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.