For women, the question of whether or not to have a child can feel less like a personal choice than a litmus test. Having (or not having) children serves, even in 2012, as a measure of one’s womanly value, a more or less final statement as to whether one has succeeded at being properly alive and female. In Why Have Kids?, Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti demonstrates this pressure with a remarkable number of cultural examples — from the CDC’s recommendation that all uterus-bearing women regard themselves as “pre-pregnant” and tailor their personal health plans accordingly, to the “parenting” blog at the New York Times whose title, Motherlode, addresses only one parent.
Valenti’s book is inspired in part by the premature and life-threatening delivery of her own daughter, Layla, in 2010. She admits to drinking the perfect mom Kool-Aid: Two days before she was hospitalized for an emergency C‑section due to preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, she was touring the birth section of the hospital, “torn between the birth center – relaxation tubs and bragging rights on giving birth ‘naturally’ — or a hospital room where there were sweet, sweet epidurals.” The less-than-sweet reality of the birth left Valenti, as she puts it, “mourning the pregnancy and childbirth I thought I was going to have.” Worse: Due in part to her childbirth-related PTSD, she couldn’t feel the effortless, all-fulfilling “emotional orgasm” of love for her daughter that she’d been told would come naturally.
This leaves Valenti in an ideal position to interrogate the myths that surround “perfect” motherhood. She writes that the oh-so-mockable ideal of smugly over-involved hipster-momdom (teach little Timmy to knit his own clothes! And play the bass! And write a persuasive school paper on the necessity of food co-ops!) may be “just the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up.” Likewise, mothers refusing to vaccinate their children may simply have an understandable distrust of the medical establishment based on its history of misunderstanding or pathologizing women’s experiences, combined with a faulty education from the “University of Google.” And she points out that these pressures are double-edged. While wealthy white women whose privilege affords them fulfilling careers are encouraged to drop those jobs for a life of water-birthing and diaper-changing, women of color and poor women are called “lazy” for stay-at-home parenting, and often harshly punished or even jailed for their parenting choices. Valenti cites the case of Raquel Nelson, a woman of color, whose 4‑year-old son A.J. ran out into traffic; Nelson followed to save his life, and she, her daughter and A.J. were hit by a van. When A.J. died, an all-white jury convicted Nelson of second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct and — here’s the kicker — failing to cross at a crosswalk.
Valenti’s empathy for mothers is matched by her impatience for platitudes about motherhood. Half of the book is headed “Lies” and questions such sacred cows as “children make you happy” (studies show that parenting decreases satisfaction with life) and the idea that being a full-time parent is “the hardest job in the world.” (If it’s so difficult and so all-important, Valenti wonders, why aren’t more men volunteering to prove themselves by undertaking it? And why isn’t it paid?)
These myths not only saddle women with unfair guilt, Valenti argues, but also prevent progressive mobilization around the work of parenthood itself.
“It seems to me that a lot of the political ambivalence around parenting issues come from this idea that the parenting is a reward in and of itself,” she writes to me in an email. “That we don’t need things like subsidized child care or paid leave because our kids are ‘our problem’ and besides, they’re such a joy anyway, what do we have to complain about!? It’s a way to maintain the status quo.
“But the truth is,” she continues, “that parenting is really hard. It isn’t always rewarding. And it doesn’t always bring you joy. That’s OK! Who said it was kids’ job to make you happy? I think if we’re more honest about the struggles of parenting and what parenting really looks like, we can be more upfront about what we need to make everyday parenting easier.”
Valenti suggests a few commonsense solutions, many of which have been promoted by feminists and progressives for some time: paid parenting, extended maternal leave, a community-based approach to raising children rather than a strictly individualistic, Mom-or-nothing focus. But, she admitted in our conversation, “We just haven’t had much luck mobilizing women around the issue. I see great feminists and feminist organizations doing work on motherhood, but it doesn’t get the same attention that something like abortion rights or violence against women does.”
Valenti also addresses the other half of the equation: fathers. In one of the book’s disturbing (yet unsurprising) anecdotes, Valenti writes of her husband attending a reading group of men, who were all fired up over a Nation article on structural inequities in parenting. When her husband asked how many of the men present would be willing to share equal parenting responsibility, the room fell silent. Most of the men present admitted to wanting a female partner who would shoulder the work herself, and simply “figured that the women in their lives would be more than happy to take on the primary role of caregiver … never mind that these men were dating writers, editors, and activists at the time.” Valenti stresses that these were “progressive, pro-same-sex marriage, anti-racism dudes who are all about changing policy — just not their lives.”
Meanwhile, political talk of parenthood has been monopolized by the Right, which invokes the moral sanctity of motherhood and “traditional family” to legitimize an all-out assault on reproductive care and choice, not to mention on queer and transgender people. As long as those empty platitudes continue to permeate the discourse, we’ll be left with the dynamic Valenti describes: women bearing a unilateral burden of parenting-related guilt (even if they don’t have children at all) and men who have fuzzy feelings about parenthood in theory but startlingly conservative expectations of it in practice.
One book may not be enough to start a progressive mobilization to reclaim parenthood. But thanks to Valenti’s bravery in writing about her own ambivalence (never something people want to hear from mothers) and her willingness to claim a feminist rhetoric of motherhood — in the vein of second-wave classics such as Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born— serves as an admirable chance to restart the conversation.
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Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.