American Feminist writer Jessica Valentini has been causing a bit of a stir with her new book Why Have Kids?
I call it a book, but it's very short, really more like an extended essay – and although websites across the world have referred to it as en 'exposé', a mum 'revealing the truth' about motherhood, it's really 2,500 words telling mothers things they almost certainly already know.
While the content is essentially US focused, quoting stats about American women and families, the ideas it discusses are ones deeply ingrained in western culture generally. It's perhaps the tone which is getting people all riled up.
The book's divided into what she calls lies (let's see: chapter headings like Children make you happy; Women are the natural parent; Breast is best; Children need their parents; The hardest job in the world and Mother knows best) and what she perceives as truth (Giving up on parenthood; "Bad" mothers go to jail; Smart women don't have kids; Death of the nuclear family; Women should work; and Why have kids).
You might have guessed from that list the overall voice is a pretty negative one. That said, Valentini does hit the nail on the head in many, many respects – I know this, because I am living the mother's life she describes in gory detail.
I agree that we live in a society which conditions women to believe they will be mothers one day. I agree the reality of parenting is not quite like it's portrayed in the ads. I know now that being a mum is MUCH harder, and more tedious, than I thought it would be before I became one. Yes I am one of a generation of mothers who is frequently wracked with guilt because we live with a notion of 'perfect' parenting. Yes, my relationship with my partner has become considerably more 'traditional' since we had children. Yes, I have at times felt resentment at my own self sacrifice. And yes I can see on every level that there is one huge area in which feminism has 'failed' – achieving true equality when it comes to parenting.
There is so much she says which is undeniable.
But in having a good old – and very articulate – rant about it, Valentini at times fails to address some pretty important issues.
Her description of the boredom and tedium (a terrible secret we're all too embarrassed to discuss, she says) of motherhood must surely be partly be down to where we've got to. We live terribly selfish lives, we thrive on immediate gratification and self satisfaction, we are taught even as children that everything we do must have an end result, a goal, a qualification, a career.
The humdrum of day-to-day life with a new baby in the house is all the more shocking when we (both men and women) have spent all our pre-baby years believing life is about achieving and consuming.
Valentini has a tendency to chastise authors and researchers who've said anything designed to make women feel guilty, without offering any solid counter arguments. For example, she takes a pop at author Caitlin Flanagan for telling mothers who employ nannies that they should expect to lose the love of their children to those paid caregivers.
'But Flanagan employs a nanny herself!' the text screams. There's no evidence offered to suggest what Flanagan suggests is not true, though, and perhaps that's how she knows? To simply point the finger and say 'you shouldn't be allowed to make mothers feel guilty' seems a little weak.
But there's one huge, huge gaping hole in this piece of writing, which just cannot be ignored. Oh yes, it's a biggie. And it comes down to this:
You can not blame inequality in parenting on the structure of society alone – because some women do, and always will, choose it to be this way.
In some areas, feminism's biggest obstacle is women themselves. It is not only men who serve to reinforce gender stereotypes, it is women too – and women do not always choose what feminists wish they would.
Indeed, there SHOULD (in fact, must) be changes set in motion in the workplace; women should not be forced to feel they must be the one to give up their career. There is a long way to go in providing a framework which would enable women to make choices as readily as men can.
But even if those changes could happen right now, with the click of a finger, some women would still choose to be the main caregiver.
What's it down to? Biology? Perhaps. When I was pregnant, I found it humbling in all honesty. I realised that mind over matter was all rubbish, that I was essentially just a mammal, and my body was doing this amazing thing all by itself.
There IS something so very base about making babies. It is that baseness which makes women want to try to breastfeed (even if they don't have to), makes them want to nurture; it can be an immense shock to realise that actually, despite how you thought you would feel before your child arrived, you want to be at home.
This is what is largely ignored in Why Have Kids? But for cursory mentions about how having children can and does bring parents joy, there is very little discussion about what mothers do out of choice, rather than out of force or suggestion.
Yes we sacrifice a lot – as do dads actually, and that's not mentioned much either – but it is, mostly, out of love.
I know this: if my daughters were taken ill right now, as I'm working, I would want the nursery to call me. Not because I think I am better at all that than their dad, but because I'm their mum, they're an extension of me, and I would choose to be there. Society at large does not make my heart ping when they fall over and make their lip bleed, it's something else.
Valentini meant to provoke a reaction with this book and she provoked one within me. You should read it. Read it if you're a mum already – you'll probably recognise a few things about your own life and hey, it might get you fired up enough to enforce a few changes. That's no bad thing.
And read it if you're not a mum already – you'll learn a lot about what you'll be letting yourself in for! But it's my bet that, for all the truth Valentini speaks, for all the inequality and unfairness she 'reveals', if the biological you believes it wants a baby, you will have one anyway.
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