Why Have Kids? By Jessica Valenti
I saw a write-up about this book in some magazine and I was intrigued. I know – the title alone asks a question one might not associate with me, a mother of seven kids. What drew me was the real question as posed in the write-up: given the fact that parenthood is so hard, given that there is so little social support, why do people keep having kids?
I read the book in two days and it really struck a nerve with me. Because, you know what? Parenthood – motherhood in particular – isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And although many points in the book left me feeling pissed off, frustrated, and even sad – because of their truth – it was actually refreshing to have some of the feelings I’ve carried around validated.
Why do we have kids?
“Because after all, the expectation of happiness is why we’ve had kids . . . When that happiness doesn’t pan out, it’s difficult to admit – not only because it seems ungrateful, but because to the truth seems like an insult to the children that parents love so much.
“But maybe kids aren’t supposed to make us happy. Historically, Americans had children to help with the family farm or to have an extra set of hands around the house – to produce members of a larger community. Today, parenthood has become less about raising productive citizens than it is about creating someone to love us unconditionally, someone on which to focus all of our energy and love. The enormity of that expectation not only leaves unhappy parents wondering why they’re not swooning over their children, but it is also creating a generation of young people who think the world revolves around them. (After all, they’re just kids – that’s an awful lot of pressure to put on such tiny humans.)”
Written from a purely feminist point of view (the author, Jessica Valenti, is a celebrated feminist), the book is nonetheless based on numerous studies, statistics, and interviews, and it’s hard to argue with the underlying message: although motherhood is touted by our society as “the most important job in the world,” actual attitudes and policies certainly don’t support that notion, and as a result, mothers everywhere feel isolated, frustrated, guilty, overworked, and under-appreciated. The author argues, in fact, that society gives so much lip service to the institution of motherhood – from the medical community’s attempts to dictate the way women should care for their reproductive health from puberty on, because females’ highest purpose, after all, is to conceive and reproduce, to society’s pressure on mothers to breastfeed (with very few policies in place, however, to actually support breastfeeding mothers) – as a way of continuing to oppress women, to subtly but surely keep them at home where they do their best “work.” The very notion is enraging, isn’t it? And yet . . . one can’t help but wonder.
Even in this supposedly enlightened and progressive age, when you get right down to it, having children impacts the course of women’s lives far more than the men who father those children. Once a baby comes onto the scene, even the most previously egalitarian couples tend to adopt “traditional” roles, with the mother shouldering the bulk of the child rearing responsibilities – whether she also works outside the home or not – and the father playing a “supportive” role at home.
Valenti also postulates that the so-called Mommy Wars are born from frustration and feelings of guilt on both sides of the battle line: on one side, smart, talented women sacrificing autonomy and self-sufficiency in favor of the drudgery of everyday motherhood, and on the other, smart, talented women trying to balance work-for-pay with the demands of motherhood; both sides are desperate for validation, and rightly so.
Also under attack by the author is the notion of branded parenting styles, especially those that tout a “natural” or “back to basics” philosophy –
“It’s easy to appropriate a condescending fixation on “underdeveloped” motherhood when you have the financial means and leisure time to pick whatever kind of parenting works for you at the moment.”
“And for moms who don’t have time and resources to put a name to their parenting, the brouhaha over AP [Attachment Parenting] seems a bit trite. Mothers who worry about having enough food to feed their children don’t necessarily kvetch on online forums over whether or not you should wear your baby. Some parents cosleep not because they think it will promote the right kind of bonding but because they only have one bedroom – and maybe no crib.”
Whether you’re talking about Attachment Parenting or Elimination Communication, guess who shoulders the brunt of the work? You guessed it: moms.
“But if one kind of parenting is “natural,” what does that make all other kinds of child rearing? Despite all the empowered rhetoric around the new maternal ideal – women’s intuition! maternal instinct! – isn’t this just a spiffed up version of telling women that their most important role in life is a domestic one?”
The author covers a lot of ground, and brings up issues that we would all do well to consider. The only criticisms I have are the fact that there are numerous typos in the book, and although the author pushes for changes in attitudes and national policies to better support healthy, well-rounded parenting, the book isn’t big on ideas about how to make that happen.
I really think this is a must-read, though – for men and women alike, although I suspect it will be more women than men reading it. It’s unlikely that anyone will come away from this book without experiencing some outrage.