Bryan Caplan  

Childlessness and Regret

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I just finished Sylvia Ann Hewlett's fantastic Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children (used copies on Amazon going for as little as 8 cents!). This book is full of great material on a wide range of topics, but let's start with one of its central claims: Successful professional women are unusually likely to be childless, and they usually regret it.

Hewlett began by interviewing ten women famous for achievement in a range of fields. Her original goal was to hear the secrets of their success; but during the interviews she noticed two remarkable facts. First, "None of these women had children." Second: "None of these women had chosen to be childless."

No one said, "I sat down at age thirty and decided that motherhood was not for me. I planned on devoting my life to building a huge career. I wanted celebrity/power/money - children were an easy trade-off." This is not what these women said. Rather, they told haunting stories of children being crowded out of their lives by high-maintenance careers and needy partners.


I was taken aback by what I heard. Going into these interviews I had assumed that if these accomplished, powerful women were childless, surely they had chosen to be.

Admittedly, as I told Will Wilkinson:
There are two kinds of regret: Regret where you wished you made a different choice given your constraints, and regret that you had constraints. I'm talking about the first kind of regret, and regard it as much more serious.
Which kind did Hewlett's interview subjects feel? It's hard to say for sure, but it seems like a mixture of the two.

Now of course ten interviews leave plenty of room for skepticism. But Hewlett also conducted a large-scale high quality survey, High-Achieving Women, 2001, and compiled a long list of interesting results. Note: In the survey, "high-achieving women" are basically those in the top 10% of the distribution of female income, while "ultra-achievers" are women earning over $100k in 2001. Survey highlights:

  • 33% of high-achievers and 49% of ultra-achievers are childless at age 40.
  • "Looking back to their early twenties... only 14 percent said they definitely had not wanted children... More than a quarter of all high-achieving women in the 41-55-year-old age bracket said they would still like to have children, and this figure rises to 31 percent among ultra-achievers."
  • Only 1% of high-achieving women had a first child after 39.
  • 89% of young high-achieving women believe they can get pregnant into their 40s. In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization.
The last fact is particularly striking, for it suggests that most women underestimate the biological constraints they face. And as any intermediate micro teacher can tell you, underestimating your constraints is a reliable path to disappointment.

P.S. Here's an energetic critique of Hewlett's data work. Two key claims:

1. "High-achieving women between 28 and 35 are just as likely to be successfully married as other women who work full time, according to the national data."

2. "Only 7 percent of never-married high-achieving women between 28 and 35 had had children, according to the CPS. In contrast, fully 32 percent of other never-married working women had done so. One hardly need look farther afield to explain why only 60 percent of high-achieving women had children at ages 36 to 40, whereas among working women generally the figure is 66 percent. High-achieving women are simply much more reluctant to take on single motherhood."

Frankly, though, these points aren't all that telling. After all, high-achieving women probably once had (or continue to have) better non-work opportunities than lower-income working women. "Get married and stay home with your kids for a few years" is much more realistic advice for a high-income woman than it is for a low-income woman, because they face very different pools of men.

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The author at Vivre La Différence in a related article titled Professional Women and the Quest for Children writes:
    This is a slightly out of date book, “Creating a Life, Professional Women and the Quest for Children” but it seems to have bounced back up again into the blogs recently. Here’s Bryan Caplan on it, an older piece from Prospect about it... [Tracked on April 18, 2008 10:10 AM]
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Phil writes:

>"In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization."

This is in-vitro only, right? If so, what difference does it make? If you're 41 and want a child, just conceive the traditional way.

I know (at least) two women who had children in their 40s. Neither had any problems with the pregnancy or birth.

aal writes:

That is rather depressing I must confess.

However, the stats seem kinda off. "Ultra-achievers" are only at 100K a year? Seems hardly as high as most "ultra-achievers" i've met or learned of. I mention it because that number changes the pay-offs to putting off kids.

Regardless, it all sounds pretty close to the truth...I know I learned early on from my mum that she had to settle for "high achiever" as a trade off for having me at a younger age and reaping the benefits of spending more time with her daughter while she's still young. Yet, she also repeatedly makes the point of how high the trade off was (I would like to think she doesn't regret it!)and that affected my preferences.

I know I must build (at least...) a 10-year career (including degrees) in my field of study before I have kids if I want to secure a good position. Having babies kills your networking for a year or two, changes people's perspectives ("oh you have a baby now, you should really not work as hard and focus on your kids rather"), and affects your productivity immensely (such as availability for travel and that kind of don't want to be missing bdays, believe me).

In any case, it seems like it is a costant trade-off where women are initially reluctant to have kids and later are confronted with the challenge of balancing it all and giving up career opportunities.
And don't even get me started on the pool of possible men you could marry...

mensarefugee writes:

Bye bye IQ... bye bye Gene Pool.

You will be missed, while we still have the capacity to miss.

dearieme writes:

Why the portentous "high-achieving" when it turns out that the criterion is just "well paid"?

liberty writes:

One problem with measurement of this particular problem is that you can't compare the numbers of women who choose the low-achieving have-a-child option who regret that choice.

When there is a time expiration on a choice it is easy to regret not doing it and then claim that you hadn't meant to make that choice, when in fact you did make a (semi-) conscious decision about it by giving it low priority. And anyone could say they would still like to have children- they might also like to spend a year traveling in Asia. They haven't demonstrated the preference though, its probably low priority.

Those who gave the achievement option a low priority, had children and regretted it would never tell you that they wished they hadn't because it would amount to saying that they don't love their kid. Its too late- the kid has their genes, no matter what they love the thing.

So, the survey is always going to be biased in favor of finding excessive regret about *not* having children. It doesn't even consider the reverse. What if the majority of women are making the wrong choice by having children?

Sol writes:

My first thought on "In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization" is that the word "without" was left out. At least, the success rate is more like 20% for 41-42 year-olds at our local IVF clinic. And it's even higher if donor eggs are used.

Sol writes:

Nationwide over-40 IVF success rate

It's over 5% even for women 44 years old. And if I'm reading it right, that's per attempt, not overall, so the overall success rate should be even higher.

Of course, each attempt is quite expensive, so these stats are not exactly good news for women trying to have children late in life...

Susan writes:

I also have concerns with the statement "89% of young high-achieving women believe they can get pregnant into their 40s. In reality, only 3-5% of women in their early 40s are able to have a live birth using in vitro fertilization." It seems to overstate the fertility issues associated with aging.

Per a recent lecture on infertility (I'm a medical student) the national rate of infertility is around 10% after one year of trying. By your early 30s this rate is 1/7, late 30s is 1/5, and early 40s is 1/4. This is the rate for the couple, meaning that a portion (~35%) is due to a male factor, and the remainder is due to a female factor. So by this account a woman in her early 40s would still have a 75% chance of getting pregnant within one year.

Additionally, there are many ways to treat infertility, and IVF is only one method. Obviously the odds of getting pregnant decrease significantly with age, but it's far from impossible.

Of course, someone wishing to delay having children would also want to take into account other pregnancy complications associated with increased maternal age (miscarriage, chromosomal abnormalities, preeclampsia, etc).

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