Next up in my new Reading List series: Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti, activist, author and founder of Feministing.com.
Seeing as I’m 31, female, and oh, btw, have a chronic medical condition linked to around 40 percent of infertility cases… the questions of kids and why/when/how to have them are ones that comes up pretty often for me and my closest friends. Who, for the record, have produced six babies between them in the past thirteen months. (I am woefully behind on bootie knitting.) Having a front row seat for their experiences has made me realize just how many decisions mothers, specifically, are held responsible for from the moment conception becomes a possibility: What are you eating and drinking during pregnancy? What kind of birth will you have? Will you breastfeed, attachment parent, sleep train? Do you have a “good” baby or an “easy” baby (and if not — what are you doing wrong)? Are you going back to work and how much? (For a very insightful take on this last question, check out my girl Amy’s recent blog post.)
While it’s easy to get caught up in the ins and outs of every decision, what these choices really tell us is how utterly imbalanced our society’s expectations are for being a “good” mom versus a “good” dad. Not one of the five fathers of those six babies (we had one set of twins!!!) has battled a fraction of that pressure. Which is not to say we haven’t made some progress from the Don Draper school of fatherhood (all of these dad friends are certainly far more interested in these questions than Mad Men-era dads — they just aren’t getting asked them by the world at large). But we haven’t made nearly enough. Even that otherwise-pretty-brilliant and conversation-changing piece by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic earlier this summer framed the debate around “Why Women Can’t Have It All.” Not around why families (as in, moms and dads) are losing out in the quest for all-ness. Which is actually the conversation we need to have, as I pointed out in my response on Harpers.org.
So. Valenti’s book doesn’t really answer the title question of why have kids. (Perhaps because, as Amanda Marcotte points out, there isn’t a clear and rational answer now that we don’t need children to perform manual labor. It’s far more practical not to have kids — yet those are the people we’re usually obsessed with trying to “understand” as being somehow wrong or unnatural.) But what Why Have Kids does do exceptionally well: Trace the social, economic and political reasons why we have decided that being a mother is “the most important job in the world,” while simultaneously refusing to pay anything other than lip service to that notion.
I’ll admit, I don’t always love Valenti’s prose. She’s an activist first and sometimes that translates to ranting when I want a more subtle analysis. But as an activist, she makes an incredibly valid point: We’re never going to get past these debates and discussions over the details of motherhood if we don’t start recognizing their place in the larger cultural context. And while I know that sounds like heaping even more pressure on moms — now your decision to work or stay home has to be a political statement too! — I actually think it could be quite freeing. Because you can choose to reject the expectations of perfect motherhood — just like we talk about rejecting the beauty standards that don’t apply to how we actually live our lives.
And in doing so, you can change the conversation. By bringing dads into it, for starters. Not by heaping them with the same guilt and cultural restraints we place on moms — that would be simply transferring the unrealistic standard, like when we say “real women have curves” as if thin women are figments of our imagination. But by redefining parenthood as a concept that applies to either gender, rather than a construct* used to keep one gender exactly where we want ‘em.
*I was going to get all women’s studies and use the phrase “patriarchal construct” there… but the truth is, I actually see plenty of women building their own prisons on the perfect mother front. A lot of this change has to stem from moms giving up their “head parent” status and realizing that they have more to gain by a shared approach.
Okay. Here’s the part where I own up to having exactly zero experience with the realities of all this game-changing. I’m not a mom and while my husband and I have a lot of theories about how we’ll have these conversations, we aren’t having them yet for obvious reasons. Plus a lot of the conversations have to involve other people — workplaces, childcare providers, extended families and so on. I would have loved to see Why Have Kids? offer more concrete ideas about how we can negotiate the ins and outs of all of those landmines. But that may be expecting too much. Valenti gets all of these conversations started — and maybe that’s exactly where we need to be right now.
You can read an excerpt of Why Have Kids? and a pretty great interview with Jessica Valenti by Nicole Cliffe over here on The Hairpin. Undercover in the Suburbs also devoted all of last week to discussing the book in far more detail — so check out some more great reading about all of these issues over there.