Miller: Layers of discontent

Kara Miller

I reveled in the cake. All three layers of it.

Which, I guess, is the advantage - and peril - of being single at a wedding.

You spend a lot less time on the dance floor and a lot more time making dents in the beautifully frosted centerpiece - which, in this case, contained a chocolate-and-vanilla marbleized layer, a strawberries-and-cream layer, and a (surprisingly tasty) sugar-free peanut-butter-and-chocolate layer.

But, while scooping up frosting and watching white men dance awkwardly, I started to worry about crunch time.

Like me, most of the attendees at the wedding were in their late twenties; some had hit 30. Few were married, though several were in long-term relationships. And there was one couple with a baby.

In America - where the average age of marriage is 26 - this was an unusual crowd. Many - like the bride and groom - had Ph.Ds or were in the process of completing them. Lots of the attendees lived hundreds of miles from their significant other, torn between all-too-rare academic positions and the demands of a relationship.

Even the bride and groom couldn't quite balance love and work. This year, the groom will be in New Jersey, while the bride works in Massachusetts.

But, to me, what was most worrying was not whether such far-flung couples will solidify their family but, rather, what will happen when they do.

It seems so long and hard to spend four years getting a college degree, six or seven years slogging away at a doctorate, and two or three years doing overtime in an entry-level position. And it's tough to imagine capping off that sort of 12-year apprenticeship with a baby.

For men, it may not be that hard to imagine. But for a woman who finally glimpses some sort of payoff at the end of the tunnel, it feels almost heartbreaking.

Part of the heartbreak, of course, is that having a baby would probably be wonderful, a reality which many professional women try not to think about.

At 10:30 on the night of the wedding, when everyone had made a few trips to the open bar, a Harvard-educated Ph.D. leaned over to me and said, "Isn't it crazy that people our age are having babies?"

"Yeah," I said to her, nodding. "It's weird." But, in truth, it isn't weird at all. My grandmother had two children by 29. And medical studies have shown for years that women in their 20s have the least trouble conceiving and delivering.

In 2002, an economist named Sylvia Ann Hewlett nearly started a riot when she penned a book asserting that women put off having families at their own peril. Many highly accomplished women, Hewlett discovered, were still childless at 40 and often encountered a great deal of trouble getting pregnant. Salon's Joan Walsh labeled the ensuing mania "The Baby Panic." And "60 Minutes" featured Hewlett in a hair-raising piece, which featured a panel of husbandless Harvard Business School women.

But today's young professionals hardly seem to have noticed. Most female college graduates have placed their chips firmly on the career table, diligently spending their 20s slogging through medical school, law school, business school, and graduate school. They dutifully put in their time as assistant investment analysts, assistant producers, and junior executives.

And when they hit 30 they're ready to cash in. To make their mark. To exercise their abilities.

But 30 is also the new age for settling down, for having a family, for "kickin' it old school," as Will Ferrell would say.

For many men, the choice between work and family is no choice at all. But, for women, such a choice can be very stark.

When I look around, I see lots of female professors in my graduate department without children; my columnist heroine, Maureen Dowd, also has no children.

Which leads me to wonder: can women be good mothers - really good mothers - and still be competitive in their professions? Or does excellence ultimately demand a choice?

Kara Miller can be reached by e-mail at karaletters@gmail.com.