Jessica Valenti, Feministing founder, poses many a modern parenting question in her book Why Have Kids? From the lack of maternity leave to calling bullshit on the “most important job” in the world, Valenti gives us a candid account of contemporary American parenthood. A hybrid of both her personal navigation through formula feeding guilt and the cultural lies that continue to pervade motherhood, Why Have Kids? has much to offer new mothers, prospective parents, and childless by choice individuals.
Valenti shares with us how much she loathes perpetual mommy labeling, what’s lacking in the parenting blogosphere, and why we’ve lost the “it takes a village” approach in our childrearing.
Your book highlights well the actual mommy wars mothers face such as wage gaps between childless women and men, lack of maternity leave, and outdated workplace policies. But you also note that even though there is an explosive mommy blogosphere, mothers don’t seem to be addressing these issues in a vibrant online community. Why do you think that is?
I wish I knew! It’s amazing, because parents online wield such incredible power – but it often feels to me like we’re exercising our consumer power but not our political power. Part of me thinks that it’s because going up against a company – like an offensive ad, or a dangerous product for kids – is not too controversial. But when you start talking about what role policies should play in parenting, it gets fraught pretty fast. Though given the threads I’ve seen on breastfeeding, you’d think bloggers would welcome the debate! I also think that parenting – which used to be seen as a community exercise – is now looked through the lens of a particular kind of American individualism. We have this sense of pride about being solely responsible for our kids – and policies like subsidized child care come up against that a bit.
How do you account for the cultural slide towards incessant mommy labeling? Helicopter mom, free range mom, etc. Do you find this absurd labeling, along with “too posh to push,” to be as derogatory as I do?
I DO find it derogatory! There seems to be this kind of trend with wanting to label all women. I’m thinking of the label I hate most of all: “cougar.” Parents all have unique styles, priorities and ways of dealing with their lives and kids. Sometimes I think the labeling is an easy way to dehumanize. We stop thinking about the actual people involved, they’re just another “helicopter mom.”
You posit that women can “simultaneously love parenting, find it fulfilling and valuable, while also recognizing that the minutiae of our mothering isn’t as critical as society would have us believe.” What do you think it will take to culturally pull parents away from obsessing over the parenting minutiae?
I think it’s up to us to start. We need to let ourselves off the hook a bit! Trying to make sure our kid is stimulated every second of every day, or fretting if we need to (or choose to) formula feed instead of breastfeeding makes a fraction of a difference in our child’s life but takes a tremendous toll on our own. The math just doesn’t make it worth it. But I also think this is about a media and culture that tells women if they don’t put all of themselves – every iota – into parenting, that we’re somehow selfish or less-than parents. And of course this message doesn’t really get directed at men, who get father-of-the-year kudos when they show up to a soccer game!