OCTOBER 19, 2012
“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 the book, what she terms “Lies” about motherhood, most of them the cultural sacred cows that position motherhood as a woman’s calling and fulfillment — children make you happy, mother knows best, etc., etc. — which, she argues, generate the pervasive unhappiness experienced by many new moms. The contrast between June Cleaver and dirty diapers, in other words, helps to explain why so many of the mothers in Supernanny experience that sense of existential ennui. In the second half of her book, Valenti offers the “Truth” about the realities of parenting: that some parents, actually, don’t much like having kids, and that politicians are far more eager to punish “bad mothers” than to support good parenting, and so on. In Valenti’s words, “The American dream of parenthood — the ideal that we’re taught to seek and live out — doesn’t come close to matching the reality, and that disconnect is making us miserable.”
Unlike the recent spate of polemical books and articles from the mommy battlefields, Valenti’s mostly seeks to survey the terrain rather than advance a position; she advises us to shift our expectations about parenting, more a call to stop fretting than to adopt some other third-world parenting practice. (For a recent example of parental hand-wringing over child-rearing practices from around the world, see Elizabeth Kolbert’s July review in the New Yorker, “Spoiled Rotten,” which begins by contrasting the self-reliance of children from a small Amazonian tribe with contemporary American kids. In Kolbert’s semi-facetious take on several new books about parenting, if your kids aren’t cutting wood with machetes or cooking dinner over an open fire, well, then they are obviously the most indulged, ever, in the history of the world, with the exception of “the imperial offspring of the Ming dynasty and the dauphins of pre-Revolutionary France.”)
The central thesis of Why Have Kids derives from Valenti’s experience of giving birth to her first child, when preeclampsia interrupted her carefully arranged delivery plans and her daughter spent the first two months of her life in the hospital. For all the choices available to pregnant women these days — home or hospital, midwife or doula, bed or water — there’s always a messiness, both literal and figurative, inherent in the act of giving birth, a terrifying surrender to forces beyond our control. In the by-now formulaic representation that we see in TV shows and movies, the agony of the delivery always ends with the final shot of the infant nestled in the mother’s arms, the image of maternal love that, we’re told, makes it all worthwhile. But for Valenti and the many women whose deliveries don’t conform to this script, the experience led to “an unsettling sense of dissatisfaction, an itch of emptiness that was accompanied with overwhelming shame for not feeling ‘completed’ by parenthood.”
From this original trauma, Valenti begins her examination of other “Lies” that produce such harmful gaps between expectation and experience, chronicling the anxiety endemic within modern parenting when the stakes are so high and yet still so much seems so uncertain. I confess that I was as gullible as the other affluent, middle-aged parents new to the parenting game: I still cringe when I think of the black-and-white flashcards I used with my firstborn when she was a baby so her brain cells would be “stimulated” as we drove in the car. Flashcards — for a six-month old. In my defense, how could I resist the unholy alliance of science and capitalism, the new research on infant neurological development handily marketed by companies like Baby Einstein and packaged to play on our hopes and fears? It would be comic if it weren’t so pernicious and so successful. “Elimination Communication,” a new school of thought that claims “babies, from birth, simply don’t need diapers,” would be even more hilarious, except for the license it gives mothers to attack one another for the choices they make. In yet another “Lie,” Valenti interrogates the dogma that “breast is best,” arguing that the scientific research supporting breastfeeding isn’t as conclusive as it appears, and, perhaps more importantly, can turn into a bludgeon used against women who from choice or necessity use formula to feed their babies.
Valenti is at her best in these chapters. She skirts the usual tendency to rush to judgment that turns most of us into “sanctimommies,” looking down our noses when we see moms making choices different from our own, and examines instead the external pressures new moms experience to explain the intensity of the emotions that make these “Lies” so powerful. Her feminism emerges in the compassion she directs towards women’s choices, even those with which she disagrees. The chapter “Mother Knows Best,” for example, locates the scientifically dubious claim linking vaccinations with autism within women’s desire to claim a kind of power and control over their bodies and their children. Given the way, as Valenti puts it, “America has historically ignored women’s and mothers’ opinions, and moms are routinely told that they’re being too neurotic and to trust the experts, even when that means going against their instincts,” it follows that women would seek some “female sixth sense,” even if that involves falling into a dangerous essentializing trap. Valenti struggles with this dilemma, on the one hand supporting women’s voices by reclaiming their expertise and, on the other, recognizing that this maternal instinct is a flimsy basis for empowerment.
The “Truth” chapters in the second half of the book are somewhat confusing, beginning with Valenti’s choice not to title the section “Truths,” since the plural seems better suited to challenging one single model or mode of parenting. To her credit, she avoids the temptation to find an easy happily ever after with some clichéd “Truth” about the bliss of raising her daughter. Yet Valenti’s use of “Truth” is unstable — at one moment used to point out the realities behind our stereotypes and at the next a seeming endorsement of these stereotypes. For example, the chapter titled “Bad Mothers Go To Jail,” details the “expectation of perfect motherhood — and the punishment that goes along with transgressing,” such as the “pre-pregnancy” laws that criminalize women for the decisions they make during pregnancy. Fair enough, and an important issue considering the movement toward “fetal rights” that aims to put mothers in jail if they don’t sacrifice themselves for fetuses still in the womb. But the title’s unqualified reference to “Bad Mothers” seems to endorse this characterization rather than to challenge it. Similarly, the chapter “Smart Women Don’t Have Kids,” examining the stigma about choosing to remain childfree, presents a similar dilemma: where is the “Truth” in such a claim? It may be true that “the majority of women who choose not to have children are among the most highly educated and successful in the country,” but it’s a big leap from that factoid to the assertion that smart women simply aren’t having kids, as implied in the chapter’s title. All in all, it’s often hard to tell the difference between the “Lies” in the first half and the “Truth” in the second.
Throughout the book Valenti gestures towards the need for institutional change: “flexible work schedules, paid maternity leave, […] subsidized child care, and workplaces that are parent friendly,” all familiar from books by Judith Warner (Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety) and Ann Crittenden (The Price of Motherhood: Why the Most Important Job in the World Is Still the Least Valued), among others. It’s hardly a novel argument to suggest that if our culture is truly to value motherhood we need to provide more support, and yet we seem no closer to adopting these policies than we were when they were first suggested decades ago). Aside from referencing these potential fixes, Valenti supplies only weak admonitions for us to change the way we think about motherhood: we need to “have more honest conversations about parenting,” “start thinking about raising our children as a community exercise,” “support one another,” “get real about our expectations,” and “think more critically about [our] choices and the way they impact [our] children, [our] lives, and the rest of society.” Without concrete examples of what these changes might look like — or any suggestions about how to collectively work towards the specific policy proposals that might begin to shift the culture of motherhood — the book lacks persuasive power.
Also missing is any clue as to how Valenti herself has solved some of the problems she presents. The book is crowded with quotes — from academics, think tanks, journalists, and random moms, culled from various blogs — but Valenti’s own voice is largely absent, a curious omission given that so much of our interest in the book depends upon who she is rather than what she says. The label of “third-wave feminist” is itself controversial, suggesting as it does more differences than continuity between generations, but Valenti has made a name for herself as one of the media’s “go-to” third wave feminists, explaining feminism and its importance to a so-called “post-feminist” generation. Her book Full Frontal Feminism (2007) is an in-your-face defense of feminism, written to appeal to younger readers scared off by the caricature of feminists in mainstream media and punctuated with rejoinders such as “my ass,” “hells no,” and “fuck that.” So identified is she with this role that her 2009 wedding became the subject of its own controversy as bloggers and columnists examined her public attempt to enter such a traditionally patriarchal institution and whether doing so compromised her feminism.
In fact, some of the terrain Valenti covers in Full Frontal Feminism makes its way into Why Have Kids? This time, though, her tone is dramatically different, almost as if motherhood has made her nervous about swearing in front of the kids. In Full Frontal, she references the stigma about nursing in public like this: “My pet peeve? Folks who rag on nursing mothers. This has been in the news a lot lately because moms are not taking shit anymore (and I love it).” In Why Have Kids?, the same point appears this way: “This isn’t to say that moms who breastfeed don’t get their fair share of harassment.” The casual style is still there, but the deliberate adoption of a provocative, profane voice is gone, as is much of her own opinion about the landscape she surveys. Maybe she’s grown up a little since then, or maybe motherhood has upended the certainty that makes her early pugnacious style possible. In either case, those interested in how this latest iteration of feminists putting their own mark on that most traditional of all institutions will feel disappointed that Valenti seems so strangely muted.
Even in the book’s last chapter, which purports to finally answer the question she poses in the title — why should we have kids, especially when the rest of the book gives an exhaustive taxonomy of reasons not to — she yields almost entirely to Megan, a perfectly nice yet not particularly insightful mother, who “doesn’t expect perfection,” and in Valenti’s terms “embraces the frazzle.” But this still doesn’t answer the question she herself has raised, which is not HOW we should raise kids but WHY we should do it all. The closest she gets to an explanation is in her penultimate paragraph, where again she gives her voice over to Megan: “Megan says that for as many imperfect moments there are while mothering, the highs make it all worth it. ‘Snuggling, hearing “Mommy, I love you the most,” fixing boo-boos.’” To which Valenti responds in the concluding sentences of the book: “I agree. But focusing on the happy moments can take us only so far. We deserve more than just moments of parental joy. We deserve, and can get, a life of them.” Granted, children do have a way of rendering questions about their existence obsolete, but “fixing boo-boos” feels akin to the bogus “happy endings” from Supernanny, entirely incommensurate with the challenges detailed in the rest of the book.
Perhaps part of the problem with Why Have Kids is that crossing over the parenting divide is as ineffable as love or death and as compulsively narratable. Nothing could be more commonplace than having a baby, falling in love, or losing a loved one, yet nothing feels as absolutely unique, as if we were the first and the only to experience the intensity of these emotions. Over and over our attempts to find fresh means of expression for these everyday transitions collapse into the generic platitudes of sympathy cards, love poems, and so-called mommy blogs.
Or perhaps the problem rests within the limits of the question Valenti asks in her title. Boiled down to its essence, her goal is to help parents attain the lifetime of “parental joy” promised in most of parenthood’s representations. But maybe happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A recent article in New York magazine garnered much attention in its analysis of the very question Valenti herself ostensibly engages: If parents are so unhappy most of the time, why have kids at all? Jennifer Senior, author of “All Joy and No Fun,” begins the article with the now somewhat infamous study that found “child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities” — below “preparing food, watching TV, exercising, talking on the phone, napping, shopping, housework.” What she finds, though, is that defining happiness in its “moment-to-moment” manifestations loses sight of a kind of happiness found within “leading a productive, purposeful life.” Changing a diaper might not provide the instantaneous pleasure found within, well, almost anything else, but in the long term these small, quotidian tasks can enhance a broader sense of purpose, of contributing to something larger than ourselves.
In a 2011 commencement address, Toni Morrison chides Thomas Jefferson for including happiness as one of our inalienable rights. She tells the young graduates:
I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter, but I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind — happiness — I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.
If Valenti’s goal is simply to make parents happier, to overcome the “obstacles to parental happiness” as she puts it, perhaps she similarly misses an opportunity to give voice to this larger purpose, one made available within parenthood yet not exclusive to it. For me, the best part of being a mom is not fixing boo-boos (although that too has its rewards) but in an enlarged sense of involvement in something outside of myself. To have a child is to constantly toggle between a sense of identification and a sense of otherness: at one moment I catch my own reflection in my daughters’ strides or smiles and at the next they seem utterly foreign, the familiar and the strange flickering back and forth, inviting an engagement with others beyond the limits of my solipsism. At its best, motherhood brings me out into the world rather than insulating me from it. It brings me into relationships with people I may not otherwise have had an opportunity to meet — with other parents, other children, in schools, neighborhoods, playgrounds and parks, and with a future that lives beyond us all. Happiness may or may not follow; ultimately, this deepened sense of compassion and commitment makes mere happiness seem, if not trivial, somewhat irrelevant.