Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti (2012)

Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti (2012)

“It is too late for us,” I announce to a small bevy of other mothers I bump into in front of Town Hall, “ but I love Valenti’s work so I really wanted to read this.” I offer them a peek of my brand new book. The crayoned question mark arches over the title. The mother of four adopted girls (now teens) from Vietnam wears a conical nón lá hat she found on a visit there with her kids.  She considers the blurbs on the back of the book and hands it back wistfully. The mom with a sleeping toddler in a big-wheeled stroller nods as we talk of how quickly our young children morph into teenagers.  She might be able to read again in a few years when her kid starts school. We all look a little tired around the edges but our eyes glow and we gurgle with pride at our status as mothers. “It’s exhausting, but exciting at the same time,” says one, as she waves and continues her day.

We come into parenthood intentionally or unintentionally, through marriage, mishap, adoption, or step parenting. I wonder why we have to have a license to drive, teach, practice therapy or medicine but we aren’t as insistently informed on how to parent.  Still, so many persist in assuming everyone will parent and that it is bliss. Jessica Valenti looks at parenting with no illusions, even offers as an example the impact on nipples of pumping breast milk and “seeing every inch of the taffy that your former nipple has become” (36).

Ouch. As an adoptive mom, breastfeeding wasn’t an issue and I never got into the controversy over cloth or disposable diapers. The proponents of ‘elimination communication,’ who eschew diapers altogether, never got to me me. I was an older parent just trying to survive. Formula and disposable diapers were divine. And the idea of a family bed never crossed my mind; our infant preferred her calm and cozy bassinette to the tempest and chaos of covers on –and off–a menopausal mother.

As an adoptive parent all the righteousness about natural childbirth and breastfeeding Valenti describes just didn’t matter. I had no prerogative in those realms and my concerns were paying the adoption fees, getting the house renovated so no toddler would fall from the second story balcony, getting to the house across an icy driveway with infant and toddler in tow. Negotiating all this with the other parent can be a trial all by itself. No wonder 90 percent of relationships are unhappy when the baby arrives. Everyone is exhausted and no one has an equal part.

Valenti offers a crucial investigation of motherhood. The myths, the social construction that pits women against one another (breast is not always best), women against the workplace (flex time, privacy to pump), even women against their choices (What do you mean you aren’t having children?  How come you have so many?). The decision to be or not to be a parent really ought to be left unquestioned, respected by anyone else.  I chose motherhood via adoption after years of weighing the pros and cons. I had the astounding privilege of adopting a healthy infant (check boxes for what issues you won’t accept–cleft pallet, mother smoking or drinking, among many). I adopted her brother when a call came out of the blue about his arrival. I might not have had money or age on my side but I sure had plenty of love.

Valenti wonders about what some of the kids who have been tended to with such extreme good intentions and a certain fanatic focus will be like as they grow up.  Polly Young-Eisendrath writes that kids of this heavily-scheduled, intense focus on perfect child-raising era just long to be ordinary. But they can’t handle getting a B.  In the worst cases, suicide replaces resiliency.  (See The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in the Age of Self-Importance (2008)

Valenti brings forth harsher truths than just the cloth vs. disposable diaper wars. I didn’t realize that of the industrialized nations, the USA has the highest maternity mortality rate and the highest number of child abuse fatalities. Only one third of all children born are intended. She opens a chapter titled ‘Giving up on Parenthood’ by describing how many children were dropped off in Nevada in 2008 when abandonment of children was decriminalized. Not just infants as the State had ianticipated, a whole family of nine kids was dropped off, people brought in children from other states until they tightened the legislation.  Valenti is clear on this,  “If policymakers and people who care about children want to reduce the number of abandoned kids, they need to address the systemic issues: poverty, maternity leave, access to resources, and health care” (106).

Not until page 136 are lesbians mentioned (I had just started to look for them) and I was quite surprised and delighted by this heading: “If You Want Happy Kids, Give Them Lesbian Parents.” According to a 2010 long-term study of lesbian families, zero percent of children raised in lesbian households report physical or sexual abuse.

Valenti writes clearly about the need for economic justice, compassion for different parenting styles, shared household tasks, reclaiming community and workplace flexibility. She has a vision of less anxiety and more joy in being a parent. Think how much happier the kids would be. Consider being the parent, relative, friend and neighbor of those kids.  Our village needs Valenti’s kind of scrutiny about parenting and the generosity of spirit people will have living and loving the kids, the work they do, the choices they make.

Posted on September 14, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Good review of a book that skirts the edge of themes certain to make the far right scream. More readers of the type of examination of the family are needed.

  2. Lovely, Shelley! Thoughtful and well done!

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