Feminism and Motherhood: Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?

Over at A Practical Wedding, this week’s theme is children: whether to have them, when to have them, motherhood, and being child-free by choice. There have been a lot of great posts and discussions, and one of the books mentioned was Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? I snapped it up on Kindle yesterday and I’m almost finished with it. It’s made me think a lot about the choice to have children and how to raise them in the hotly disputed territory that is modern American motherhood.

Valenti tackles the myth of “total motherhood,” the message of attachment parenting that implies a mother should basically be shackled to her child as the primary caregiver, the question of whether staying home is really the best choice economically or emotionally, the problematic idea that a woman’s whole life should be centered around her children and that parenting is the highest calling and most noble thing a woman can do in her life, and most of all the egregious structural problems in our society where we praise mothers for having “the hardest job in the world” but fail to provide them with paid maternity leave, flexible career options, affordable childcare, or in some cases affordable healthcare. Women with children are much less likely to be hired, and on average a woman without children will be offered a higher starting salary than a mother will equal background and experience. Parenting tasks are still unequal; a staggering 5.6 million women are stay at home moms, compared to 165,000 stay at home dads. And many of those stay at home moms do so because options for working mothers are so limited and the costs of childcare are often equal to or even greater than the income that a woman would bring in from her job.

I used to think that I never wanted children, but it was based on my presumption that I would probably not be a very good mother. I’m still not sure I’d be a great one, but in the last few years I have come to decide that I do want to be a mother, provided I’m in a healthy relationship and feel like I could economically support a child. And I may very well only have one.

But it is daunting to think about being a mother in the face of the attachment parenting, do-it-yourself, formula-hating, cloth diaper, make-your-own-organic-baby-food, bilingual-toddler standard of perfection; it is equally daunting to consider the career question with the terrible state of workplace support for working mothers. I don’t know if I’ll want to stay at home or work; I don’t know if I’ll be able to do either regardless of what I want. If we need money, I’ll have to work; if we can’t find affordable childcare, I might have to stay home.

If I, in my dream world, live up to the aspirations of being a successful novelist, maybe the whole thing is moot, but more likely, I’ll be trying to teach. Greg has expressed that he would be comfortable doing the stay-at-home dad thing, but at the moment his long-term career prospects are a lot better than mine. The thing that frightens me is that I could very easily get sucked into one or the other without much of a choice. I don’t want to resent my future child for keeping me from working; I don’t want to feel guilt for not being a good enough mom if I have to work a job I don’t even enjoy to bring in income.

And yet somehow despite all of this, despite my very real fear of parenthood and the acknowledgment that I would be, at least for a few years, giving up a lot of the freedom and independence I currently enjoy, I still want kids. And I want one relatively soon, probably around 29 or 30, and hopefully no later than 34 or 35. But will I really be ready to have a kid in three years? If I want a career in teaching, can I even afford to do it then, right as my career would (hopefully) be taking off?

These are the sorts of questions Valenti’s book has forced me to think about. I’d be curious to hear from other women about their choice to have a child or not, whether to work or not, what kind of motherhood “style” to embrace, and how they’ve dealt with working and planning motherhood.

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3 thoughts on “Feminism and Motherhood: Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?

  1. I have always wanted to have kids, but I’ve definitely gone back and forth on it as it’s become more of a reality. I’ve also had some health issues that make me concerned I may not be able to get pregnant but in that case I would still like to adopt if it’s something we can afford. My view on parenting is this: do what works for you, what makes you happy, and what fits your lifestyle. It never ceases to amaze me how women who call themselves feminists, chanting “my body, my decisions” will then turn around and lecture their friends (or strangers) on how terrible it is that they’re not breastfeeding. Seriously? Parenting (unless you’re being abusive) is a private matter just like your relationship with your partner, and while I’m sure it can be helpful to seek advice, it is ultimately your decision what you do. I still don’t know if I will breastfeed, or use cloth diapers, or have a natural/water/home birth and while I’m happy to hear other’s opinions, I will ultimately choose what makes the most sense for my life.

    I still babysit and spend a fair amount of time around younger children and it never ceases to amaze me how some women are absolutely smothering their children. My sister’s bf’s first college roommate was so helpless (and lazy) that his mother would come to the dorm EVERY weekend and clean and do laundry for him. I don’t want my child to be so dependent on me that they have a meltdown every time I’m out of their sight. I obviously have my own opinions and thoughts about how I will raise my children but I think the best thing I’ve been told was by my Dad, who said to my Mom before I was born “we just have to accept that as parents we are going to screw up and fail our children in one way or another and that’s ok.” He wasn’t being pessimistic, just realistic about how it is impossible to be a perfect parent. You just have to do the best you can and more importantly than anything LOVE your child. Odds are they will turn out fine. Everybody has issues and there’s nothing you can to do to prevent your child from having their own unless you want to completely deprive them of any life experiences, and well, then they’ll just have different kinds of issues.

    As far as career, if I stay in my current relationship I’m very aware that I will likely be the primary source of income and he would be happy being a stay at home dad. I’ve felt torn about this because I want to be around when my kids are growing up but I also want to be supportive of his desire to be a musician. I also feel like I’ve already invested so much time and money in school that it would be wasteful for me not to work. I chose the graduate program I’m in with the hope that I will be able to earn a higher salary and provide for my future family. I also remind myself that eventually the kids will be in school and that’s a good chunk of the day that they wont need a parent around for anyways. I knew a woman who worked for a nonprofit that allowed her to work from 6:30 to 3:30 so that she could pick her daughter up from school. And if you end up teaching, remember you get awesome holidays and summers off. I think that if there’s something you really want to do in conjunction with having a family you will find a way to make it work.

    On that note, I think you would be a fantastic mother.

    • I think you’ll be a fantastic mother, too, Sarah πŸ™‚ Thanks for the thoughts on the topic. I was telling someone else that I think the more you read about motherhood, the more terrifying it sounds, but the more you talk to other women about motherhood, the more you learn the realities, not the extremes. Valenti’s book is great, but it definitely has a little bit of an “Oh, God, we’re all fucked” tone about it (and she’s a mom!) That’s why I really wanted to talk to some other women about these things.

  2. For some reason I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Oh right… it’s because I have a newborn. πŸ˜‰ Talk about an inner battle! I’ve been fighting within myself over having children for a long time. Though Ryan and I have only been married over 2 years, I was thinking about this well before then… just wondering what I would do when the time came. Ryan has always wanted children and I have to say that I always knew that I wanted to be a Mom, but I just didn’t know when. I’ve heard such contrasting thoughts on this issue. I’ve heard, “You’ll never be ready… just go for it and see if it happens!” and I’ve heard, “You’ll know when it’s right. Wait until then to have children.”

    I think a bit of both is what happened with Ryan and I. Ryan has a steady job with good pay and I work from home. That reality combined with the fact that I was in the best physical shape of my life (thank you, Zumba!) made us think that it might be the right time. So, that part was a very conscious “choice.” Then we thought we would just let nature decide when we actually had a child. We weren’t “trying” in that we weren’t tracking ovulation and taking my temperature every 5 seconds, but we also weren’t using any contraception. Surprise! It happened so fast that we didn’t even have time to re-think our decision!

    Then the reality set in that in 9 months I would be at home with a baby all the time and that, as they say, “our hearts would live outside of our bodies” in our child. No more going on a trip on a whim; no more hopping in the car to grab something at the store without it being a production. Then I started to think about me as a person and my identity. I generally like myself, but I still contemplate the age-old “who am I?” question constantly. I still want a career… would I be able to have that as well as have a child? Or would I just decide that I could table the career and raise our child? I was having anxiety attacks constantly and wondering if we had made the right decision.

    I also could never imagine that I would love this baby as much as everyone said I would. Maybe this sounds strange, but I’ve never really liked babies. I’ve always felt so uncomfortable around them. Being an only child (like you), I had never been around younger siblings. I also had no younger cousins and I never babysat. Basically, I was baby-illiterate.

    But, after all of my fretting and worrying and freaking out, I’ve never been happier in my entire life. It blows my mind that we created this little person. She is amazing and she’ll grow up to be an amazing young feminist. People will judge me, but I could care less. She’s our child and we know what’s best for her. We are cloth diapering and breastfeeding and kind of being “those parents,” but I’m starting to let go and realize that if we didn’t do either of those things, we wouldn’t be bad parents. It’s just Ryan and I and we get to make the decision. NO one else. It’s actually really a great feeling.

    And, I agree with Sarah, you’ll make a GREAT mother. The fact that you wrote this post already makes you a great mother-to-be. And, you know that you can call me about any of the crazy gross things that happen during pregnancy and childbirth, you know who to call! πŸ˜‰ I love you, friend!

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