I think Why Have Kids is a must-read for anyone who has kids or is considering having kids. Although the title of the book suggests otherwise, Jessica Valenti actually doesn’t explore why people do or do not have kids; it is more of a manifesto against American society’s treatment of women and mothers and the accompanying pressure placed on women to find fulfilment in child-rearing. Valenti has a young daughter at home and her book was inspired by the fact that after her birth she had “an unsettling sense of dissatisfaction, an itch of emptiness that was accompanied with overwhelming shame for not feeling ‘completed’ by parenthood.” In fact, the underlying premise of the book is to question why so many women with children are depressed (20% according to one study Valenti cites). Valenti argues that there are several causes for this unhappiness: because the burden of child-rearing ends up being largely the responsibility of women (despite well-intentioned partners); because the lack of decent maternity leave and child support (in the U.S.) force women into precarious economic situations; and because of the multitude of societal pressures placed on mothers. This latter point is the most compelling throughout the book and is perhaps the largest contributor to mothers’ unhappiness. These societal pressures include that women ought to forego payed employment and become stay-at-home moms for the good of their kids; that they should breastfeed even when it’s inconvenient or near-impossible; that motherhood will be the most fulfilling endeavour of their lives. When women discover that child-rearing is not all it’s made out to be, they attempt to fill the void through overzealous, over-protective parenting that has resulted in trends like the anti-vaccination movement, which enable women to reassert some control over their lives and those of their children. The following paragraph largely sums up the Valenti’s argument:
“Whether you call them helicopter parents or CEO moms – there’s no doubt that ‘over-parenting’ is everywhere and mothers are leading the way. They’re making their own organic baby food while scheduling piano lessons, ballet class, and French tutors. They’re spending all day online discussing the right kind of baby wrap and whether their DS or DD (dear son or dear daughter) is reading enough, rolling over soon enough, or could be getting any number of colds, flus, or viruses that are going around their neighbourhood. We mock these moms as neurotic overachievers who are obsessed with their kids, but perhaps their zealous parenting is just the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up. All of the energy they could be – and maybe should be – spending in the public sphere is directed at their children because they have no other place to put it. […] I find it difficult to accept that this is simply the way women are happiest” (from Chapter 5).
In chapter eleven, Valenti cites several studies that show that women who have jobs during their children’s infancy and preschool years are more likely to be happy and healthy than women who stay at home. The key is balance. When women have children they should not be expected (nor should they expect of themselves) to give up their lives for their children because the reality is that most women will not find motherhood particularly fulfilling. However women can increase their happiness by accepting that having children will not ‘complete’ them and that motherhood will largely be a demanding and thankless job; seeking out fulfilling employment and work-life balance will help to counter-balance this reality.
Above all, Valenti urges women to support each other more and to stop being so judgemental of other women’s choices. If women can band together as an effective political lobby, it might be possible to change entrenched, systemic problems that women with children face. If children are valued in society, the social support system for both women and their children must reflect that.
As a childless, 32-year-old woman, I found Valenti’s book extremely refreshing. Before reading it, I felt resigned to the fact that having a child would feel like a prison-sentence. However I now feel a glimmer of hope that I might be able to retain the core of my pre-child life; that having a baby does not have to be as hard as I imagine it to be. Why Have Kids gives parents the permission to relax, to see that giving equal weight to their needs and those of their children will increase their happiness and will be beneficial for the family as a whole. If that means only breastfeeding for a few months or not at all or putting their child in daycare, then so be it. It is time for women to stop being so judgemental of the choices made by other women and instead focus on how to achieve a good work-life balance that will benefit everyone in the long run.