Work

Just Because a Woman Is Childless Doesn’t Mean She Wants to Be a Workaholic

A young woman looking mad at work.
Just because I don’t have kids doesn’t mean I’m always free!
Milkos/Thinkstock

Sixteen-time WWE champion and human meme John Cena has some … interesting ideas about marriage that have recently come to light during his media tour promoting WrestleMania 34 and his upcoming movie Blockers. Not only did he reveal that he made his now-fiancée and fellow WWE star Nikki Bella sign a 75-page agreement before moving in with him, but he also disclosed that the reason his previous marriage failed was because of a prior engagement—to wrestling. “I tried marriage once and I realized [my] WWE marriage was the one that was going to survive,” Cena said in an interview on Hit 105’s morning radio show. And survive, it did!

Apparently, Bella’s willingness to sign a novella-length contract changed his mind about not only on marriage but also on producing an heir for Cenation. “Cena referred to his decision to be open to kids as ‘the power of love,’” writes MEL magazine’s Tracy Moore. “But it’s also unmistakably the power of being a man who has greater permission to be a workaholic and still benefit from a wife and family. We still culturally encourage men to be defined by work first and the rest second.” Moore’s piece explores the ways in which the option of being “married to work” or a workaholic is one that only men have any long-term access to. Once a woman is married with children, her attention is expected to be neatly divided between the care and keeping of her children, her home, her husband, and her job—in that order.

An implicit assumption here is that women without children enjoy the same permission to be a workaholic—of course at a lower wage and with less respect than her male workaholic counterpart. The untethered woman, lionized in shows like Sex and the City, is free to pick up that extra project or that needy client that calls at inappropriate times—in other words, the work that leads to bigger and better promotions. That assumption of freedom is the subtext to career advice I and my 20-something single friends have received over and over again from professors and family: Work hard while you’re only responsible for yourself. And it’s good advice—assuming you even want a family or children down the road. The problem is when workplaces assume that the young, single woman’s relative “freedom” to be a workaholic means that she wants to be one.

The inverse of the motherhood penalty is that the working mother’s childless counterpart is presumed to be more committed to her job and thus more amenable to working in less-than-flexible workplaces. After all, a woman of child-bearing age without children has to be career-obsessed, right? This assumption places young women early in their career at a disadvantage; managers assume these young women want to get ahead now, because, hey, you won’t be able to later! Because we are relatively untethered, our free time is less respected. The vacations we schedule months in advance are subject to negotiation if a big project comes up and our personal time is always able to be encroached upon, since there are no children in the picture.

And that’s if we’re even hired in the first place—40 percent of managers in one study admitted that they’re wary of hiring women in their 20s and 30s for fear that they’ll take maternity leave. The managers then went on to say that women returning from maternity leave aren’t as good at their jobs, so apparently there are very few women worth hiring to these guys. The solution here, of course, isn’t that women with children should face the same overbearing demands as their childless counterparts. It’s that we should collectively stop making workaholism desirable or compulsory. Anyone who enjoys the thrill of an 80-hour week should be free to do so. And anyone who doesn’t should be able to go home without URGENT emails lighting up their phones in the middle of Real Housewives.