I know Jessica Valenti, one of our generation’s most prominent feminists, in an online sort of way. She read APW when she was planning her wedding, we chat on Twitter often, I read her books. So when she linked to her newest book Why Have Kids? a day after I announced my pregnancy, I asked for a review copy, stat. What follows are my thoughts after reading the book. It’s less a formal review, and more a personal essay (as I do) on a book I think you should go buy. What can I say? I had to stick this in before the end of Kids/No Kids week. It’s also possible that Jessica will show up in the comments, so keep an eye out.
The moment I got pregnant, my personal life turned into a parade of cheer. And I don’t mean that in the most positive way. I was sick, and stressed, and freaked out, and suddenly every other question (often from total strangers) was, “Are you so excited?” “Are you the happiest you’ve ever been?” And I wasn’t, frankly. I was overwhelmed, and the constant messaging that if I wasn’t thrillingly happy, I was broken, was really only making the situation worse. (Side note: this does, actually, seem to improve. In my Very Pregnant third trimester state, people are simply very, very kind to me.)
I was discussing with a friend the pressure I feel, as a pregnant woman, to live in a state of constant bliss, and I was pointed towards the recent New York Times article “America the Anxious.” The piece is written by a Brit, and discusses the American obsession with the pursuit of happiness. Author Ruth Whippaman posits that this is a very American cultural trend, and for the British, “It’s not that we don’t want to be happy, it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it, and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.” She comments on the difference between American and British Facebook postings: “Americans post links to inspirational stories, and parenting blogs packed with life lessons. (British parenting blogs tend to be packed with despair and feces.)” Right? So I wasn’t happy all the time. Fine. Normal, probably, given the strain of pregnancy. Excellent. I was going to stop being bullied into feeling happy when I wasn’t.
It’s this happiness expectation that is at the core of Jessica Valenti‘s new book Why Have Kids? The book is a well-researched and thoughtfully articulated feminist discussion of where, exactly, our expectations for parenting went off track. How our expectations of having kids become so exalted that real life could never fully live up?
I like a sharply written and argued book about parenting. I think the idea that we can only speak in whispered tones about how much we love every parenting choice is awful. I want as vigorous a debate around motherhood as I expect around any other major part of my life, and I don’t want that debate to be given the condescending label of “mommy wars.” This is a book that you may spend entire chapters disagreeing with—which I love. Why Have Kids? will join Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions as the parenting book I give to every new mother in my life.
What Valenti explores in these pages, is the crux of what we’ve been discussing all week. How do we separate the cultural fiction and the total hyperbole that has sprung up around our current cult of motherhood, from reality? If American parents are increasingly unhappy, as studies show, is it possible that we’ve simply set our expectations of childrearing to unrealistic levels?
Valenti says, “The problem isn’t our children themselves; it’s the expectation of perfection, or, at the very least, overwhelming happiness. The seductive lie that parenting will fulfill our lives blinds Americans to the reality of having kids.” As someone who spends much of her life online, Valenti perfectly describes the overly perfected parenting I so often read about on blogs: “The expectation of a certain kind of parenthood—one where we’re perfect mothers who have perfect partners, where our biggest worry is whether or not to use cloth diapers—makes the real thing much more difficult to bear.”
No kidding. I spent, I kid you not, at least a month in my early pregnancy worried that I didn’t care very much about cloth diapers. Not actually that we wouldn’t use them (jury is out on that), but that I didn’t care about them. I didn’t want to research them. I didn’t want to read about them. I was sticking to my life long ex-nanny policy that the less time you spent thinking about diapers, the better off you are. The fact that we’ve built a myth of motherhood where it is possible to feel guilty when you realize that you don’t care very much about what diaper you use, what stroller you have, or what your parenting philosophy is (mine: get the baby to stop crying when possible) points to something being out of whack. It points to the myth of motherhood obscuring the reality.
What Valenti talks about goes to the heart of the discussion we had yesterday. What do we expect from motherhood? What was historically required from motherhood? Are our expectations realistic? She points out, “Gone are the days of reproducing to have an extra pair of hands at the farm or family store. Parents expect their children to be their soul mates in the same way they expect of their spouse—they want children to make their lives and families complete. When these sweet little beings who are supposed to be the center of parents’ universe don’t manage to fulfill their lives completely, we come back to the most overwhelming sentiment of mothers across America: guilt.” As one of the wise mothers that I know recently advised me, start with a policy of refusing to feel guilty about anything, then proceed. And if I don’t expect my partner to live up the romantic comedy ideal of love (and I don’t), I need to dispense with the idea that the tiny being living inside me is my soul mate (which is a whole lot to require of a brand new person).
For me, the key part of the book is the feminist discussion of balancing motherhood with our lives. Valenti discusses the current pressures of Total Motherhood, and the way our cultural narrative, combined with a total lack of public policy promoting parental support, pushes mothers into a new and complete identity: All Consuming Motherhood. As she recently discussed in her excellent essay in The Nation, “I’m Not A Mother First,” Valenti says, “We also need a fundamental shift in the way we over-value mothering in women. Because if women continue to believe that the most important thing they can do is raise children—and that their children need to be the center of their universe—then the longer that American women will go unrecognized and undermined in public life, and the more frantic and perfectionist we’ll become in our private and parental lives.” More personal to me, the book revisits the idea that I touched on when I announced my pregnancy, “How insulting is it to suggest that the best thing women can do is raise other people to do incredible things? I’m betting some of those women would like to do great things of their own.”
The first time I read the book, my nagging thought was that I wasn’t sure Valenti had answered the question “Why have kids?” But after yesterday’s comment discussion, I think not answering the question is the right answer. What we’re being sold in society is an idea that pregnancy and motherhood is an absolute. That it will make you happier than you’ve ever been. That it will be the hardest thing that you’ve ever done. That it will change the very essence of who you are, forever. And I’m just not sure that’s (always) true. I’m not sure it’s even a healthy expectation. Over the course of human history, motherhood was something that you did, largely because you didn’t have an option. Have unprotected sex from age eighteen on, and chances are reasonably good that you will end up with a kid, or two, or nine. (And if you didn’t end up with a kid, you often adopted the fifth, or eighth, or eleventh child from a relation’s family, a part of my personal family history.) Now that motherhood is a choice—one we debate heavily, and work to time impeccably, and often struggle with achieving—we want something more from it than just “life, but now with small people to love and care for.”
Why have kids? I’m not sure if there is a perfect answer for that question, one way or the other. And that, I think, is the point.