There’s a lot of mommy-shaming chatter in the press these days and you don’t even need to be a parent to hear it. If women aren’t being strung up as cultural sacrificial lambs for their decisions not to breastfeed then we have the constant brigade of alleged Mommy Wars to keep magazines afloat. But between media-infused spectacles of Tiger Moms, helicopter parenting, and attachment parenting, a true struggle for motherhood is going on which has nothing to do with preschool interviews or professional bike-riding lessons. Such is the crux of Feministing founder and new mother Jessica Valenti’s exploration of parenting in Why Have Kids?, a book that speaks smartly to mothers and fathers.
Keenly divided into “truth” and “lies,” Valenti’s book complicates some of the supposed cornerstones of contemporary motherhood, from a mother’s intuition to upholding the sanctity of stay-at-home moms. A parallel meditation on modern motherhood, with both her own traumatic emergency c-section after a preeclampsia diagnosis and a look into American parents’ dwindling happiness, Why Have Kids? pairs the personal with the political. New mother Valenti exposes the tired Mommy Wars for exactly what they are — a hoax narrative — by delving into the real problems our contemporary families face such as no paid maternity leave, archaic workplace policies, and the lack of societal support that families have had in the past. While analyzing the sensationalistic tactic by which most of our press often depicts motherhood, Valenti articulates the wool that is consistently being pulled over mothers’ eyes. Between a mother’s own perceived role in society and severe divisions of race and class, fictions about parenting pervade.
Boldly challenging the always controversial “most important job in the world” reference to motherhood, Valenti writes that our legislation does not reflect such a fable. If anything, the cultural insistence is a backhanded praise of exhausted mothers everywhere:
“Telling women — because it’s not a ‘compliment’ levied at dads — that motherhood is the most valuable job in the world is not just a patronizing pat on the head…it’s a way to placate overworked moms without giving them the social and political support they actually need to make their lives better. The cultural insistence that motherhood is the most ‘important’ job in the world is a smart way to satiate unappreciated women without doing a damn thing for them. It’s an empty cliche that strategically keeps women in the home through the sly insistence that motherhood is much more valuable than any job that women could have in the public sphere.”
Valenti further posits that understanding motherhood through the framework of a conventional job or a life-long career complicates how American women view their own parenting accomplishments. While pushing for more recognition and value of domestic work in our policies, Valenti illuminates how envisioning parenthood as a “job” breeds more perfectionism and self-flagellation among women. Even the terminology prompts consideration of performance reviews, a boss, and a hypothetical pink slip when the kids eventually do move away. This “oppressive standard,” she writes, is the breeding ground for more guilt, hopelessness, and unhappiness than comfort among American mothers.
She credits the rise of the “mommy expert” and the stronghold of a mother’s intuition with the national health crisis that is the anti-vaccination movement. Young mothers wishing to inform themselves of their child’s every possible out of place hair coupled with the Google machine has parents feeling more empowered then ever — so much so that they’re willing to challenge inoculation researchers. The link back to women’s unrecognized needs as mothers is clear:
“It may be that American mothers are so desperate for power, recognition, and validation that we’d rather take on the burden of considering ourselves ‘expert’ moms rather than change the circumstances that demand such an unreasonable role for us.”
Acknowledging the rise in childless by choice movements, the decline in overall parental happiness, and co-parenting strife among couples, Valenti ambitiously packages a modern portrait of American family that is true to our circumstances, not our daytime television segments. Her incisive study of parenthood not only expertly recounts the dilemmas that will define this moment in post-millennial childrearing, but also connects the dots in a way that few mothers would be willing to do.