I was in a mood when my eyes glanced at this book title. Indeed, I thought, the ungrateful little buggers. Oops, I’m not supposed to express that publicly. The central mothering narrative is that our children complete us. At times, they surely do. But not always. Author Jessica Valenti’s central thesis in her new book Why Have Kids? is that there’s a mythology about parenting and it’s this disconnect between expectations and reality that makes parents unhappy.
Parts of her book are right on the mark but I totally disagree with the rest. I invited author Jessica Valenti to come on Fearless Parent Radio (she declined). In the meantime, I’ll share my observations with her book, starting with where we agree.
Children make us happy, dammit
SO WHY ARE WE SO DEPRESSED?
Valenti says that women are told a pack of lies. Chief among these is the idea that having children will make us happy. If you want to become a mother because you are missing something in your life, a bit of a warning is in order. Lots of new parents are depressed:
- up to 20% of new mothers experience postpartum depression, increasing to 50%+ if you lack financial and community supports
- stay-at-home moms are more likely to experience depression
- working moms with unrealistic expectations are also at risk
- 10% of fathers meet the standards for postpartum depression
- as many as 90% couples experience a decline in marital satisfaction
This is a bit of a shocker; a paradox, even. We love, value, and prioritize our children. Parenting is rewarding and provides a mission, sense of purpose, and moments of pure joy. So why is it that our daily lives are most assuredly not happier with kids? Happiness researcher Daniel Gilbert says children “crowd out” the things that used to give us pleasure–spending time with friends, going out to eat, and leisure time to pursue a hobby, read a book, or see a show.
MOM IS THE NATURAL PARENT
While more couples have egalitarian marriages today, mom still does the lion’s share of parenting and housework. In colonial America, society used to have more of a shared stake. Grandparents and other extended family members co-parented. Women benefited from a broader community of support and also engaged in valuable, non-domestic work. We worked side by side with men and were also responsible for growing food and flax for clothing. Our contributions were highly esteemed. For a time, some unmarried women were permitted to vote and own property.
Author and historian Gail Collins explains what happened in America’s Women. As we built infrastructure and machinery to outsource time consuming activities, daily life became easier and the status of women plummeted. Women were pushed out of the public sphere. To assuage our bruised feelings, we were told that our our mothering responsibilities were vital to the intellectual and moral fiber of the republic. Some consolation prize!
Valenti says that we’ve elevated the status of motherhood to a divine occupation but it doesn’t change “the fact that we’re still doing all the goddamn work.” (And many work outside of the home, to boot.)
“THE HARDEST JOB IN THE WORLD”
Anyone who denies this is very fortunate (lots of family or employer support), affluent (lots of paid support), or childless. When moms utter in unison, “Hardest thing I’ve ever done,” we speak to the physical and emotional challenges of being available, patient, enriching, nurturing, and self-sacrificing, while cooking, feeding, bathing, cleaning, provisioning, and educating, with no vacations, sick days, or option to quit. Valenti offers a curt response:
- “We must believe it because the truth is just too damn depressing.”
- “We say motherhood is important but we sure don’t act that way.”
She says parenting isn’t a job. Motherhood is the most important relationship she will ever have, but she doesn’t want motherhood to be the most important thing she ever does.
PLAN AHEAD AND NEGOTIATE
I basically agree with the above. Before becoming a mom, I worked. At times, I was responsible for hundreds of people and millions of dollars. I thought rather smugly: How hard can parenting be? I learned.
The default mode is that mom ends up doing most of the work for a variety of reasons. We want to do it. We believe we can do it better. Our spouses believe we can do it better. This is what our parents did. Our spouses can make more money. It doesn’t really matter why. It’s up to us to negotiate carefully with the other adults in our lives. And do it before conceiving. Once baby is home, it’s no longer a secret that one tiny little person can entirely disrupt your lives. We will have happier and more effective households, and women will have greater financial security, if we share both parenting and wage earning responsibilities.
Americans pride ourselves on our rugged individualism. We make our choices, reap the rewards, and own the responsibilities and consequences. With parenting, however, the belief that we need to “go it alone” is not best for moms, kids, or families. I agree with Valenti that parents must advocate for societal supports, such as paid leave, subsidized child care, and flexible scheduling. This isn’t whining or begging, nor is it purely a women’s issue. It’s a reflection of our priorities. We all have an investment in the generations that succeed us. Healthy, functional families are in the national interest.
This book perpetuates the “Mommy Wars”
We now come to the very big place where Valenti and I part ways. She bristles against the varied ways that women are criticized and guilt-tripped. She challenges parents “to think more critically about their choices, and the way they impact their children, their lives, and the rest of society.”
She then proceeds to criticize, shame, and attack parents for their choices, sometimes using reductive reasoning that’s flat out wrong.
Valenti was unable to nurse her baby. She tried but was overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion. Awash in feelings of humiliation and failure, she started supplementing. “We have to stop bashing women over the heads with guilt over formula feeding.” So far, I’m with her.
But then she loses me. Valenti lists “breast is best” as another parenting lie: “Formula feeding your child is just as valid and healthy a choice as breastfeeding…” She touts the work of political scientist Joan B. Wolf who challenges the belief that breastfeeding is medically superior to bottle-feeding. Wolf says: “The only real benefit that has been proven to be a direct result of breast milk is that babies who are nursed have fewer gastrointestinal issues.”
It isn’t close to being the only real benefit but it’s a huge one. I could fill dozens of posts about the vital connection between gut integrity (the microbiome!), immune health, and normal development.
Some women cannot breastfeed for a variety of reasons. I agree that we must have compassion and understanding. I’m all for finding structural solutions. But I draw the line at spreading falsehoods. Formula is simply not the same as breastfeeding. Among many other resources, the AAP, ACOG, WHO, and numerous PubMed researchers all agree that breast is best.
ELIMINATION COMMUNICATION (“EC”)
Valenti has me nodding when she says: “It’s one thing to believe breastfeeding is best and parent accordingly, it’s quite another to tell other mothers that they’re somehow subpar.” And she has me groaning when she attacks proponents of the EC or diaper-free movement:
- “[It is a] white middle-class phenomenon of fetishizing a largely imaginary ‘third world’ motherhood that’s supposedly more pure and natural than Western parenting practices.”
- “It’s easy to appropriate a condescending fixation on ‘underdeveloped’ motherhood when you have the financial means and leisure time to pick whatever kind of parenting works for you at the moment. This kind of clueless racism…”
- “Clearly [author] Gross-Loh has never seen the joyful face of a baby who happily plays blocks while sitting in her own poop.”
Whoa. Parents deserve to know that there is an alternative to 3+ years and $3,000 worth of stinky, landfill-clogging diapering and wiping. EC moms express deep pride and satisfaction to communicate with their babies at this level. Whether this method of natural toilet training is for you is beside the point. That Valenti views EC as a feminist’s worst nightmare doesn’t mean it’s not a valid choice for some parents. She lapses into the same critical mode that she lambastes in others.
ANTI-VAXERS PROVE THAT MOM DOESN’T KNOW BEST
Valenti believes that maternal instinct is purely a social construct: “We’ve become know-it-alls… While there’s something empowering and encouraging about women taking control of their lives… there’s also something dangerous there.”
To make her point, she links concerns about vaccine safety with a form of what she regards as ignorant helicopter parenting. But her conclusions are facile and unprobing. Valenti relies upon a former heroin addict (self-admitted and reported by his mother) and non-scientist who penned an ad hominem screed about the vaccine-autism controversy that contains absolutely no science while it attacks concerned parents as anti-science. Drawing from his work and evidencing no research of her own, Valenti blames “former Playboy bunny” (!! — Valenti is a self-avowed feminist) Jenny McCarthy for mainstreaming anti-vaccination (hardly! it has been around for centuries), suggests that her son never had autism (how dare she?), and accuses vaccine safety advocates of skewing the data. Further, she patronizes worried parents by saying it can be “very scary” if you’re not science literate and don’t understand why these things are important.
I can’t buy into the idea that it’s dangerous to educate ourselves and take control of our lives. Nowhere does she mention the new childhood normal of sick, fat, and at risk children; the health risks of chemical exposures; and the complete inability of public health or mainstream medicine to offer viable solutions for prevention and cure. I’m hopeful Valenti will revisit her reflexive conclusions. Curiously, she closes her vaccine discussion with a statement that comes closer to supporting my position than her own:
“The medical establishment also failed women, specifically–which is why so many of them seek out information elsewhere. They have very good reasons to be skeptical of the medical establishment, particularly as it pertains to becoming a parent.”
Overall, the book disappoints. Valenti never answered the question she set out to address: why have kids? It seemed to be more of a rant against selected pet peeves, and I was left wondering if she secretly regrets becoming a parent. Her most lively chapters are the ones explaining why smart women don’t have kids and the happiest parents spend the least time with their children.
Until we have kids, parents have no clue what we’re getting into. It’s a good thing that our biology rewards behaviors that lead to mating and procreation because many of us are preoccupied and might otherwise postpone the decision indefinitely. There are good reasons on both sides of the fence. It’s true that parenting is exhausting, depleting, exasperating, and terrifying. But it’s also much more. Children teach, inspire, amuse, and tap into the best parts of us. They pull us out of our heads and into our hearts. They give us a shot at immortality and a stake in the future.
Louise continues to learn about love, forgiveness, patience, resilience, trust, and hope from her boys. They are the best life teachers she has ever had.