181 of 192 people found the following review helpful
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Though the title of Valenti's book is provocative and sure to inflame, this is not a book that's making an argument against parenting. What this book actually does is take a critical look at the social and cultural constructs surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting, and break them down piece by piece. Valenti is attempting to open a dialog that is long past due, one that forms a cornerstone of American culture and that has a lot of influenced not only on how successful we are as individuals, but as a culture.
Divided into two parts, Valenti's book takes a look at some things she terms "lies" and others she terms "truth", but her ultimate conclusion is this: we need to have a much more honest dialog about parenting, its challenges and rewards, and what society needs to do to support parents before we can really make any progress, and she is absolutely right about that. The only way we're ever going to progress beyond the wage inequalities, the ridiculous "mommy wars", and the continuing discrimination against parents who are members of a minority is by having an honest and open dialog about how parenting looks in America and how we really want it to look.
I'll start with the "lies" portion of the book. In it, Valenti considers such cultural constructs as "mother knows best", "breast is best", and that having children will "complete" a person. I found this portion of the book so refreshing, because so much of the rhetoric surrounding these kinds of issues reeks of condescension and outright misinformation. It is designed to make women feel badly, to convince women that they ought to chain themselves to home and hearth, ignore their own well-being, and subsume themselves completely, all in the interest of maintaining some impossible standard of perfection. Valenti isn't arguing against breastfeeding or stay-at-home moms--and, as someone who has both breastfed my children and decided to be a stay-at-home mom, neither am I. Instead, what Valenti says--with which I wholeheartedly agree--is that people should be empowered to make the decisions that are best for them and their families. Instead, we currently live in a society that ignores years of scientific research in favor of creating a hostile environment in which women are made to feel inadequate for being unable to live up to an unrealistic image of the uber-mom.
The "truth" section deals with discussion of such issues as the decline of the nuclear family and the rise of women--and men--who are choosing not to have children. We have a sort of cult of the "traditional" family in this country, and Valenti is making an argument for why it's a myth that it's unnatural for people not to want to be parents, or that children who have same sex parents are somehow damaged. Valenti cites a great deal of research to back up her points, and she illuminates the fact that a lot of the misinformation serves as a smoke screen that prevents us from having truly fruitful discussions about what we need to do to improve society, which would improve outcomes for everyone.
Valenti shows how entrenched interests buck against truthful dialog because it doesn't serve them well to have a progressive discussion about the nature of families and parenthood, and how their regressive policies damage all Americans. Rather than mothers banding together to work toward affordable, high-quality child care, the current system encourages women to viciously tear one another apart for the decisions they make about their work/family balance. Rather than Americans demanding more flexibility and better pay from their employers--which would have serious impact on the quality of home life for both parents and children, they can argue about whether or not children are best served by families that observe traditional gender roles.
As I read, I couldn't help but feel like Valenti was helping to bring some sanity back into the world. The bottom line is that most parents dearly love their children and want the best for them. Yet, rather than taking steps to ensure a brighter future for their children, parents are often either bogged down with crippling guilt over their perceived failures or they're busy waging war against one another over the choices they've made.
For my part, I'm with Valenti. Let's talk about what makes Scandinavian countries so successful when it comes to family/work balance and the overall happiness and satisfaction of women. Let's take a look at our broken systems in the United States (health care, education, support for working parents) and figure out what we can do to fix them so that all Americans will have better outcomes, which in turn would lead to better outcomes for our country as a whole.
168 of 191 people found the following review helpful
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I was very eager to read this book. As a woman in my early 30s, I am proudly child-free. I have never wanted kids, I don't plan on having kids, and I am sick and tired of always having to justify my decision to ignorant people who claim that a life without children is empty and meaningless, blah blah blah. I think that every woman should read this book, regardless of if they have kids or not. "Why Have Kids?" is especially interesting because it was written by a woman who is a mother, and yet she does not shy away from proclaiming that being a parent royally sucks for the most part and that it's certainly not for everyone.
This is not an anti-child book by any means. Author Jessica Valenti loves her daughter very much. But she is one of the few mothers on this planet who is willing to point out that parenting is generally not enjoyable, and is also heavily overrated. She blasts the micro-manager mommies out there who flounder to dote upon their children 24/7 without giving the kids a breather or taking any time for themselves. She is all for women working, and she's even more in favor of women and couples who choose not to procreate, because she realizes that it's a very personal decision and also that child-free adults are generally much happier and satisfied with their lives than parents are.
The book also takes on society's view of parenthood and points out that women are basically doomed to fail miserably at motherhood if they attempt to adhere to everything our culture tells us that parents should and should not do. The United States basically does everything it can to make things harder for parents, which is ridiculous. But, in addition to clamoring for reform when it comes to things like maternity leave, etc., Valenti's message also seems to be telling parents, especially mothers, to chill out a little. Nobody is perfect, and nobody will be a perfect parent, and parenthood should never define a woman's entire life.
I wish more people would realize that parenting is a choice, not something all people are somehow obligated to do. I also wish more parents would quit pretending that their jobs are the most challenging and rewarding ones in the whole world and that people without children don't know what it's like, blah blah blah blah blah. I don't have a child, but I have many friends and family members who are raising children. I don't pretend to know how hard it actually is, and I can tell that it's a huge pain in the you-know what (which is one of the reasons I choose not to embark down that road myself). But you know what? Women who don't have kids work hard, too. We have lives, we have responsibilities, and we are probably more fulfilled than a lot of parents out there. Having kids is great, if that's what you want to do. But not having children is pretty freakin' fantastic as well, let me tell you...so stop ragging on all us child-free people and read this book, already.
275 of 318 people found the following review helpful
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Between the title and the blurb, I was hopeful that this book would break some new ground in the ongoing debates around motherhood and child-rearing in America. That perhaps it would break up the tedium of the endless "mommy wars" by discussing some of the less-explored facets of the topic, or taking a unique perspective that had not been already heard in hundreds of variations, from the New York Times to parenting forums to the playground, in the last 15 years or so. In the past few years, especially, the flow of controversial books on the role of mothers and "parenting" has seemed relentless. Yet for all the creative ways publishers have found to market these books (You're Doing Parenting Wrong: Feminist Edition; You're Doing Parenting Wrong: How the French are Better than you; You're Doing Parenting Wrong: Fear the Chinese Mothers!) they all boil down to the same several arguments rehashed again and again. Did Valenti, best known as founder of the "third wave" feminist blog Feministing, find a new facet to explore, or best of all, a bold and better alternative path?
Sadly, the answer is no. Rather, this book reads as a kind of summary of all the ground that has been covered exhaustively by others. It is a brief, shallow book, with a timid thesis and many half-hearted supporting anecdotes. There is, of course, the usual belching up of statistics that one expects from any nonfiction book of this type anymore. But they do not fold into the body of the book in a meaningful way, but rather wash over the reader in a bland way like the reading of a stock report on NPR. The whole book seems rushed and tentative, and reads like an overly long blog post rather than a finished opus. The anecdotes are not written up in a way to hook the reader in. Many conclusions are reached by way of contested or unsupported "facts" and assumptions, Valenti does not "show her work" as you would expect in a typical nonfiction work. The whole thing is neither a sold well-researched work of nonfiction argumentation, nor a personal opinion or account that coheres as a story for its own sake. I was left wondering why she wrote the book, as she does not seem particularly informed nor particularly passionate about the topic. A curious fact is mentioned in one anecdote, that she had an editor for this book on motherhood while she was still pregnant with her first child. The book is then, perhaps a contractual obligation and material opportunity more than a labor of love or political conviction.
I should have known I was in for a disappointment even in the preface, as only a page or two into the book comes the first "Mad Men" reference, tossed out casually and offhand, a kind of dogwhistle letting us know that this book is by and for a very specific demographic. This is yet another volume about the neuroses of the chattering classes, dressed up as a work of general interest. This is a book calculated to sell itself, and then self-destruct in admitted irrelevance. Valenti got to write this book because she's Valenti, she was known to a publisher and an audience, and it was thought that a book on motherhood by her would be marketable to that niche. But the truth of the matter is, we did not need her book. What we need is a book by someone else--lots of someone elses, really--who is not part of this upper crust coastal elite set, mostly based in Manhattan, who dominate the discourse on parenthood and everything else in this country. I will give Valenti credit, at least, for nodding here and there in the book to the fact that the "debate" she is entering into is a rarefied and elitist one, that all too often columnists from the Times or the Post sit down to hash out "what's wrong with parenting" and "what should mothers do" and really they are only talking about the parenting of the economic top 10% and the mothers who are elite professionals with many options available to them. But we don't need or want to hear wealthy white women concede, with liberal guilt, that the discourse leaves out the rest of us, or to allow for our existence with a token nod and a bone thrown out in a passing paragraph or anecdote. We need to be included in the conversation, for the good of all. They can wring their hands that we need more daycare options, or work flexibility, or parental leave, they are very good at such hand-wringing. But has it ever yet changed a thing for the practical conditions of actual mothers outside their elite social circles?
In fact it comes across as condescending and a bit frustrating when Valenti nods at us, saying that the debate about staying at home versus working is different for women whose jobs are low-paying and not particularly "intellectually stimulating," and then proceeds to continue right on into that same hackneyed old "debate" and take a hackneyed side in it. Women should work, she says, as it's not good to be economically dependent on another. What of the fact that work at a living wage is increasingly not available? That student debt chokes the aspirations of the middle class? That working class women may have to leave their children not in a posh Mandarin immersion preschool, and not a not-optimal daycare, but one that is actually miserable and insufficient? All in order to work a miserable job that barely pays for daycare and electricity, as if to add insult to injury. She wrings her hands--the specialty of the chattering classes--about what would happen if "more and more" women became stay-at-home-moms, and how that would sabotage the plight of "women" (professional women) as a class. But there is no in-depth examination of this thought, and there is no in-depth exploration of alternatives. She tosses out some thoughts, and then sort of shrugs, and the book ends.
The only chapter that really brought anything new and of interest to the table was the one about imprisoning bad mothers. The anecdotes were interesting, and here Valenti may have actually found something to discuss that has not been beaten to death already. But alas it is like all the chapters in the work, a slim and fleeting blog post, and it is over before she has a chance to really look at any of the ideas in depth.
You will miss nothing important, no new contribution to the already nauseating and tiresome referendums on "how mothering should be done, seen, and felt about" if you skip this book. Which is really too bad.
51 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2012
If any reader was, I was primed to like this book. I teach feminist philosophy, and have admired and even assigned some of Valenti's past work. I enjoy Feministing, the feminist website Valenti founded in 2004 (she retired in 2011). Valenti visited my campus last year, and I know for a fact her talk inspired some of our undergrads to take a degree in Women's Studies. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in Why Have Kids?
Why Have Kids? is a kind of nonfiction you may know well: a nimble pastiche of reports of entertaining, if cherry picked, studies, personal anecdotes, and the buttressing stories of random women ("As Laurie, from Alabama, says..."). As is par for the course in this type of book, there are a lot of vague, unsupported, and hedged claims, like the idea that "We're scared to death thanks to the media" or references to "the kind of secret depressions so many mothers seem to be having." As a reader, I don't expect or require in depth analysis, careful arguments, or scholarly use of resources in this type of book -- especially, to be honest, if I already agree with the author. But I have to get something out of it, whether it's a resonant personal narrative, a systematic critique, a fresh take on an old issue, or, heck, even a laugh or two. Instead, this book reads as a disorganized, superficial effort curiously disconnected both from its title -- a topic barely addressed -- and the childbirth and parenting experiences of the author which purportedly gave rise to it.
Many of the claims presented in Why Have Kids? are in apparent conflict with each other. For example, how is it that natural births are on the rise at the same time cesarean births are? How is it that at the same time women are listening uncritically to medicine tell them about how to be pregnant and give birth, they are challenging CDC vaccine recommendations? How is it that women are both "too ashamed to admit that despite the love they have for their kids, child rearing can be a tedious and thankless undertaking" and yet "regularly discuss the everyday problems that make parenting harder?" Valenti did not seem notice these seemingly disparate realities, let alone integrate them into a coherent feminist analysis.
Valenti recommends that "we need to start thinking about parenting as a community exercise" without suggesting how we go about doing that, or what about our capitalist, patriarchal society actively discourages it. Most of her concrete suggestions amount to admonishing individual women to change their attitudes, for example, "We have to get real about our expectations" and "We need to let go of the notion that we [mothers] are the only ones who can do it correctly."
Valenti apparently has little faith in her readers or in the power of women to rationally disagree. At several points she cautions the reader that "This book will likely make you angry", "you might feel insulted" and even warns "Before you throw this book across the room or frantically Google me for an email address to send hate mail to, hear me out." In the chapter on breastfeeding, Valenti cites approvingly Joan Wolf's book Is Breast Best?, notes that Wolf has been compared to a Holocaust denier, and recounts a visit of Wolf's to a daytime talk show in which she was "raked over the coals by a panel of well-coiffed celebrity MDs." But the truth is that Wolf's book, while offering interesting insights on public health promotion of breastfeeding as it plays into social expectations of "total motherhood," was controversial for cherry picking data (to take just one example: ignoring evidence about the causal connection between formula feeding and obesity) and failing to offer convincing empirical evidence for her own assertions. There are some balanced critical reviews of Wolf's book out there, but if you read Valenti, you wouldn't think anyone is capable of it.
Valenti shares stories of being accosted by strangers for daring to formula feed, of a crazy woman on Twitter who harassed her, of a woman who was so cowed by the breastfeeding mafia that she "almost inadvertently starved her son" etc., etc. Is everyone who disagrees with her a nutty zealot? Is there any reason to think breastfeeding advocacy actually is a feminist issue, and not just the purview of busybodies with nothing better to do than make formula feeders feel guilty in shopping malls? What about the lack of workplace support for breastfeeding moms? Or shaming of breastfeeding in public? What about the ways that the formula industry has promoted formula around the world with ad campaigns that were far more misleading, costly, and damaging than anything the DHHS and FDA breastfeeding campaigns could approximate? All of those are key issues for many women, too. But perhaps Valenti is acknowledging that when she concludes a chapter devoted to debunking the superiority breastfeeding over formula feeding with the statement, "Obviously I support breastfeeding."
In the end, I was disappointed in Why Have Kids? It rehashes old debates without moving them forward, and isn't nearly as bold as the author seems to think.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2012
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I recall reading Jessica Valenti was leaving the Feministing blog and she was expecting. My first thought was, "I can't wait to see what she thinks about the dysfunctional, messed up, anti-woman culture that currently comprises parenting in America today.". This book does a good job of describing that culture and steps we can take to try and fix it.
I especially liked her focus on the anti-woman aspects of attachment or "total" parenting. Much of what drives that philosophy is the naturalistic fallacy--the idea that anything "natural" must be inherently superior. People who believe this don't seem to include kidney stones or cancer as "natural goods", but this idea is epidemic in parenting and especially pregnancy and delivery with very little--and in most cases zero--real scientific evidence backing up the ideas women feel like bad mothers if they don't employ.
One aspect of parenting I was hoping Ms. Valenti would tackle in more detail is the unpleasant and resentment generating shift into traditional gender roles after the birth of a baby. She does mention it happens, and provides some illuminating anecdotes, but I was hoping she would delve a bit more into the reasons why, and I was very curious if she had experienced this in her own marriage and what she thought of it (Certainly possible this subject was too personal to include).
As mentioned in the book, it's puzzling and difficult when you are in what you thought was an egalitarian marriage but then after the baby is born your graduate degree having husband can't seem to remember to change the kid's diapers. And it seems like it "just happens" which is even more infuriating. And lest you think this effect diminishes as your kid gets older, as I've been writing this review I've heard "Hey Mom, hey Mom, hey Mom" at least 20 times from my 11 year old and not one "hey Dad" even though her father is standing three feet from me. As a feminist I've found this issue one of the most difficult to handle.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
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I like a good rant that scours the social landscape and purges it of its nonsense. However, Jessica Valenti's Why Have Kids is a rather mediocre and incoherent rant. First of all, the book does not explore, as the title screams, the reasons for having, or not having, children. This creates a tension throughout the book and the nagging question: Why the title? Her real thesis is that unrealistic ideals make parents feel guilt-ridden and inadequate. Her book should be called The Parenting Myth.
My second problem is that while I agree with her points regarding overworked mothers, overworked parents in general, the tyranny of the breast feeding movement, the depression and fatigue that sets in from the thankless job of parenting, the unrealistic parenting ideals that make so many of us feel as if we have fallen short, she relies on the most exaggerated examples of unrealistic and tyrannical parenting dogmas to make generalizations about the state of parenting today.
Finally, the writing quality seems like rushed reportage and slap-dash, hackneyed observations supported with studies already over quoted such as Susan Faludi's Backlash. The sum result is a book that has some jumbled, half-baked essays with points that tell truths I already knew about.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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I chose not to have children, and I've read the studies that show those of us without kids are happier in general. However, parenthood as a whole still fascinates me. It is a difficult job with lots of responsibility and I've seen it create both joy and depression.
Valenti explores the issue of parenting as a new mother. Her birth story did not go as planned - her daughter was delivered via C-section at 28 weeks due to several complications. Due to the worry over her daughter's survival, she did not have that overwhelming feeling of love toward her child that many women speak of.
This isn't the first time I've heard that - for various reasons. Of course, if something had just caused me enormous pain and wasn't allowing me to get much sleep, I would have some issues loving it as well. I think that many women don't feel the overwhelming love toward their children that they expect to and often feel as though they're bad mothers.
Valenti discusses the unreasonable expectations of perfection that come along with parenthood. I have to agree - no one is harder on women than other women. Mothers seem to be the best at judging each other. You didn't make your baby's food from scratch? You're a failure. You put your child into daycare? You're a failure. Your child isn't signed up for a million and one activities? Yup, you guessed it - you have failed.
One of the biggest reasons I chose not to have children is because even with fathers being more involved than ever, I knew that the majority of the care would still fall to me. No matter how much he promises to help and that everything will be 50-50, it really doesn't happen that way. Unless you're willing to pump to have enough milk on hand for shared feedings, if you're breastfeeding, it's all you. Who cleans up the vomit and diarrhea? You do. Who takes the children to their dental appointments, their doctor appointments, to get their haircuts, to shop for school? You do. When a woman is home with her children, she is "parenting." when a man is home with his children, he's "babysitting."
When people ask me if I'm going to have kids and I say no, I get the third degree. Yes, it's getting better, as more and more couples are choosing to not have children, so it's not as out there as it once was. But people still tell me I'll change my mind, that I'll regret it. I doubt it. I am 40 and am thrilled with being able to sleep in when I want to and that I can spend my disposable income the way that I choose. I don't have to worry if my child is getting bullied or if they're in the right school or playing the right sport. But if a woman announces that she is going to have children, that decision is taken at face value and no more questions are asked.
There was a lot of great information in this book. There no wasted space - every page is filled with facts and studies.
I recommend it.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on March 20, 2013
In what is essentially the American version of Elizabeth Badinter's polemical "The Conflict," feminist Jessica Valenti has a lot of controversial things to say about women and motherhood; unfortunately, like Badinter, she doesn't take the time to focus her discussion, hone her points, and effectively advocate for reform - and isn't amusing enough to make up the difference.
Though it touches on wide-ranging topics, "Why Have Kids" reads like one long blog post (complete with annoying typos and citation of random online comments as evidence) questioning the wisdom and responsibility of stay-at-home parenthood. Valenti writes, "In a perfect world, the United States would provide a wage for housework and child care - after all, it's labor that contributes to the economy." But since "that's not the world we live in right now," she claims that full-time parenthood is not a job - because it's not that hard, important, or rewarding - and asserts that "women should work" for their own benefit as well as out of obligation to other women and society at large.
Before addressing these incendiary claims, it's important to note that Valenti argues against a background assertion/assumption that anxious, perfectionist parenting is the new norm. Is it a trend among relatively wealthy, first-time parents? Yes. American parents as a whole? Not that I've seen. (Valenti writes, "I'm sure some parents have learned to let go, but I haven't met many of them." I would be happy to make some introductions.) Moreover, Valenti clearly oversteps when she suggests that stay-at-home mothers definitionally (or even just largely) fuel this perfectionist fire and embrace all-encompassing, omnisacrificial motherhood. Stay-at-home mothers may be at greater risk for "total motherhood," thanks to their occupational investment in the role, but many of us do the job and also demand the flexibility (from our kids, spouses, community members, and budgets) to carve out a "life independent of our child[ren]." All that is to say, while over-parenting and subsuming motherhood are real problems worth discussing, Valenti's exaggeration of their scope creates a shaky foundation for many of her contentions.
As for the real meat of her argument, Valenti writes: "[I]n my relatively short time as a parent, I've heard from dozens of people telling me that what I'm doing is the hardest, most important job in the world. . . . Do American moms really believe that diaper changing trumps pediatric oncology? Or that child rearing is harder than being a firefighter or factory worker? And if we do believe the hype, if full-time motherhood really is the hardest job in the world, why isn't it paid? If it's the most rewarding, then why do so many of us have other people care for our children? And if parenting is the most important job in the world, why on earth aren't more men lining up to quit their frivolous-by-comparison day jobs . . . ? Now, this idea - that parenting is the most difficult job in the world - may just be cultural hyperbole, but it's also a lie that too many of us have bought into."
Um, okay. Deep breath. Aaaaaaaand go. I won't waste much time on her argument's flippant overstatement and unhelpful logical fallacies (suffice it to say, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, that our country always rewards hard, important jobs - like teaching and nursing - with high salaries; and that men as a group are widely known to jump at the chance to do important work regardless of prestige or compensation). I'll also try not to follow in Valenti's footsteps and conflate the "hard," "important," and "rewarding" issues.
First, do I believe that stay-at-home parenthood is harder than, say, Barack Obama's job? No, I do not. But I've been a catering gopher, a public high school teacher, a law clerk, and a practicing lawyer; and stay-at-home parenthood is as hard if not harder than those positions. There are a handful of jobs that are undeniably harder than stay-at-home parenthood, but that does not mean that stay-at-home parents who believe their job is hard are deluded or delusional. If Valenti truly believes that "when we see parenting for what it is - a relationship, not a job - we can free ourselves from the expectations and the stifling standards that motherhood-as-employment demands" - that is, that the job is only hard because we're making it hard on ourselves - she's the one who's deluded. I can conjure Valenti's image of a mother run ragged by "elimination communication" or a drive to constantly stimulate her child, but I think there's a lot of daylight between that woman and the one who narrowly avoids action by Child Protective Services. Along that spectrum sit many stay-at-home parents working extremely, but not unnecessarily, hard.
I quibble with Valenti's theory as well as her facts. She seems to think that people tell stay-at-home mothers that their job is hard as a way to both patronize and placate. I believe the reverse is true. The stay-at-home-parenthood-as-a-difficult-job narrative is one that prevents others from taking advantage of women. As the term "second shift work" acknowledges, "child care, housework, and domestic responsibilities" often remain at the end of a work day. The only way to convince a working parent to split this evening work equitably, is to ensure he understands that a stay-at-home parent's first shift is just as hard as his own. (If stay-at-home parenting were less difficult, a longer shift would be justified and working parents everywhere would be within their rights to plop down on the couch and watch TV while their spouses bathe children and scrub floors.) Seen through this lens, emphasizing the difficulty of stay-at-home parenthood works to value women's contributions, not diminish them.
Furthermore, we absolutely do "need to start thinking about raising our children as a community exercise" and reject "solitary caretaking" as too demanding; but doing so would make stay-at-home parenting a truly viable job option on the difficulty front, not eliminate it as one.
Now, is stay-at-home parenthood more important than Barack Obama's job? No. Is it so unimportant that it ought to be eliminated from the range of employment options available to women? No. Valenti quotes Linda Hirshman and others who assert "that women who choose to stay at home and raise children - especially those who are of the privileged upper-middle-class variety - are doing a disservice to other women and society at large." "`Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education is lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos.'" Valenti adds: "We mock these moms as neurotic overachievers who are obsessed with their kids, but perhaps their zealous parenting is just the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up. All of the energy they could be - and maybe should be - spending in the public sphere is directed at their children because they have no other place to put it." These arguments - that full-time parenting isn't important enough to merit women's time, effort, and skills - ignore two critical facts: private contributions become public and civic engagement comes in a variety of forms.
Education - academic, democratic, psychological, and sociological - is one of the most important issues for any society's future. Valenti poo-poos the argument that stay-at-home parents are educating and socializing their children under the heading of women living for the accomplishments of others rather than achieving themselves. The problem with this reasoning is that plenty of respected occupations exist largely in order to maximize others' contributions to society. No one argues that early childhood educators aren't working. Where does that leave Valenti? With a numbers game. Daycare centers generally shoot for a five to one ratio. If I have four kids at home am I gainfully employed? Three? Is it the opposite of the environmentalists' reproduction mantra so that if I'm doing more than just caring for my own replacement, it's a job? I just can't swallow the idea that whether or not my occupation serves society is determined by the number of children under my care - or, even less logically, whether they're mine.
Moreover, Valenti simply can't prove the claim that "`[i]f you're giving 80 percent of your life to your children, maybe you'll add 1 percent of difference in your child's life.'" Her question - "how much extra work will really make that much of a difference?" - is an open and legitimate one. Surely some of us go overboard. But my qualitative observation says that having a person who is invested, focused, and skilled teach children things like how to manage their emotions, how to embrace life's trial and error process, and how to empathize makes a big difference in the people who those kids become. When I work to produce children who are intellectually curious, sociable, responsible, and happy I serve the public interest as much as a daycare worker, teacher, or athletic coach. Does it really help women to pit me against my gynecological oncologist friend in order to determine the exact relative importance of our jobs? Or does the fact that her husband stays at home with her son undermine that family's net contribution to the world as well?
Valenti also fails to acknowledge stay-at-home parents' public engagement. While staying home with the kids, I've served on a committee at the Seattle Children's Hospital, facilitated an open play space for Seattle First Presbyterian Church (of which I am not a member), given my school board and city council members a piece of my mind, conducted food and book drives for local charities, organized half a dozen clothing swaps for other parents, participated in a city clean-up, and rallied other parents to help the YWCA's efforts to normalize holidays for homeless children. Only one of these events happened on a weekend. While I may be uniquely committed to volunteerism - a.k.a., another mockable "neurotic overachiever" - my fellow stay-at-home parents often contribute in civic-minded ways. We also bear the brunt of maintaining our families' and communities' social fabric. And don't forget the blogging; stay-at-home parents' contributions to the public consciousness through written expression ought not to be ballyhooed. In sum, stay-at-home moms can be and often are women employing their continued dynamism to society's benefit.
Third, there's the question of stay-at-home parenting's rewards and price. Valenti underestimates the benefits my current job provides me. Sure, some women will relate to descriptions of the "boredom of stay-at-home momism," but others - and not just those with experience limited to "low-paying professions" as Valenti implies - will tell you that all jobs are a mixed bag (anyone loving legal document review?) and more enjoyable to some than others thanks to individual affinities and skills (think of the guy who works the front desk at the gym grinning like a pig in s***, or the sommelier who believes civilizations rise and fall based on wine pairings). People have multiple intelligences - including types that come in handy when parenting full time like kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist - but as Susan Stiffelman notes in another context, "we live in a society where . . . the highest salaries are paid to those most proficient in mathematic and language skills. . . . We tend to minimize . . . other forms of intelligence, underestimating the value of their contribution." Folks who choose to provide childcare for their kids rather than paying someone else to do it may actually enjoy that work; others, especially those suffering from dissatisfaction and depression, should contemplate a job change. In other words, Valenti's "not that interesting" point doesn't serve to invalidate stay-at-home parenting as a choice for women; it just calls into question whether too many of us are choosing it in error.
Valenti bemoans the "longer-term sacrifices borne primarily by the parent who quits: the lost promotions, raises and retirement benefits; the atrophied skills and frayed professional networks." These are absolutely valid concerns worthy of discussion, but also on the agenda should be what women - especially "elite stay-at-home mothers" who "opt-out" of the workplace - gain. For example, Valenti takes issue with the following statement by Caitlin Flanagan: "`The kind of relationship formed between a child and a mother who is home all day caring for him is substantively different from that formed between a child and a woman who is gone many hours a week.'" I don't believe that "women who work outside the home . . . miss out on the joys of parenthood" or that the difference is large, categorical, or always beneficial - but I perceive a difference. In the case of my family the difference works to my advantage (and to my kids').
But I don't just offset this lovey-dovey connectedness (or smug self-satisfaction, depending on the viewpoint) against "the lost promotions" and whatnot. Valenti also leaves off the balance sheet the skills that stay-at-home parents develop. Like many others, I consider my decision to "opt-out" to be like choosing a sabbatical from paid labor rather than retirement. Wikipedia enlightens: "In recent times, `sabbatical' has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. . . [,] typically to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or traveling extensively for research." I plan to rejoin the workforce, certainly by the time my kids begin school, and I believe I'm accomplishing something in the meantime, not just for them but for me, and not just for private-me but for professional-me. In the last four years I've gained patience, perspective, creativity, and unflappability. I've enhanced my ability to multi-task, problem-solve, network, resolve conflict, manage time, and handle "difficult" personalities and behaviors. I will certainly be a superior lawyer or teacher for this growth, perhaps even better than I would have been with four more years of work under my belt.
Finally, Valenti argues from symbolism that the institution of the stay-at-home mother tells women that "their natural role is only that of a mother." If that's the case, then society tells my husband that he is nothing more than a marketer, and Lord knows that's not true. I see the point she's getting at; there definitely are tricky identity issues involved with conflating your work and private lives. But they're not insurmountable on an individual or institutional level.
In sum, Valenti comes off as truly wanting to both "think critically - and be critical - of parents' choices," but she largely sacrifices the former for the latter in a way that saddens me. She sets up the straw man of the omnisacrificial mother and knocks her down. She overreaches her arguments' fair and logical extent in urging all stay-at-home mothers to return to the paid workforce rather than simply asking themselves probing questions. Should I change the way I approach my work? (Am I making it too hard on myself? Can I make my days more social? More societally beneficial? Do I need to carve out more time for my own interests?) Should I make a job change? (Am I good at stay-at-home parenting? Do I enjoy it? Could I better serve the world by changing careers?) Instead, Valenti essentially says, "Oh, you've got a flat tire and a crack in the windshield? Go get a new car. Better yet, walk. Your emissions doom us all." Even if you buy Valenti's conclusion that "women should work," she offers no insight for women who have opted out not by choice but because available full or part-time positions aren't workable for them. Part-time work often doesn't cover the cost of childcare, demands more than twenty hours a week, requires more labor per dollar than that asked of full-time employees, or for a host of other reasons isn't currently a legitimate option.
In focusing more on being critical than thinking critically, Valenti puts the onus on individual women to shoehorn their desires and ambitions into the glass slipper offered by society, rather than pushing the few novel ideas she throws out (like establishing some sort of wage system for stay-at-home parents) or brainstorming others (such as institutionalized support for childcare and other domestic labor swaps among families, putting social pressure on working parents to do more around the house, bringing the concept of job-sharing to law firms so that mothers can pool their time to meet billable hours and divide the salary, or creating legal positions that do only upstream work like research or first-drafts and therefore don't require constant or consistent availability, to toss out a few). We need real change to expand the choices available to and tenable for women, not further limitations.
Valenti's one accomplishment in "Why Have Kids?" is fanning the flames to keep an important conversation raging so that others can do a better job than she at organizing around solutions that will help women thrive.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2012
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
As a childless 33 year old woman, the most surprising thing about this book was how much I found it relevant to my daily life. My other friends who are in our thirties and forties and childless, both my choice and nature, have spoken at length about the pain and pressure that we experience on a daily basis. I for one have even had random strangers feel entitled to ask me about my egg count and whether or not my husband and I have tried fertility treatments. Commentators talk about the childless as selfish and self absorbed, knowing neither our economic or physical abilities to care for children. My biggest takeaway from this book is that perhaps the most pressing issue for women is that we live in a society which feels that it has a right to direct our actions with regards to our own bodies. The author made me realize that mothers also have their actions with regards to their bodies constantly judged.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I was intrigued with this book because I have read Jessica Valenti’s books “The Purity Myth,” “Full Frontal Feminism,” and “He’s a Stud, She’s a Slut,” and every so often I look up the articles that she has written. Knowing that she is a “third wave feminist author” I was interested in her understanding of parenting and how it shaped both her feminism and mothering affect one another.
First of all, this is a book short enough in length that I read it in one sitting. Typically, I love a good thick book because it means that I am getting something comprehensive about the topic. I had the sense that Valenti would only touch on one idea lightly before jumping off to another. For instance, she says that raising children should be a community endeavor and touches on daycare as being part of that, but never fully paints a picture of what community-child raising is going to look like, how it will affect children, and what the parent’s role is going to be in this community child-raising world.
This style felt very unorganized because, first of all, she never answered the titular question on why one should have children. The best I could gather from what I had read, is that the author would suggest “Don’t.” The undertone of this book is consistently negative as though the author had a child and found out that she despised child rearing. Maybe she found that she herself is not a natural mother and hence her chapter on maternal instinct being mythical.
The book itself is split into two parts: “Lies” (including “Children Make You Happy,” “Women Are the Natural Parent,” “Breast is Best,” “Children Need Their Parents,” “‘The Hardest Job in the World’,” and “MOther Knows Best”) and “Truth” (including “Giving Up on Parenthood,” “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Kids,” “Death of the Nuclear Family,” “Women Should Work,” and “Why Have Kids?”). Those titles themselves speak for themselves on how the author seems to view parenting. Each chapter is laden with cherry-picked studies and sources that support the author’s viewpoint and statistics that frankly fly over your head. She will add a snarky quip and act like she made her point, but never seemed to have clarity on what she actually wanted to say. She also had an uncomfortable amount of forum and blog post entries as credible sources, quoting people like “Jessica Wabbit” which is the kind of thing I wouldn't have even tried to get away with in my high school research papers.
The initial impression that I got from her book was that being a parent sucks because children are needy little creatures who bore you with their constant need of nurturing, attention, and care, and frustrate you with their messes and general existence. She made children seem like such a burden. I get that babies are vulnerable and they don’t really have anything to offer you back. But something that I Understand from feminism is that we resent when men treat us as existing merely for their own gratification because we’re people in our own right. Children are the same way. I think a good take-away would be the idea that we realize that, yes, mothers are individuals in their own right, but what binds us together in to be giving of ourselves toward each other. That I model self-giving for my children who, in turn, learn to give of themselves to others, including me, and that teaches compassion, consideration, as well as showing children that they are loved and valuable human beings.
I was uncomfortable with her objection to some ideas like elimination communication, attachment parenting, etc. because it seemed like it was based mostly on the idea that you had to spend large quantities of time with your children in order to learn their cues, bond, or whatever else. No parent HAS to adopt any of these methods (there are many that don’t appeal to me whatsoever) but a “that doesn’t work for my family’s unique situation” objection sits better with me than a “I don’t want to spend that much time with my kid. I have a life” kind of response. I don’t think women should be Stepford Wives or believe that their only identity is in their children because children grow up and move out. It’s healthy have have “me” time for chai lattes, reading good books, keeping space for hobbies and friendships and sex, and all those things that make life enjoyable. It’s normal to desire freedom and independence. But as interdependent beings, we have obligations to each other whether for family, friendships, love, careers, there are just times when you have to think of yourself second. Parenting is one of those things that require that. It’s hard, but I’d rather be the kind of parent who sucked the marrow out of every moment before my children move out to carve their own space in the world. It doesn’t seem like it when there are Cherrios on every conceivable living room surface, but time is short.
I could maybe stand if the book was more an anecdotal realization that the image of “perfect parenting” that we see isn’t actually achievable and we all do the best that we know how. You can have a gentle birth plan, read about attachment parenting and home-schooling, and plan a lovely close-knit family, but you’ll never be the Von trapps singing together, and that’s okay. Life is complicated. Real children are individual and often difficult. No relationship, including the marriage and parenting kind, is idyllic. Yes, Valenti did take time to call out the unachievable standards that we hold ourselves up to and shows that sometimes circumstances change how we want to raise our children and the comparison game of “better mom” is unfair. I think that is commendable.
Both “Lies” and “Truths” highlight the negative aspects of parenting without any of the delights that go along with raising children. Valenti even quoted a woman as saying that she would have had an abortion if she could choose again. I thought that was such a horrific thing to say! Can you imagine being that child and learning your mother would rather have terminated you? And she also cites a story of mass child abandonment. How damaging would that be? HOw could you not take that personally? No amount of “I love my children but…” quotes can gloss over the picture this book paints that children are really more of a burden than their worth and that we’d dispose of them if there weren’t annoying legal repercussions.
The book was also completely written from the perspective of urban upper-middle class white privilege. She had liberal guilt moments where she acknowledges this but then keep going with her argument. In Valenti’s book, women are leaving their jobs as doctors and lawyers and business executives. She herself has a nice job as a successful writer. Everyone I know works in a cubicle or at a telemarketing desk or as a clerk or food/beverage server in tedious jobs with crap wages. Personally, I would rather do kitchen table arts-and-crafts. Then Valenti presents the attitude, albeit a timid one, that even if a woman dearly desires to stay home full time to mother her children and, perhaps, home school, she shouldn’t. She gives some flimsy reasoning about how it affects women as a class, which didn’t resonate with me at all. I felt like she overstepped her bounds there just as much as random strangers who say, “Are you sure you should be feeding that baby formula?”
By the end, I felt that she hadn’t said much that someone else hadn’t already written. This is just another “Mommy Wars” book that is condescending toward anyone who dares to think differently than her and scoffs at mothers who parent in ways in which the author would not. To be frankly honest, this book had such a selfish, vitriolic undercurrent that I felt sick. All I knew when I finished reading that book was that I don’t want to be a feminist as Valenti describes it. I care about the equality of women, but I also care about being of service to other people and harboring positive intimate relationships, and I don’t want to be a part of something that is anti-generosity.