customary six-week check in with my Ob-Gyn. The conversation naturally turned to what forms of birth control I’d like. After indicating that, despite years of being on the pill before children, I much preferred my side-effect-free self, the subject of an intrauterine device (IUD) came up. I blanched at the idea of an object permanently embedded inside me. So, naturally, I diverted this line of inquiry into, “Do you have any good recommendations for an urologist?” My male obstetrician obligingly shared some, while wincing in empathy for my husband. His response on my gentle inquiry regarding side effects of IUDs struck me as strange. My doctor, who had just seen me through three uneventful pregnancies, indicated that an IUD “was safer than pregnancy.”
Looking down at my six-week-old baby, I had to admit I never once feared for my life while pregnant. Perhaps I’ve been too cavalier, I thought, so I consulted some data. It showed the risk of an IUD perforating your uterus is around 1 in 1,000 while the risk of dying in pregnancy has increased in recent years to 14.5 per 100,000 births. For pregnancy, there are two components behind this increase. One is the expanded measure of what constitutes a maternal-related death as deaths from “actual obstetric complications—namely, hemorrhaging and pregnancy-related high blood pressure disorders—are declining” the other being “deaths from chronic medical conditions that are exacerbated by pregnancy, including heart disease, appear to account for a growing number of pregnancy-related deaths.” This data highlights common-sense advice already known to women: being a healthy weight is not only good for you in general but also in pregnancy.
So pregnancy has real, but rare, risks. What are its advantages? The inherent advantage is that you can create a person—which is pretty amazing. I still stare at my six-year-old in wonder, stunned that I grew that. My background is in science, so I understand the mechanics, but that knowledge does nothing to diminish one’s sense of wonder while staring at your own child happily engaged in a light-saber fight with her younger sister while in full princess gear. There are precious few moments in life where love can be grown spontaneously, but having children is one of them. For women concerned about their futures and career aspirations, though, research shows there are some real advantages that weren’t part of my obstetrician’s calculus.
1. Pregnancy Brain Is a Myth
The myth of pregnancy brain is often used to deride women’s intelligence and frame pregnancy as dumbing a woman down. The odd thing is, in most mammal research the opposite is true.
Because the cognitive problems associated with human pregnancy are all the more mysterious in light of research with rats and other mammals that suggests pregnant females undergo cognitive enhancements, not impairments, that stay with them into motherhood. A pioneer in this field is Craig Kinsley at the University in Richmond. He told me in 2010: ‘Our [maternal] rats get better at virtually everything they need to, to successfully care for their expensive genetic and metabolic investments. Foraging, predation, spatial memory all improve; stress and anxiety responsiveness decreases.’
When I asked Kinsley why the human literature was full of findings about cognitive impairments while the animal research points to improvements, he said the disparity may have to do with the kinds of tasks and behaviors that were being studied in humans. ‘Much of the data from human mothers has been derived from asking females to demonstrate cognitive enhancements to skills, behaviors, occupations that are largely irrelevant to the care and protection of young,’ he said. Another suggestion is that the baby-brain in humans is a side effect of the dramatic changes underway in mothers’ brains that are gearing them up for the demands that lie ahead. Framed this way, it’s the price that’s paid for what is ultimately a maternal neuro-upgrade.
2. Retained Baby DNA Improves Mothers’ Health
Some of a baby’s DNA stays with his or her mom and researchers are finding this has significant health benefits. A recent study in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that the overall mortality rate of women with detectable fetal DNA was 60 percent lower mostly due to a lower incidence of cancer. Eighty-five percent made it to age 80, compared to 67 percent who were without these cells:
Scientists don’t know for certain what biological mechanisms cause these findings, but past research suggests microchimerism may boost immune surveillance—that is, the body’s ability to recognize and destroy pathogens and cells that might become cancerous—and also play a role in the repair of damaged tissue, helping form new blood vessels to heal wounds. Microchimerism is also associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and breast cancer.
These fetal cells migrate all over a mother’s body, becoming part of the heart, the brain, and blood—and fascinating scientist and artists alike.
3. Marriage and Children Make Women Better Managers
Then there are the concerns from some feminist circles that marriage and children are what is slowing women down on their path to “equality.” This ignores the baked-in premise that women must want the same things as men. For women who do want a career, getting married and having kids is not the downside you think it is. In fact, there’s data to show parents are better managers:
According to new research, parents—at least those committed to family life—actually perform better in the office. Researchers from Clark University and the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., interviewed 347 managers and executives, mostly from large public companies, about their family lives. Then they talked to the participants’ colleagues, subordinates and bosses about their work performance.
Those who were committed to family life achieved significantly better reviews. The reason: Parents learn to multitask, handle stress and negotiate, says Marian N. Ruderman, research director at the Center for Creative Leadership, and one of the study’s authors.
‘In parenting roles you get a chance to do a lot of the same things you do as a manager,’ Ruderman says. ‘You get to hone your interpersonal skills. You learn how to develop other people. It’s another opportunity to learn from experience.’
While the current perspective is to insist that the opposite is true, work-life balance has been a new focus at corporations because they are seeing the benefits in their staff in reductions in turnover and burnout. The above study only found these benefits were true for parents who were “actively involved in raising them” so perhaps parents learn by necessity to maximize their time better in all fronts. Parenting forces people to pretty quickly develop conflict negotiation skills, enhanced empathy and patience. All things that help people dealing with all facets of life.
4. Working Mothers Are More Productive
Memo to Google and Apple: Freezing your eggs won’t help women level the playing field. An appreciation for the maturity of and enhanced productivity of employees who are also parents will. Working moms are more productive than their childless peers: “That’s the conclusion of a recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which found that over the course of a 30-year career, mothers outperformed women without children at almost every stage of the game. In fact, mothers with at least two kids were the most productive of all.” Working moms may leave the office right at five o’clock but they have learned to make their time count better than their childless counterparts.
In light of this data, freezing women’s eggs isn’t a smart way to “level the playing field.” It also has a lot more risk than is being shared. As Wired reported: “There is no long-term data tracking the health risks of women who inject hormones and undergo egg retrieval, and no one knows how much of the chemicals used in the freezing process are absorbed by eggs, and whether they are toxic to cell development. Furthermore, even with the new flash freezing process, the most comprehensive data available reveals a 77 percent failure rate of frozen eggs resulting in a live birth in women aged 30, and a 91 percent failure rate in women aged 40.”
Women are better off having kids when they are capable if they don’t want to risk never having them. The upside is that real fertility declines don’t occur to your late 30s, so women do have time. Looking at models for success, having kids first and then re-entering the workforce has worked out well for several women in high positions like Brenda Barnes, who became CEO of Sara Lee in her fifties after leaving a high-powered position at Pepsi to spend six years raising her kids. Nancy Pelosi shares a similar story of advancing to be the first female speaker of the house after being a stay-at-home mom in her youth. Other women have benefited from supportive spouses and flexible arrangements to manage career and kids.
5. Marriage Emotionally and Economically Benefits Women (and Men)
Feminists often forget that marriage has some obvious economic and emotional benefits. Study after study finds that marriage builds a foundation for more wealth than those who are unmarried. The benefits for children are also well-documented. In fact, for a girl raised by two married parents, “compared to her peers she will have better odds of succeeding in school, the workplace and in family life.”
There’s another benefit that’s more intangible but those who are happily married will relate. Your spouse is a built-in sounding board and support system. Both these things give any female employee an advantage in the workplace. Instead of venting to colleagues, which can come back to harm you in the workplace, you can confide in your spouse. Being married also will make it easier for you to relate to more senior-level people in a corporation, since you have a similar frame of reference. It’s subtle, but it helps. While it not politically correct to say, it’s a lot more comfortable for married male colleagues to mentor married women because there’s less risk in misinterpretation of interest. Women sometimes forget they carry with them an additional regulatory burden by being a “protected class” that can make it more risky for male bosses to provide direct feedback.
Let’s face it: married people have more time for self-improvement since they aren’t occupied with tracking down Mr. Right or even Mr. Right Now. Being married settles some of life’s path and, instead of making life boring, it serves as a foundation for more exploration. To quote C.S. Lewis by way of Leslie Loftis:
People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realising that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The sort of thrill a boy has at the first idea of flying will not go on when he has joined the R.A.F. and is really learning to fly. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there. Does this mean it would be better not to learn to fly and not to live in the beautiful place? By no means. In both cases, if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest. What is more (and I can hardly find words to tell you how important I think this), it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction. The man who has learned to fly and become a good pilot will suddenly discover music; the man who has settled down to live in the beauty spot will discover gardening.
Marriage and family makes you grow up, and grownups get promoted, so it may be time to stop thinking of marriage and pregnancy as harmful to women’s health and career aspirations. There are many ways to manage the choices women have today, and it’s worth considering the benefits of marriage and children. Marriage and children free men and women up to master new realms with the earned patience and empathy of a parent. While its likely no one, including women, can “have it all” women can have what they really want, including children. Women with children live longer and are more productive. Besides there’s the light-saber fights—which would be a shame to miss.
Amy Otto is a senior contributor to The Federalist.