What I’ve Read: Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti (On sale for $1.99 now on Kindle!)
There are so many things swirling in my head after finishing this book that I’m not sure where to start! First, the obvious: I liked it. After writing this post last week, I read the book over the weekend and found myself highlighting almost every other paragraph on my Kindle. There are so many important things in this book—things that shouldn’t just be important to moms. It’s a book that every woman should read and every man too, for that matter. Why?
It’s difficult to have a frank conversation about parenting and the many challenges and rewards that can be a part of the experience. As Valenti points out, there are huge issues that can affect parents in this country that go virtually unaddressed because we’re all so obsessed with whether moms are breastfeeding for a specific length of time.
The book is divided into two sections. The first is divided into chapters under the heading of “Lies,” while the second section is headed “Truth.” A few of the lies Valenti addresses are “Children Make You Happy” or “Women Are the Natural Parent,” while chapters under the Truth section include “Smart Women Don’t Have Kids” and “Death of the Nuclear Family.” As Valenti mentions several times, they’re inflammatory topics. They don’t need to be (can we have a conversation about anything “taboo” in parenting without it becoming thermonuclear?) and I’m sure that much of the book will be dismissed by angry mothers or fathers as written by someone who isn’t a good parent. How could a mother possibly question whether children actually make you happy? Isn’t that exactly what women are put on this earth to do?
It’s these kind of provocative questions and examinations that make this book really intriguing and especially valuable for a new mother. Bloggers sometimes address these topics and you’ll see the occasional news article about it too, but it’s rare for a entire book to be written about the parenting experience in this way.
My only frustration with the book was the occasional lack of depth. Valenti would present really interesting facts (legislation introduced criminalizing miscarriage if it seemed self-induced in various states, for example) but would be on to another topic a few paragraphs later. I sometimes wanted more background information or more discussion on certain things and didn’t get it. I understand why she probably made the decision to keep the book short—you could discuss the background and various aspects of parenting politics for hundreds of pages, probably—but I thought there were a few missed opportunities throughout. I think the most glaring issue (even though I hesitate to call it an “issue”) is that you’ll find this book doesn’t clearly answer the title question. I also think this was purposeful as there’s no easy answer to that question, but it’s bold to title a book with the question “Why Have Kids?” and then leave the reader to come to his or her own conclusions based on the contents. I would have liked to have read more about Valenti’s own experiences. How did she reconcile all of her research with the fact that she is a mother herself? How has that role changed her both good and bad? She included several personal stories about her daughter’s birth in the book, but her daughter is a toddler now. Has anything changed with the passing of time? Would she have another baby?
Aside from those things, this book is really remarkable if for no other reason than Valenti is willing to discuss things that we’re all a little uncomfortable talking about. For fear of what? Judgment? Guilt? That “mother’s guilt” is a major factor in what Valenti says is the continued marginalization of mothers in this country. Instead of these legions of mothers mobilizing to confront problems like affordable child care solutions, they’re down in the trenches of message boards squabbling about whether or not they are living up to an unrealistic standard of perfection. Instead of us talking about how our country’s maternity leave policies are severely flawed and potentially harmful, we’re reading about Jessica Simpson’s pregnancy weight gain.
And if it’s not the media and books, it’s the constant one-upmanship between mothers that keeps parents in their place. Are you breastfeeding? Co-sleeping? Baby-wearing?
One of the most important messages in Valenti’s book is that the typical “mommy wars” controversies are arguments that only a small percentage of mothers in this country are having. While this relatively small percentage of middle-upper class women are arguing about whether SAHM (stay at home moms) or working moms are better parents, there is a huge number of parents in this country that don’t have the luxury of choosing one way or the other. Valenti’s chapter about the sometimes overtly racist language used by mothers to describe their modeling of childcare after “third world” techniques is a cannot-be-missed portion of her book.
One of Valenti’s final points was particularly good:
“We need to do away with the idea there is a ‘natural’ way to parent—whatever way we choose to parent is the natural way. Once we let go of a maternal (and paternal) ideal that doesn’t exist, we can do the real work of loving our kids and have fun doing it. American parents need to support one another—especially those of us who don’t fit into the ‘good’ or ‘perfect’ mother model. When one mother is punished, we’re all punished. We can fight against policies that criminalize mothers for being mothers and that dictate that women are less than human when they’re pregnant. We also need to accept that the world is changing, and that there isn’t one kind of family, so we need to support all kinds, not just in our personal lives but in our political and social actions.”