Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Thoughts on Jessica Valenti's Why Have Kids

I just finished Jessica Valenti's new book Why Have Kids? and I have to first say that I think it's a really interesting read that's doing important work. I recommend checking it out if you are interested in feminism, parenting, and the role of motherhood in the American mythos.

Admittedly, I was a little hesitant to read this book because I--having read some excerpts and commentary about it--was afraid it would devolve into another attack on "Attachment Parenting" and "choice feminism" in a way that dichotomizes real, lived experiences into labeled categories. These too often lead to assumptions and judgments that keep women at each other's throats in a way that allows systemic issues of inequality to thrive in the background. Perhaps I should have given Valenti more credit because I have enjoyed much of her work in the past and respect her ideas immensely. At the same time, though, my hesitations weren't without justification.

There is a lot to like in this book, but there's also some to question.

We Should Question Parenthood Myths

I really like that Valenti frames her book by separating it into two sections: "Lies" and "Truth." The lies focus on the myths of parenting and take a look at many of the issues that are central to feminist parenting discussions. I particularly agree with her discussion of how framing motherhood as the "hardest job in the world" is problematic. Some other "lies" she tackles are the ideas that women are the natural parents, that children make us happy, and that children need their parents.

While I don't always agree with her conclusions (for instance, she relies very heavily on measures of parents' "happiness," which--as I've written before--I think is a complicated and perhaps problematic gauge to use for measuring life outcomes), I do think that she's doing great work in laying out these problems in a smoothly connected, informative way. And I absolutely agree with her premise that these myths should be questioned. Too many stereotypes about parenting and the often gendered narratives that come with them are just generally accepted into the cultural tapestry without consideration of how they got there or if they should remain. Valenti does a great job of pulling out some of the threads and holding them up to the light.

Her "Truth" section is perhaps going to come across as a little radical to some people, as it includes the chapter titles "Smart Women Don't Have Kids," "Death of the Nuclear Family," and "Women Should Work."

The thread tying these truths together, though, is her rejection of "total motherhood," the idea that a woman's role as mother should subsume all others until she is recognizable as nothing else:
The expectation of total motherhood is bad enough, having to live it out every day is soul crushing. Everything that made us an individual, that made us unique, no longer matters. 
 She combines this with absolutely heart-breaking tales of women whose roles as anything other than mothers were forcefully denied them: a woman in full-blown labor who was forcibly removed from her house strapped to a stretcher because she refused a C-section (that she was forced to undergo, even though she could feel her baby's head crowning), a woman who was charged with manslaughter for crossing a street without an intersection--sentenced to more time than the drunk man who ran over and killed her son faced. She makes a very convincing argument--in case you needed one--that strict adherence to the myth of motherhood can drive us crazy as individuals obsessed with doing it all "right" while simultaneously creating a culture that stops seeing us as human beings.

Community and Child-Rearing

The parts of Valenti's book that I found the most interesting were the ones that talked about parenting and community. 

Valenti insists that we need to return to the "it takes a village" approach to childcare. She says that this more communal approach has been taken up by a rugged individualism that induces guilt in the instances where we can't be the sole provider of every thing our children need (and all those things they don't actually need as well):
The days of "it takes a village" are gone--because even if taking care of our children does require the help of other people, parents are likely to feel badly about it rather than seeing it as a natural part of raising a child as part of a community.
 It's great that in addition to discussing these larger issues of community and individualism wrapped up in parenting, Valenti also provides something of a map through the community surrounding feminist parenting. She frequently cites one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Andie Fox of blue milk, who does amazing work in questioning the way that parenting and feminism intersect. Valenti's work is also chock-full of quotes and references to other conversations ongoing in online communities of feminist mothers. In fact, reading through this book was a little like taking a visit to my own "feminist mother" Google Reader feed. I think this would be a great introduction to the topic and issues surrounding it for anyone who wants to get acquainted with that particular community.

The Personal Is Political--Unless it Stings, Then It's Just Personal

My one complaint is the thing that confirmed some of my initial misgivings about this book. Valenti seems to have a blind spot in her own philosophy when it comes to "natural" parenting or "Attachment Parenting."

In other sections of the book, she's quick to point to the political structures at play in individual decisions. She talks about the need for systemic change that examines our policies and cultural assumptions:
We need flexible work schedules, paid maternity leave (that lasts more than a few weeks or months), subsidized child care, and workplaces that are parent friendly. 
She goes on to say:
Supporting structural, rather than personal, change is one missing piece of the work/life balance puzzle.
I whole-heartedly and enthusiastically agree with her and think that the work of feminist parents needs to be moving away from individual arguments over the "right" way to parent (be it through breastmilk v. formula, stay-at-home v. working, "Attachment" v. "Free Range," "natural" birth v. C-section) and to join together to advocate for the equitable arrangements that improve those options for all. It takes a village, indeed.

But where she otherwise champions the harnessing of collective concerns on all sides of a debate to promote systemic changes in our culture, she falls completely flat when it comes to breastfeeding and the "natural" movement.

Valenti tells a heart-wrenching tale of watching her premature baby cling to life and overcoming her own struggles with the tumultuous start to her daughter's life. I am immensely sympathetic and can't even imagine what that must have been like. I also think it is brave of her to share such personal details in such a public sphere, and I appreciate it.

Her daughter's prematurity and health struggles also made it difficult for her to breastfeed. She pumped dutifully (and miserably) while her daughter was in the NICU and then had trouble producing enough milk. She eventually made the decision to formula feed.

She got some negative comments (sometimes from in-person strangers) about her decision and (rightfully) took offense.

But she seems unable to detach from that offense and recognize that the work that many feminists are trying to do in regards to breastfeeding is the same work that she's trying to do in this book: make systemic changes that allow all women to have access to choices.

She got in a public dispute about breastfeeding with The Feminist Breeder, another blogger whose work I respect and admire. And while I get that Valenti was wrongfully attacked by people who were completely out of line, I think it's wrong of her to dismiss breastfeeding advocacy so completely because--as I wrote at the time of the debate--breastfeeding most certainly is a feminist issue.

And, sure, that doesn't mean it has to be her feminist issue, but her railing against all things Attachment Parenting and "natural" doesn't fit with the rest of her book.

At one point, she says of AP that "this false 'return' to traditional parenting is just a more explicit and deliberate version of the often unnamed parenting gender divide" and goes on to say that "[p]utting a fancy name to the fact that we're still doing all the goddamn work doesn't make it any less sexist or unfair." But many of the APers or AP-influenced people that I know came to that philosophy through an exploration of equality and humanity, one that they also use to inform activist work advocating for gender equality.

As for breastfeeding in particular, Valenti's dismissal of its advocates is perhaps personally understandable after being attacked, but she didn't write a book about the personal, she wrote a book about the political. She completely ignores the fact that most "lactivists" are not trying to judge the choices of individual women. They are railing against work place policies that don't allow women the flexibility to feed their children. They are championing the right for women to parent in public spaces without shame and blame. They are questioning the corporate alliances with hospitals that turn vulnerable new mothers into cash cows. They are, in short, trying to reach the same goals that Valenti lays out in the book: creating a community of parents who enact systemic change for equality. When she dismisses the APers because their focus is different from hers, she falls back into the very traps that she so eloquently fights against in the rest of the book. It's a weird disconnect, and one that complicates her argument as a whole.


  1. Great review! Valenti's book came across my radar several times in the last few weeks, and I was hoping for a more thorough assessment of it before picking it up myself. I've been reading Sears' "The Baby Book," and I must say that if we followed his attachment parenting philosophies to the letter that the parenting distribution would be a lot more equal in my house than it actually is at the moment. Insofar as it's possible, I think Sears presents breastfeeding, infant care, etc as two-parent activities. The inequality, at least in my house, comes from the fact that I have to ask (and therefore feel like they're favors being paid to me) my husband to bring me a snack, to burp the baby, to give her a bottle of pumped milk, etc. But I don't wait for him to ask me to nurse the baby, to put her in her sling, to soothe her, etc. I just do it. This isn't a problem with attachment parenting. It's a problem with our own assumptions about gender that probably stem as much from the inequality we witnessed in our own parents as anything else.

    1. "It's a problem with our own assumptions about gender that probably stem as much from the inequality we witnessed in our own parents as anything else."

      Yes, yes, yes! My husband and I had a very equal marriage before we had a baby. Then suddenly I felt like I was micro-managing everything. He would do anything that I asked and was committed to being involved, but it was like it constantly fell on me to figure out how he should be involved, and it was exhausting. I think that there's this huge assumption (culturally) that since we're women, we're supposed to just *know* what things need to be done. But--at least for me--those early months of raising an infant made me feel completely clueless. It was like, how am I supposed to tell you what to do when I barely know what to do? Why aren't we figuring this out together?

      It did get better over time, but it took a lot of give and take and a LOT of communication.

      Overall, though, I think you're right that the actual philosophies behind attachment parenting would lead to a very equal distribution of the work. I'm not sure that distribution (or even that level of work in the first place) is feasible in every household, but that doesn't mean that the entire movement is flawed. You take what works and leave what doesn't.

  2. This is a really great review! Thanks for this, I was wondering about the book but have been wary of all the AP-parenting bashing that been going on lately and was hesitant to pick up yet another work that I feared was written in that vein. Looks like an interesting read after all!


  3. I just wanted to second what Rebecca said above, from a different perspective. The idea that Attachment Parenting is somehow a way to force mothers into more traditional roles seems pretty amusing to me. I'm not an AP devotee or anything, but I carried my kids in baby carriers, I did some cosleeping... and it was a great way to help a dad like me form close bonds with my babies. As an at-home dad, I still do some AP-like stuff, and it's definitely not just a way to make my wife (who works full-time, so isn't even here in the daytime) do more.

  4. great review! Valenti was on NPR today. I thought she did a great job, but I too felt the disconnect between her bigger picture arguments and her rejection of attachment parenting. since the AP label didn't yet exist when my kids were babies, I don't feel personally threatened by her position, but still I cringed to hear her reject certain choices so completely. all she had to do was frame it differently: "AP doesn't work for me because..." It's a shame because it distracts from her very interesting question: why have kids?

  5. Great review. I had read so much about the criticism of AP in her book that I was totally uninterested, but this sounds like in addition to the huge blind spot she is still doing the smart analysis I've always respected her for. It IS a bit hard to take a full-on criticism of modern motherhood from someone with such a young child though.