When feminist writer, Jessica Valenti had a baby it turned out to be a life-threatening experience for both her and her daughter. It was an immediate introduction to the ambivalence that is possible in motherhood. In fact, Valenti described her early months in motherhood as being – “(c)rippled by fear and post-traumatic stress.” It’s the kind of gut-wrenching description that stops a reader in her tracks. There’s a great potential to trivialise motherhood and in doing so we miss out on understanding both its bleakest moments and its soaringly romantic ones. I suspect ambivalence is a near universal experience for women but it’s so taboo we rarely fully identify it in parenting books. This book, more than anything else, is attempting to fully examine that ambivalence.
Why Have Kids? is an interesting and brave approach to the conversation about parenthood because it frames the discussion in a political sphere. At one point the book quotes Katie Allison Granju and Jillian St. Charles as saying – “many women will tell you that becoming a mother was the most politically radicalizing experience of their lives”. Absolutely, and it is refreshing to see an author treat the subject with just this level of seriousness. Valenti covers a range of topics that deserve attention but which rarely get featured in books about parenthood like, the history of state control over women’s bodies and child-rearing practices; the infantalising pregnancy diet and the alcohol-abstinence messages; the incessant downplaying of the role of fathers; the success of non-nuclear families; the classism around how we view at-home mothers differently according to their wealth; the tensions in achieving work-and-family balance; and the predatory success behind the ‘parenting expert’ anxiety industry. Because this book is a commercial one about parenthood, rather than an academic book, these topics are probably ground-breaking for the genre.
The chapter, “Bad Mothers Go To Jail” is particularly thoughtful. Here, Valenti examines the phenomenon of child abandonment and neglect as the heartbreaking evidence it provides that motherhood is not nearly as serene and unconflicted as we are led to believe. It is a chapter like this one that makes you appreciate a feminist like Jessica Valenti taking on parenthood for her book. This chapter also highlights the sense of losing oneself that is common for women entering motherhood and one of the book’s strengths is the manner in which it normalises the desire in some women not to be parents. As Valenti goes on to argue, most women spend a great deal of their lives using contraception to avoid getting pregnant; so, it would seem strange that we stigmatise women for not wanting to ever be pregnant, given that it is a view we can all relate to ourselves for much of our lives. Why Have Kids? is not going to offend those readers who are ultimately deciding against parenthood, Valenti is clearly wanting to draw the non-parent and parent communities together and it’s an excellent ambition for a parenting book. This means the book doesn’t touch on any of the extreme individualism that is sometimes being directed towards mothers and children by elements of the childfree movement and which leads to a misogynistic judgementalism about mothers, but deciding that is beyond the scope of the book is reasonable.
Why Have Kids? is occasionally prone to some simplistic generalisations about attachment/natural parenting that can come across as divisive. For instance, elimination communication (EC) is labelled a “feminist’s worst nightmare”, staggered vaccination schedules are seen as helicopter parenting, and the backlash against French feminist, Elisabeth Badinter’s anti-breastfeeding book is described as “(h)ell hath no fury like La Lech League scorned”. Why Have Kids? is right to critically examine parenting trends, given their impact on women’s lives, but broad sweeping statements are likely to alienate some mothers. Valenti, a mother who breastfed initially but who chose formula-feeding when the breastfeeding became part of the trauma she was experiencing with her premature baby, is particularly concerned with the heavy-handedness of the breastfeeding message and it’s a very important story to be telling. But it is frustrating in a book like this one, that seeks to debunk myths, that scrutiny is not being applied with the same persistence to the misogynist barriers against breastfeeding. The ways in which public space, workplace practices and marital expectations are arranged is actively hostile to women trying to breastfeed and tend to their infants, and this is a serious feminist issue. I feel quite certain that Valenti gets all this; she selected quotes from an interview with me where I am making some of these arguments and she ultimately ends this particular chapter by acknowledging that “(p)arenting and caretaking are only as oppressive as our society makes them.” But still, the discussion around attachment parenting is uneven and could benefit from more nuance.
However, where Why Have Kids? gets it exactly right is where Valenti confronts the perfectionism and policing that happens in motherhood these days and some of this is coming from the attachment/natural parenting movement – “(i)t may be that American mothers are so desperate for power, recognition, and validation that we’d rather take on the burden of considering ourselves “expert moms” rather than change the circumstances that demand such an unreasonable role for us”. These will be uncomfortable truths for motherhood experts and websites that make their money by schooling us in exactly these pursuit, but, yes and yes to what Valenti is saying here.
As well as the attachment parenting chapter I also found myself somewhat conflicted when reading the chapter, “The Hardest Job in the World”, where Valenti justifiably questions what can be a patronising and exploitative message for women about the role of mothers. It is sexist that the boring, mundane tasks of mothering are sold to women as some kind of special task for which we are biologically designed and therefore not entitled to reward or status for doing them; but it is equally sexist to reduce all caring tasks to the trivial, the mindless and the twee. Mothering can be complicated and compelling and also, intellectually and emotionally satisfying. The fact that we describe it as involving problem-solving no more difficult than “kissing boo-boos” is telling. Given all this, what does it say when we characterise some women as falling “for the trap of believing that parenting is the most important job they’ll ever have”? This is a difficult balance to strike in feminism – between denigrating ‘women’s work’ and liberating women from domestic servitude, but it is one where white, middle-class feminist mothers, like myself and Valenti, risk universalising our experiences at the expense of disabled mothers, mothers of colour, trans parents, mothers in incarceration, poor mothers and other marginalised people who are still fighting for their mothering to be respected and for whom mothering can be a radical feat of activism and community building. The availability of high quality childcare is not the answer to every problem.
Why Have Kids? is probably at its strongest where it approaches tricky subjects but openly acknowledges its own bias. So, for instance, the chapter “Women Should Work” is buoyed by this rather lovely piece of self-reflection from Valenti after admitting that she thinks women should generally avoid being at-home parents (a view I share, in part): “I’m not sure how to reconcile these beliefs with my feeling that people’s life choices should be honored. I think there’s a way to discuss and think critically – and be critical – of parents’ choices without resorting to personal attacks and hyperbole. And I trust women and mothers to be able to have this conversation with the knowledge that we want to make parents’ lives better”. There is some great stuff in here on what the studies are really showing about long-term outcomes for mothers and children when mothers stay attached to the workforce and it refutes conservative propaganda. The chapter also includes the most interesting and humanising interview I’ve seen with Linda Hirshman in some time. In it, Hirshman notes the social impact of elite stay-at-home mothers on the rest of us in terms of raising unrealistic expectations – “Setting aside for a moment the people who have to work, an important question is why do they do it? It’s like the really skinny models; it’s some bizarre norm of female accomplishment that no one can really achieve”. Hirshman has her blind spots (some of them large) but she makes solid points in support of women’s participation in the workforce – “If the rulers are male, they will make mistakes that benefit males” – and her interview reminded me that Hirshman is mostly motivated by a desire to improve the lot of mothers.
For all the doubts raised about the over-prioritising of parenthood in women’s lives in Why Have Kids?, Valenti arrives at a conclusion, not unlike a lot of us: “I, unfortunately, didn’t have a choice in deciding whether or not she would be the center of my life. She just was; her health and survival depended on it”. Making peace with this fact – that children are vulnerable little beings who will sometimes justify great sacrifices on our part and yet, somehow we must be allowed to remain intact as ourselves – is important feminist work. Personally, I would love to have seen more sharing of experiences from Valenti in Why Have Kids? because I eat that stuff up with a spoon, but I can see that a memoir is not the book Valenti set out to write here. You won’t agree with everything in this book no matter which direction of parenting you’re coming from, Valenti acknowledges that, but it is taking the mainstream conversation about parenting to a meatier level and it’s about time that happened. When the book ends with its wonderful conclusion about why we need to move away from individualism – because when one mother is punished, we are all punished – I am hoping all readers hear that.
In accordance with disclosure guidelines, please note that I was sent a copy of this book for review by the publisher and I am also quoted in the book.
(Cross-posted at blue milk).