Jessica Valenti Calls Bullshit On The ‘Most Important Job’ In Her Book ‘Why Have Kids?’

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.


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  • ipsedixit

    Interesting article! I’ve long thought the “most important job in the world” cliche was a ridiculous notion spread by those looking for validation in their choices. You can’t claim to have the most important job in the world when it’s one that requires no qualifications and which you gave yourself. The person running the Federal Reserve, national security, medical research, etc all have one up on say, new mom Snooki. I agree that treating parenting like a job results in a culture where parents are posturing to be the best. There are so many different facets to childrearing that no one way is the “best” or “right” way.

  • Justme

    This book sounds like something that I would be interested in reading……but quite frankly, I am sick and tired of a new and “controversial” parenting book coming out every two weeks and creating a stir. So. I’ll probably skip it and just keep reading Hunger Games. Much more enjoyable and less stressful. Katniss would have no patience for all that Mommy Wars crap.

  • Lindsay

    This is a great review, I’m going to buy this book!

  • Amanda Low

    Great review! This makes me want to read the book. That phrase always bothered me too, but I could never put the reason into words.

  • Jessica Valenti

    Koa, thanks so much for the thoughtful review!

    • Koa Beck

      You’re welcome, Jessica! Best of luck to you on this important book!

  • brinadec09

    Ok, so basically she’s saying I care about what’s in the vaccines the
    government wants to INJECT into my children, because I want to make
    myself feel better about not having a successful career outside the
    home? or is it to make myself feel better that society does not value my
    role as a mother? I will never trust my child’s life and health to any
    stranger working for a drug company or the FDA. This country is run by
    drug companies who have one goal (MAKE MONEY), so no I do not trust them
    and no it is not because I am struggling with my own self-esteem but it
    is because I actually genuinely care about my children’s long term
    health. Despite the vaccine comment, I agree with a lot of what is said
    here and appreciate someone bringing attention to the lack of value
    society has placed on us hard working mothers.The pressure on us to do it all and have it all is unreal, no wonder so many mothers are suffering from mental Illness.

  • Guest

    Sounds like it’s written by someone without kids.

    • Guest

      Jessica Valenti does have kids — that’s what inspired the book.

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  • Baaro

    What is important about another self-centered woman who cares very little about children? Women who cannot care should not have children, only then our species would die off. You can’t escape nature.

    • Guest

      The author does have a child, and does care about children. She is simply addressing the unspoken guilt and expectations many parents have about what parenting will/ should be like. Read the book before commenting.

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  • mike

    I read in high school biology book that there are 5 life process :-
    1. Eating
    2. Respiration
    3. Excretion
    4. Growth
    5. Reproduction
    This is meant for survival of species. If you insist on not having babies at all American species will be replaced by African , Asian , Russian species. You are misleading people by saying it is a mommy-shamming culture , but it is a FATHER-SHAMMING culture. That is why many young men don’t want to marry