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The Do-It-All Dilemma

BU Students Confront the Work-Family Conflict

The Do-It-All Dilemma: BU students confront the work-family conflict

As national newspapers and magazines report on a surprising finding in higher education — that some young women at Yale University are choosing to attend college, obtain advanced degrees, and enter the working world with the intention of becoming stay-at-home moms at a later date — students at Boston University are confronting some tough questions about their own long-term plans.

Is it really possible to be an excellent parent and a high-performance professional? What kind of compromise is needed to do both?

And what undergraduate student can predict her future so clearly?

“There are so many issues that have to be taken into consideration before making a decision,” says Zlata Baldekova (SMG’06), 22. “Marriage, divorce, health, profession, income, and family support. It’s not predictable at all.”

The parent versus professional debate was rekindled in September, when the New York Times ran a front page story titled “Many Women at Elite Colleges Set Career Path to Motherhood.” Reporter Louise Story surveyed 231 women in two of Yale’s residential colleges and found that 60 percent said “that when they had children, they planned to cut back on work or stop working entirely. About half of those women said they planned to work part-time, and about half wanted to stop work for at least a few years.”

In response, BU Today conducted an Internet survey in which more than 2,000 BU men and women participated, and the results showed that by and large, women here do not plan to follow the same route as those at Yale. Only 42 percent of the BU women said it was important to have one parent stay at home (compared to 60 percent of the men) and only 7 percent of the women said they planned to stop working entirely after having children (compared to 3 percent of the men).

There were those respondents whose viewpoints reflected one extreme — “I believe it is absolutely fundamental that the parent, preferably the woman, stay at home to raise children” — or another — “People who can’t work and raise kids are weak and are raising their children to be weak.” The majority, however, remained firmly in the middle ground, hoping for a balance between work and family, but with many questions and fears about how to find it.

“I go back and forth,” says Kathleen Dowling (COM’07), 21. “I think it really helped me that my mom was at home when I was younger, but at the same time, when it’s really expensive to raise children, I don’t know how realistic that is.”

BU by the numbers
Survey participants were asked about their career ambitions, if they hoped to pursue an advanced degree, and their plans after graduation. They were also asked whether their mothers had worked or been stay-at-home parents, and finally, asked to agree or disagree with several opinions expressed in the Times article. Those included, “You can’t be the best career woman/person and mother/father at the same time,” “When I have children I plan to stop working entirely,” and “I expect to be able to pursue a full-time career by splitting…responsibilities with my spouse.”

The bulk of the 2,044 responses came from undergraduates (60 percent) between the ages of 15 and 25 (76 percent); 85 percent were women, and 81 percent said they planned to obtain an advanced degree.

Half of the men and more than two-thirds of the women said they would cut back on work after having children, but 63 percent of the women and 88 percent of the men nonetheless said that they hoped to have a family and work full-time.

Approximately 300 students said that their mothers had stayed home with their children, and of those 300, 14 percent said they planned to stop working after having children. In contrast, of the 626 students whose mothers had had full-time careers, just 3 percent made the same choice. However, 48 percent of the first group said they planned to work full-time after having children.

The New York Times article focused on undergraduate students; 40 percent of those who took the BU Today survey were graduate students, and the results did not show a notably different attitude towards work and parenthood between them and undergraduates.

Reaction and response
Some students, like Baldekova, wondered why a person would go through college just to leave the workforce. “Why would you work so hard,” she asks, “and then not apply your great knowledge in practice?”

Others, such as Alana Steinhardt (COM’07), 20, question the wisdom of having children if one’s career is a priority. “Why have kids if you can’t see them grow up, and be there for the experience?” she says. “At BU, I’m preparing myself to be a more well-rounded person. That doesn’t necessarily mean I have to work.”

The issue is a serious concern for students today, says Deborah Belle, a College of Arts and Sciences psychology professor, in part because young women have a wider spectrum of career options than women of previous generations. But while many new opportunities exist for women in the workplace, she says, the ideas about social support and the laws that make a work-family balance more viable have not changed enough.

“I think the thing that resonates so badly with me about the New York Times article is that the onus is always on the woman, and that’s not where it should be,” says Belle, who studies the issues that arise in balancing work and family. “Of course there are superheroes who can do it all, but that’s not the point. The point is that none of us should be forced to be in these positions.”

That viewpoint was echoed by some students who took the survey, but others said they still felt obligated to choose between a career and a family life — and noted that the survey didn’t ask whether participants planned to have children at all.

“I don’t think it occurred to me how hard it was going to be until I got to college,” says Dani Solano (GRS’09), 24, a graduate student studying organic chemistry. “This is a really difficult career to have a family with — there’s only one female professor at BU in chemistry. And right now, I’m thinking I might choose a career over [family].”

The survey also did not ask participants if they already had children, which clearly affected some answers. “I am currently working on my Ph.D. from home with my first child, who is one month old,” wrote one woman. “I wear her in a sling while typing, and read scientific papers out loud to her. It may not be perfect, but nothing is.”

The overall response from the BU population, however, demonstrated a mix of optimism and realism.

“Does anyone really know what they want?” wrote a student. “I noticed that some of my desires might be contradictory. We’ll see.”

What do you think? Let us know at today@bu.edu.

To view the full survey results, click here.

Table 1: Future plans and ideas on parenting, undergraduate and graduate students

Table 2: Future plans and ideas on parenting, students with working or stay-at-home mothers