“Because we’re AWESOME!” This was my nine-year-old’s response to Why Have Kids?, the title of Jessica Valenti’s new book, when she saw it lying open on my desk.
She’s right, of course. But there’s a lot more to it.
Many years ago, when I was at home with a colicky baby and a tantrum-prone two-year-old, reality television became my escape and my obsession. And what I watched most was Supernanny, the now-defunct show that featured video montages of desperate families dealing with screaming, cursing kids and rooms littered with broken plastic toys — until a younger (but still reassuringly British) Mary Poppins figure arrives at their door like the Second Coming. Watching these worst-case scenarios, I could congratulate myself on my superior parenting skills. And, as in most shows of this genre, the bigger the tantrum, the greater the relief when Nanny finally takes charge.
For me, though, watching the show after a long day of diapering, nursing, and hoping for a moment to myself, my favorite part came when Jo Frost, having spent a day observing the family’s dysfunction, would sit down with these sleep-deprived and tearful moms and coax from them the admittance that they were not much enjoying being a mom. This confession functioned as the turning point in the narrative, challenging as it did one of the most deeply held cultural values about the sanctity of motherhood. It was so disruptive, in fact, that the rest of the show worked to contain its damage, introducing behavioral techniques given fancy-sounding names like “the sleep separation technique” to train both kids and parents to project the image of the smiling, happy family we would see at the show’s end. I watched those beginning montages over and over again, sometimes even fast-forwarding through the rest because I saw in those sleep-deprived and tearful moms my own reflection. They had clearly reached the limit — of their patience, of their marriages, of their sanity. And in speaking this truth, even within the very contained segment permitted within the generic formula, they brought attention to an aspect of motherhood that doesn’t often find mainstream expression: that motherhood can be a chore rather than a joy.
Motherhood has always been contested terrain, but for the last decade or so it’s been a virtual battleground; every year, almost like clockwork, we have another flare-up in the so-called Mommy Wars, with another Tiger Mom or Get-Back-To-Work-er or Can’t Have It all-er launching a grenade as prelude to a book tour. And as much as I have an obvious stake in these battles as a mother and a feminist, I’ve come to find them depressingly repetitive, all sound and fury but offering little in terms of the policies that might actually affect our decisions. Even the names that have become shorthand for different types of mothers — sanctimommy (self-righteous), helicopter (overly-protective), grizzly (remember Sarah Palin?) — speak to a paradoxical truth: even as our culture exalts motherhood in its Platonic ideal, it simultaneously denigrates the mothers who still do most of the work.
So exist the polarities that Jessica Valenti explores in her new book, Why Have Kids? Valenti, founder of the feminist blog “Feministing.com” and described by the New York Times as “a gutsy young third-wave feminist,” uses her experiences as a new mom to take on, in the first half of ...read more