Jessica Valenti has previously written four books on the topic of women. She also founded one of the most popular feminist websites, Feministing. Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness is Valenti's latest book, focusing on the guilt many women experience as they become mothers based on how the ideal of parenting does not match most women's lives. This guilt is tied to expectations about motherhood, to the ongoing "mommy wars", being a stay-at-home mom or a working mother, experiences of depression, the inequality of house work and childcare, political and social issues (such as parental leave), and breastfeeding or bottle-feeding among other issues.
As many women struggle to be the "perfect" mother, an idea that is fueled by both societal and personal expectations as well as the notion that women are the natural caretakers of children, women are finding themselves exhausted, guilty and unhappy. Valenti believes that "We have to get real about our expectations. Children don't exist to make us happy, and treating them as such will just make them -- and us -- miserable. But if we can manage to beat back the guilt and sense of personal failure that so many women buy into -- and feel no shame when we admit that child rearing can be a tedious and thankless undertaking, despite the love we feel for our kids -- then we can start to take on the broader social and political issues that are really what chip away at the joy of parenting" (p. xix).
When discussing the sense of guilt based on not measuring up to the American ideal of parenting, Valenti divides the book into two sections, lies and truth. When discussing the lies about parenting Valenti includes the notion that children make you happy, that women are the natural parent and therefore know best, that children need their parents more than anything else, that breast feeding is superior for both mother and child and that having children is the hardest job in the world. Some of these statements might seem provoking and Valenti openly admits "This book will likely make you angry. It's meant to" (p. xix). But these statements should not be taken out of context and are important to discuss as they are at the heart of the ideal of parenting in America. For example, Valenti includes a discussion of breast-feeding and bottle-feeding. She acknowledges the fact that breast-feeding can be beneficial to a child, but questions the totality of such a statement and the belief that a "good mother" should breastfeed. In cases where children are born prematurely, cannot latch on, or if the mother cannot produce enough milk, bottle-feeding is appropriate. Instead of experiencing guilt or feeling like a "bad mother", or a failure, we should acknowledge that for some women, bottle-feeding is the best choice.
In the truth section, Valenti discusses other controversial topics such as giving up on parenthood, smart women don't have kids and "bad" women go to jail. The same is true for the truth section as for the lies section. It is important to look at and contemplate the examples and issues that Valenti discusses and how our own views of parenthood along with societal expectations impact the way we view other parents and their decisions.
As Valenti explains how parents stress over and feel guilty as they try to attain the American ideal of parenthood it becomes fairly obvious that parents do so because there are many aspects surrounding their child's life that are difficult to control, such as laws concerning parental leave, the incompatibility of work and parenthood, the high expenses associated with kindergarten and pre-school, and the notion that American society is so individualized that parents (especially mothers) are expected to care for their child or children on their own. Why Have Kids? is therefore simultaneously a critique of and an honest discussion about motherhood in a culture that expects mothers to do it all on their own, while finding joy in their children at all times and feeling guilty when this seems an impossible task.
Valenti is honest in her own exploration of motherhood; from stress, pressure, fears and doubts to the lack of maternal instincts (and the discussion of whether there is such a thing?). Valenti also includes various other women's accounts of motherhood that help solidify the notion that we put too much pressure on ourselves. As Valenti is writing from both a personal and a feminist viewpoint, the target audience is female, and in many ways those who are feminists. But Why Have Kids? can also be read from a critical perspective based on gender inequality and the disproportionate amount of care work associated with women, as well as the biological explanations to why women are better suited as the primary caregivers. The book can therefore also be used in the classroom in women's studies and gender studies and is bound to spark discussion and controversy.
© 2013 Hennie Weiss
Hennie Weiss has a Master's degree in Sociology from California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.