Saturday, 26 July 2014

Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti

I've been getting through a lot more kindle books lately. My most recent read was Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness.  Written after the premature birth of Valenti's daughter Layla, the book explores the myths around motherhood from a feminist point of view.

The title of this book is somewhat misleading; it's not actually about whether or not you should have children, but about breaking down what society tells you should should feel and how you should act once you have them.  We have this big thing in our Western society about motherhood being the pinnacle of a woman's existence, and the notion that we should sacrifice everything for our children.  Valenti examines how unhealthy this viewpoint is, quoting research and giving anecdotes that show that children do best when they have parents who are well-rounded, who have their own interests, and who let them spend time with a variety of people.  It used to be that children were raised by whole communities ('it takes a village' and all that), but now more and more it is seen as best for just the parents, and particularly the mother, to bring them up, and to give up everything to do so.

Why Have Kids is written from a feminist perspective.  Valenti points out that even the most equal of relationships can take a traditional turn as far as gender roles are concerned when a baby is born. This is definitely true in my experience.  Prior to our son being born, we shared all the housework fifty-fifty.  But when my husband went back to work and I was at home with the baby, I found myself of course looking after the baby, but also doing the housework in the evening so he could have some time with the baby too.  This isn't because my husband doesn't want to help, it's just harder to share things evenly when a baby is involved. Things will change when I return to work as well, but for now that's just how it is.  But it's not just that - it's the way I am assumed to be the default parent.  If someone else is holding him and he cries, it's always "let's give you back to your mummy" rather than "let's give you back to your daddy". Questions about feeding or his weight are always directed to me.  I want us both to be equal parents, but society definitely doesn't see it that way.

Valenti also writes a lot about guilt.  As motherhood is built up to be the most important thing a woman will ever do, there's a lot of potential for self-punishment.  I found the chapter on breastfeeding particularly interesting, as this is something that causes a lot of guilt.  I'm not breastfeeding, for lots of reasons (mainly because my body physically couldn't do it after losing so much blood), and I still feel a bit guilty whenever I have to disclose this to anyone, like it makes me a bad mother.  If I was breastfeeding, I'd feel guilty about something else.  Valenti argues that there's this concept of a 'perfect' mother that is simply unreachable and that guilt is too much a part of being a Mum.  It doesn't help that parenting is one of those areas that everyone feels qualified to comment upon and judge.

I really enjoyed Why Have Kids?, it was well written and a good blend of research, commentary and the author's personal experience.  I'll definitely be hunting out other books by Valenti.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2012
Score: 4 out of 5

21 comments:

  1. Sounds like an interesting perspective. With my oldest preparing to go off to college, I'm getting nostalgic about parenting- not that I think I'm done!

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    1. I can understand that, I'm already a bit nostalgic about my son's first few days and he's not even 2 months old yet!

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  2. The default parent thing is so frustrating. I think the worst part is when people praise your husband for taking the kids out somewhere, as if this was a heroic feat. When you have your kids out at the store, no one bats an eye. Sigh...

    I thought this one sounded interesting. After your review, perhaps I will pick it up too!

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    1. Oh yes, my husband has had lots of compliments for sharing the night get-ups with me (we take it in turns). Luckily he isn't the type to get a big head and think he is god's gift to parenting!

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    2. Oh, I hugely second this. When we were little kids, my dad took us to do the weekly grocery shopping every Saturday, and people would randomly stop him and tell him how great he was. Needless to say, nobody ever said this to my mother when she was out with us at grocery stores. It is a sucky double standard.

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  3. I hate how society makes you feel terrible for not being a breastfeeding mother. I wasn't able to breastfeed Alexander - my body did not provide adequately - and so the best decision, for him, was to be put on formula. Yet, even now, eight months later, I still feel a guilt that I wasn't able to provide for him in that way - nevermind the million and one other things I do and provide for him, it still always comes back to that because of society and ways in which things are perceived.

    Also, I think your point on the mother seeming to be the default parent is quite right too. Especially when it comes to doctors and health visitors etc. Sometimes I want to shout, I'm not the only parent! I saw prime example of this when I was at the doctors the other day, with a fuss being made that a mother was not going in with a baby to have his injections done but the father was instead - I was quite shocked to be honest. I know I was useless with Alexander having his done, I might as well not even have been in the room as I stood in the corner trying not to cry. Haha, so I understand the mum not wanting to go in!

    Anywho, that was a long comment, so I shall end by saying, this book has me intrigued!
    :-)
    Bits & Bobs

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    1. I feel guilty about it too, like I always have to justify that it wasn't just due to choice, it was my body not being able to do it too. I shouldn't feel like that, because there's nothing wrong with choosing formula, but I can't help it. I've not even come across any judgement for it, but I find it hard to let it go.

      And I'm dreading the injections! Giles is really congested and we have to give him nose drops, which I hate - the injections are going to be so much worse!

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  4. Oooh, goody, I'm glad those kindle books are coming in handy :)

    I think it's incredibly interesting how very traditional things remain when it comes to having babies and who's expected to do most of the childrearing. Basically we should all just move to Sweden where dads get as much paternity leave as mums get maternity leave and where everything is awesome ;)

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    1. I'd love to move to Sweden - I know they have higher taxes but it is so worth it!

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  5. Love the sound of this book. The points the author raises are very good. I belive it's worse in the Asian countries. Motherhood is pretty much a duty there. If you're a married woman, the entire society is expecting a baby to tumble out any time soon, and if it doesn't happen within two years of marriage, expect a lot of whisperings and taunts in your direction. I'll have to read this book.

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    1. It must be difficult to be married but not want children in that kind of culture. We waited for over two years of marriage before I got pregnant as we wasn't ready for children, and I did get a few pointed comments!

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  6. I definitely empathize with the writer on this book. So true for so many expectations of what society expects from mothers. It is hard sometimes to meet all that. I also agree with Athira and on what Asian society expects from women.

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    1. The author didn't address different cultures, it was very much geared to white, middle -class American women - it would be interesting to find a book that does.

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  7. Even though this probably isn't a book I would read (definitely not thinking about babies for a good while yet!), some of the points you noted really struck with me. I agree with the view that we should all be equal. I'm a big fan of gender equality, especially in children where I think the blue-for-boys and pink-for-girls and the toys they should play with are completely ridiculous stereotypes which make me rather angry. Additionally, I also hate that society feels it has a right to judge people and become involved in their lives. I think it's really insane for people to direct all baby questions at the mother and expect the father to just be sitting around enjoying the good parts.

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    1. Baby shopping is difficult when you have a boy and don't want him all dressed in blue!

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  8. Oh wow, this sounds perfect. I am scared for the way society's perception of parenting will change the relationship dynamic. We share things equally too, but I already notice that there's a certain assumption in how people approach me and my partner about the baby, and an assumed responsibility on my part that does not seem to count as heavily for him. It puzzles me, really.

    Same thing re: breastfeeding. I've had even close family say "of course she'll breastfeed, it's the most natural thing in the world", and while I want to try, I can't say I agree with them wholeheartedly, because for some people it isn't. My mom tried breastfeeding twice and it did not work out because of how we reacted to the milk. She's heard from health specialist her whole life on how I might not have this or this health thingy if I had had her milk, which is ridiculous because it just isn't fair to make her feel that way about it.

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    1. In my experience, it felt like everything changed once Giles was born. Things are slowly getting back to normal, but boy was it a shock!

      I was able to breastfeed for the first few days but my body was too weak to produce enough milk to keep going. It was really painful and he was screaming with hunger all the time, it was horrible. Maybe things would have improved if I had persisted, but moving to formula settled him straight away and made me a lot happier too.

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  9. As someone who doesn't have kids yet, but would like a family someday, I find the feminist issues surrounding motherhood fascinating -- infuriating at times, but definitely fascinating. People are way to quick to judge on this kind of thing and sometimes talking about what works for your own family is interpreted to mean you think that is how everyone else should do things which is unfortunate.

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  10. I really liked this one too--I read it early on in my pregnancy, but I completely agree about the title!

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  11. This sounds like a really interesting read. I don't have kids yet but would like them someday but I always wonder how it's going to change my life and whether I'm going to be able to handle all of those changes. I have to admit that the title initially caught me off-guard as well!

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  12. This sounds like a perfect reading for any woman who plans on having kids or needs to revisit what being a mother is. Thanks for the feminist perspective and I hope you and Tom get to work things out.

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