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Why Have Kids?
The Truth About Parenting And Happiness
If having children is meant to be the happiest experience of a woman’s life, why are so many mothers anxious and dissatisfied with motherhood — with some even comparing it to being in prison and serving an 18-year sentence? Why do so many of us look at a woman like Gwyneth Paltrow and her perfect parenting and feel not just inadequate but downright weary?
In a provocative new book entitled Why Have Kids?, the American feminist and author Jessica Valenti asks an intriguing question. If there were no consequences, how many of us would give up our kids? She talks about the thousands of anonymous confessions on discussion boards, websites and forums that articulate what many women think but dare not say out loud.
“I love my daughter and she’s well taken care of but this is not the path I would have taken, given a second chance,” says one woman. Another comments: “I love my son but I hate being a mother. It’s a thankless, monotonous, exhausting, irritating and oppressive job.”
Valenti, a commentator on women’s issues and a founder of Feministing.com, says that women are being made miserable because the ideal of parenting, and of motherhood in particular, does not match the reality. “The guilt, the self-flagellation and the pursuit of a perfection that doesn’t exist is sucking the joy out of motherhood,” she says. She believes that having children should not be the default setting for women, and instead should be seen as a deliberate and active choice.
Valenti notes that the idea that you should become a parent for the joy of it is a relatively new concept. Women are constantly pummelled with cultural messages that children should be the centre of their universe. “There’s all this talk about ‘I’m a mom first’ — it’s become the venerated norm — but how can anyone be joyful when the centre of your life is just one person?” she says, her voice rising in incredulity.
Fifty years after Betty Friedan tried to free women from domestic drudgery, she says, women still believe the most important thing that they can do for their child is to be there for them all the time and they have moved on from being identified as someone’s wife to being Tom’s mum or Jessica’s mummy. One effect of this is that a generation of youngsters is being raised to believe that the world revolves around them, Valenti warns.
Valenti, who has been called “a gutsy third-wave feminist” by The New York Times, says she sees red whenever she hears the phrase “motherhood is the hardest job in the world”. No one really believes motherhood is harder than being a factory worker or a brain surgeon, she says, but the sentiment is used as an easy way to placate overworked mothers without actually doing anything for them. She calls it a “patronising pat on the head” and an empty cliché that keeps women at home. “It’s insulting to suggest that the best thing women can do is raise other people to do interesting things.”
Why Have Kids? puts forward a mass of evidence that having a child is not something to be taken lightly. There is the long-term economic cost of having children, women have to do most of child-rearing because they are still seen as primary care-givers, and even happy marriages are rocked by the arrival of children.
Too many women fall into the trap of pursuing perfect motherhood, devouring “Tiger Mom” books and obsessing about every aspect of their child’s life, she says. Valenti calls it “the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up”.
Bombarded with so much conflicting advice about child-rearing, mothers live in a constant state of anxiety. They feel that they are constantly judged and found wanting by the parenting industry. “In killing ourselves to achieve this impossible standard, motherhood becomes less of a relationship and more of a job,” she writes in the book.
Such a devastating critique of modern parenting might well come from an author who has no intention of being a mother herself. But Valenti, who is married and who lives in Boston, is the proud mother of two-year-old Layla. Her daughter arrived three months early because Valenti suffered from the life-threatening condition pre-eclampsia. When Layla finally came home from hospital, Valenti said she was crippled by fear and post-traumatic stress. She also felt ambivalent about parenthood and a sense of “not feeling completed” by parenthood.
“I signed up to do the book when I was six months pregnant and I had this grand idea of what feminist motherhood was going to be like, but when my pregnancy didn’t go as planned I wanted to write about how our expectations of parenting can be our own worst enemy,” she says.
“What happened to me was an extreme version of that, and there were reasons for it because my baby was premature, but it seemed to me that other parents were going through the same kind of disconnect to varying degrees.”
Valenti says that parental joy is within our grasp if we realise that reality is more nuanced. “One of the most important things is to get rid of the idea that it’s best for kids to be with their parents as much as possible,” she says. “All the research shows that children do better when they have a lot of people invested in their development and growth — not just their parents but grandparents, relatives and friends. We’ve lost the it-takes-a-village mentality and we need to get it back.” She says we also need to see day care as a good option, rather than the least-worst option.
Her book provides some suggestions. Mothers need to let go of the idea that they are the only ones who can do it correctly. “If you’re a middle-class, white, straight, married mother, [the] chances are you don’t actually have all that much to worry about,” Valenti writes. “I don’t think that putting all my energy into parenting — at the expense of my career, marriage and social life — will be the difference between Layla becoming homeless or the president. But too many women are made to believe that every tiny decision they make, from pacifiers to flash cards, will have a lasting impact on their child. It’s a recipe for madness. It also reveals an overblown sense of self-importance.”
Women should encourage men to do more of the work of child-rearing — and actually let them do it, she says. “I think it’s hard for some mothers to let go of that maternal power, especially when that might be all the power that you have,” she says.
Ditch the idea that children should be the centre of the universe, she suggests. “I am a person first and a mother second and I think it’s weird that that idea is seen as being controversial,” says Valenti. “We don’t demand the same thing of fathers. We don’t hear men saying ‘I’m a father first’. Being a person first doesn’t mean that the depth of love that you have for your child is any less intense.”
Valenti says that she loves her daughter dearly and it is the most important relationship she will ever have, but: “I don’t see raising her as my life’s mission. I don’t believe that it should involve some kind of suffering or self-sacrifice.” The mummy wars have to stop.
Valenti describes how in a café, while feeding her daughter who was then five months old from a bottle, she was approached by a woman who said: “You know, breast is really best.” She felt the urge to throw her coffee in the woman’s face. “It left me wondering why mothers focus on the minutiae of other mothers’ decisions instead of paying attention to the broader social and political issues that chip away at the joy of parenting,” she observes.
Valenti says that she is often asked to answer her own question, why have kids? “My answer changes from day to day,” she says. “But today my answer is that my two-year-old was extremely excited for me to be home after several days of travelling. The first thing she said to me when she woke up in the morning was. ‘Now you can change my diaper’. She was very excited about that. That’s my answer today.”
She adds: “I don’t consider my book an anti-parenting guide. What I hope more than anything is that it will contribute to the debate about the unrealistic standards of parenting that we are all held to.”
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