Why Have Kids? A brief critique

Chrissy D takes a look at Jessica Valenti’s recent book on motherhood and finds herself feeling a little short-changed.

Downward view of a baby wearing blue and white stripes, holding and drinking from a bottle of milkJessica Valenti’s most recent book, Why Have Kids? made me laugh a lot. But it also made me pretty depressed. Not just because I could relate to her experience of the drudgery and terror of early motherhood, but also that the book at times seemed nothing but an unveiled attack on the choices and practices of other parents, in particular other mothers.

From the outset, Valenti does great at highlighting the inequalities still suffered by women who give birth, particularly in terms of economic position. She writes eloquently about the “lack of paid maternity leave” (in the US), the “unfair division of labour at home” and the inescapable and problematic depictions of the parenting experience in the western media. These are urgent issues that face parents today and I applaud her for raising them.

But many aspects of WHK just didn’t sit comfortably with me and most of them were the points where I felt other parents were being insulted and berated for their choices.

Firstly, the ‘going to back to work’ issue, the great final frontier of third-wave feminism. As I’ve written before, I made a deliberate choice to return to my day job after having my son. I missed the hive of activity that is my workplace and the way it took me out of my own domestic insecurities. Most of all, I missed talking to men. And I may be one of the mothers with “rewarding careers” referred to in the book, because I only partly missed the money. But, here, I feel Valenti sacrifices addressing a universal issue to pick apart a smaller one: that feeling obliged in the name of feminism to go back to being beholden to the workplace isn’t necessarily a valiant ambition worth pursuing. By celebrating women who choose to go back to work and berating those who don’t (regardless of the reason), Valenti is endorsing and exacerbating a stratified, capital-obsessed society.

Creating a stereotype of women leaving high-powered jobs to have babies, feeling inferior or bored and then obsessing over their child’s personal success and social mobility is insulting to women who make the choice to quit work outside of the home. It also preserves the widely-held attitude that parenting isn’t a big enough job.

But there’s a clear parallel between the failure of WHK to address such wider issues and what she accuses Mommy blogs, (who) “organise to take down diaper ads but are largely silent on the lack of paid maternity leave”, of doing. Now, I’m not saying we have to get all sisterhood about our experience of being a new parent, but let’s not take the piss out of each other. I, too, wish more feminist parents would use their online presence to lobby about the blatant sexism in the allocation of parental leave, but that doesn’t make the other concerns of parents any less worthy of screentime.

When the social-media debate between Valenti and one such mommy blogger, The Feminist Breeder, kicked off, I watched with interest. At times, I could see both sides of the argument. But when alleged accusations of “supremacy” started flying, the whole thing became a bit pointless and rhetorical for me.

WHK also seems to somewhat underestimate the empathy in parenthood. You see, despite the book’s claim that “when it comes to judging women for not breastfeeding, it’s other mothers who are the worst offenders”, my experience is that real-life parents very rarely personally deride other parents for their choices.

I identified with the breast pump anectote (“the repetitive nipple pulling leaves you feeling like a dairy cow”) but found it hard to overlook the hypocrisy; saying that expressing breastmilk makes you feel like a dairy cow essentially just sounds a lot like saying one mammal expressing milk is a bit like another mammal expressing milk. Except we’re politicizing the former and normalising the latter. Valenti’s generally disparaging stance on those passionate about breastfeeding perpetuates the myth that breastfeeding is something abnormal, when we need to view it as neither super-human nor novel.

Despite Jessica Valenti being my favourite high-profile feminist of recent times, Why Have Kids? left me feeling a little short changed. What I expected to be a bringing together of contemporary debate around the inequalities in parenthood seemed ultimately to just be a recycling of the assumption that a feminist experience of motherhood just isn’t possible.

Picture by nerissa, shared under a Creative Commons Licence.