To the outside world, high-achieving women who have risen to powerful positions appear to be living a golden American success story. They hold lofty titles, enjoy corporate perks, and earn impressive salaries.
But for many of these women, success has exacted a heavy price at home: They never had children. Now, in their 40s and 50s, most find it is too late.
"They forgot to make time for a personal life," explains Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of a poignant new book, "Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children" (Talk Miramax, $22). Childlessness, she says, "haunts the executive suite."
Yet most of those in what Ms. Hewlett calls the "breakthrough generation" the first women to overcome barriers in male-dominated fields did not intend to be childless. In interviews with Hewlett, they tell sad stories about how children were crowded out of their lives by "high-maintenance careers and needy partners." Some also blame themselves.
Whatever the reason, many express regret about their permanently empty nests.
Unlike high-achieving men, who take for granted being able to have a career and a family, these women faced an either/or choice. They spent their 20s and 30s nurturing careers instead of children, working long hours, even relocating when the job demanded. By age 40, some struggled with infertility. Others were single or were married to men who did not want children.
Hewlett understands why trailblazing women needed to focus intently on careers. "But we underrated or failed to see that women would end up paying a huge price. If we replicate men's career story, we can't replicate their family story, and it leaves too many women making sacrifices."
To measure those sacrifices, Hewlett interviewed 100 women. She also conducted a nationwide survey last year of nearly 1,200 high-achieving women whose incomes put them in the top 10 percent of salaries. It focuses on two groups: those 41 to 55 the breakthrough generation and those 28 to 40, their younger peers.
At least 42 percent of women in corporate America are childless at age 40, a figure that rises to 49 percent among those in the highest echelons. Just 10 percent of 40-year-old men who earn equivalent salaries are childless.
In addition, only 60 percent of women in this breakthrough generation are married. Successful men, Hewlett explains, may not want to marry a peer. "If you're a high-earning man, there's a whole bevy of young women who think you're great and can ease your life as your partner," she says. "But professional women in their 30s find it hard to find such men."
As a result, she says, high-achieving women are unlikely to get married after the age of 35. They are also unlikely to have a child after 39. Yet 89 percent of younger women believe they will be able to get pregnant into their 40s; many pin their hopes on new reproductive technology.
Hewlett traces the roots of the situation to a variety of circumstances and messages. Young women are told they need to spend the decade from 22 to 32 building a career. That coincides with prime childbearing years.
The arrival of "the pill" in the early 1960s gave women freedom to postpone childbearing. Later, assisted reproductive technology gave them confidence much of it unfounded that they could always have a baby. As Hewlett puts it, "We went from needing to fear our fertility to squandering our fertility in about 30 years."
She warns against the media hype that paints too rosy a picture of late-in-life pregnancy options. And she criticizes for-profit fertility clinics for perpetuating the belief that it's never too late. "We glom onto the fact that 63-year-olds can have babies. If a 63-year-old can do it, we think a 42-year-old can do it."
Not all professional women regret being childless, of course. About 14 percent of the women in Hewlett's study did not want children. And many women who might have liked to be mothers have made peace with the issue.
Marcia Gronewold Sly, development director development for the Young Musicians Program at the University of California, Berkeley, was ambivalent about motherhood during her prime childbearing years. Today, rather than having real regrets, she simply has "questions about what life would be like with children. I really define my role in life differently, and I can be quite happy with that."
Hewlett emphasizes that it is every woman's privilege to aim for a career-driven life. But to a younger generation of women for whom having a family is still an option and a desire, she offers advice:
First, figure out what you want your life to look like at 45. She suggests an exercise called "backward mapping." Identify what you want, then work backwards to determine how to achieve your goals.
Second, give priority to finding a marriage partner. "The marriage market, the possibility of getting yourself a loving, stable relationship, is much better if you find that in your 20s than if you go searching in your 30s."
Third, be strategic about when you plan to have your children. "It's a myth that you can with impunity plan to have your first child in your 40s."
Fourth, choose a career that will give the "gift of time" and provide a balance between work and family.
Young women, Hewlett says firmly, "absolutely are in command of their destinies. They can take back control and make things work for them. But they can't just leave their private life on autopilot and go after a career. You need to be as strategic about your private life as about your professional life."
That may be easier to say than to do, says Katharine Lord, a young gallery director in New York. "You may think you have a partner for life, and something might change."
Ms. Lord wants children someday, as well as a "strong career." She laments the lack of resources to help women discuss what it means to "have it all," and what sacrifices they must make.
"If I had access to people who had already gone through it, that would be helpful," Lord says. "I could ask questions, learn from their mistakes, find out what they wish they had done differently."
Karen Hurley, who is in her 20s and works for a law firm in New York, finds people her age taking a lot for granted as to how much time they have on their side.
"You need to prioritize things in a way that will make you happy in 20 years," she says. "But that's so counter to the way we see ourselves as always living in the instant. Long term, for someone in my generation, is three years."
Hewlett hopes employers will continue to find ways to be more flexible. And she shares Lord's desire for an expanded conversation about these issues.
"We are ready for much more public awareness as to what our long-houred culture, our delaying family is doing to the sacrificial load that particularly professional women are having to bear," she says. "Once the facts get out, women will make different decisions."