Go to the parenting section of any bookstore and there are hundreds of thousands of pages to read on how to do it and setting expectations for what the experiences should be like. Very few tackle the question of why a person, in particular a woman, should/would become a parent, and even fewer from a feminist perspective. That’s why I was so excited to read Jessica Valenti’s new book on the subject, Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores The Truth About Parenting And Happiness. Valenti is the founder of the feminist blog Feministing and author of a number of books, including The Purity Myth and Full Frontal Feminism, as well as a first-time mom to daughter Layla. Why Have Kids? is an incredibly well-researched look at the reality of parenting in America, in particular how having a child affects relationships, career aspirations, and financial security, using statistics, interviews with real women, and Valenti’s own experience as a guide. As someone who definitely does want kids, the book was still incredibly eye-opening, not to mention a total page-turner — I devoured it in a day! I was excited about getting to interview Valenti myself. Check out my Q&A with her — and enter to win a copy of Why Have Kids? and/or a Kindle Fire – after the jump!
There is a wealth of material available telling women they should have kids — from books arguing as much to the ways in which our society paints a woman’s ultimate role as that of “mother.” What did you want to do differently with your book?
I suppose I wanted a more realistic take! What gets to me about our parenting culture — or really our culture in general — is the default assumption that all women should have children. It’s this sort of passive expectation instead of an active choice, which I think is a mistake. When I wrote the book, I wanted it to be for parents of course – but also for people who didn’t have kids. But more broadly, I wanted this to be a book for people who are interested in thinking critically about parenthood. That doesn’t mean being anti-parent by any means, just being real.
Why Have Kids? is filled with an incredible array of statistics which, by and large, seem to illustrate the reasons NOT to have kids — that having children makes people less happy; that mothers, not fathers, are far more likely to make the sacrifices their family requires to get by; that motherhood has a negative effect on a woman’s salary, etc. Do you think the book ended up being more an argument against motherhood than for it, and if so, were you conscious of that as you were writing it?
Ha, I hope not! I’m a mom and I love being a parent. I don’t think the book is an argument against motherhood — it’s an argument for change. Just because we don’t have enough support for parents doesn’t mean we give up on parenthood; it means we work harder and smarter to create lasting change. There are probably people out there who won’t have kids because of some of these reasons — but most will still be parents. The question is, how do we make parents’ lives easier? How can we create policies and a culture that support parenthood for real, not just through empty platitudes?
As someone who definitely does want to have kids and intends on having one in my own time, hopefully with a partner but possibly not, Why Have Kids? made me think less about answering that question for myself and more about questioning my expectations of what that experience will be like.
Good, that’s what I hoped the book would do!
Ultimately, my conclusion was that, if I’m going to be a parent, I can’t have very many expectations at all. You can have the ideal birth plan and it could go to shit. You could plan to breastfeed and not produce enough milk. Etcetera. Do you think parenting is more satisfying the less expectations you have for how it will be and the less you expect to get from it?
I do think that parenthood would be more satisfying for a lot of folks if we went into it understanding that it is, at a fundamental level, a pretty uncontrollable situation. I think that’s why you see so many parents, and certainly the media when it focuses on parenthood, obsessing about these everyday issues. Somehow we believe if we breastfeed correctly, eat the right thing when we’re pregnant, send our kid to the perfect school, that everything is going to be okay. It was certainly my experience that having these expectations — not very lofty ones, but expectations nonetheless — made parenthood so much harder for me when it didn’t go as planned. The truth for most parents, of course, is that there is no room for obsessing — you have to be pretty privileged to have the time for that level of anxiety. And at the end of the day, all that anxiety is not going to change the reality of your parenting experience.
I was raised by feminist parents and, in many ways, the house I grew up in was very egalitarian. But I certainly look back and see how my mom had more responsibility inside the home, even though she also had a full time job. You write in the book that even the most equal partnerships struggle to maintain that after the baby is born. How have you and your husband managed that? What advice do you have for couples who would like to continue having an egalitarian union once a temperamental baby enters the family?
Yes! I had a similar experience; my parents were very feminist but my mom definitely did more of the domestic work. It’s been difficult, to be honest, in my own life. I think we manage pretty well but only because we had the ability to plan it out really carefully. For example, we waited to get pregnant until both of us were working from home (not doable for most people, I realize). That came in super handy after Layla was born prematurely and I was sick for a long time after my pregnancy. Now we just have a lot of check-ins. The hardest thing I’ve found is not the obvious labor — it’s somewhat easy to figure out who is going to pick her up from daycare or who is going clean up the bathroom on what day. It’s the mental work that’s the most difficult to be egalitarian about. I still find that it’s me who is thinking about how many diapers and when we’ll need to pick up more, when she needs her next doctor’s appointment, etc. So I don’t have a perfect answer — I just think it’s something we need to be talking about constantly, not just having one conversation about and letting it go.
Despite the many, many reasons not to have kids, you, of course, are a mother yourself. I really enjoyed and was moved by the glimpse you gave into your own personal experience — including how your newborn daughter was born premature and spent her first few months in the hospital, and how you had difficulty bonding with her when she first came home.
Thanks, it was difficult to write about my own experience so I’m glad you found it compelling…
As you started writing the book when you were already six months pregnant, how had you answered that question — “Why have kids?” — for yourself? And did your reasons/perspective shift and change as you experienced pregnancy, giving birth, your daughter’s complications, and the early period of juggling new motherhood while writing the book?
When I was first pregnant I wanted kids because I grew up in a great family and had a large Italian extended family and I always imagined the same thing for myself. My reasons never changed after everything we went through, but my beliefs around parenthood certainly have. I think I have more realistic expectations, and I also have a deeper respect and understanding for what it means to be a family, what it means to have a partner who supports you in incredibly difficult times, and how important it is to give yourself a break when you feel like it’s all too much.
In the time that’s passed since you wrote the book and you’ve had more time as a mom, are there any other personal revelations you’ve had that answer the question, “Why Have Kids?”
Well, the other night my daughter asked me: “What do boogies do?” That question alone was worth it.
We’re giving away 1) a copy of Why Have Kids? to three lucky readers and 2) a Kindle Fire preloaded with Why Have Kids? to one lucky reader. To enter to win, simply click here and register to receive The Frisky’s enewsletter(s). Click here for official rules.