2012 at 11am Posted by Rebecca Joines Schinsky
Whether you have kids, are thinking about having kids, or have determined that you don’t want to have kids, you need to read Why Have Kids? Noted feminist writer Jessica Valenti (longtime readers will recall that I loved her 2009 book, The Purity Myth) chronicles her experiences as a first-time mom, explores cultural myths and misconceptions about parenting, and speaks truth to the unequal and unfair treatment of women who choose to mother (which, you know, is *most* women).
Valenti begins with the myths, devoting the first half of the book–called “Lies”–to dismantling widely-held but wrongheaded notions, including the ideas that having children will make you happy and that women are naturally better at parenting than men are. She supports her claims with evidence from major research investigations, and let me tell you, some of it is jaw-dropping. For instance: were you aware that the U.S. Census Bureau classifies time women spend with their children as “parenting,” but considers time men spend with their kids to be”child care” (the same classification given to babysitters)? A full-time stay-at-home mother is a parent, but a man who does the same work is a babysitter. Let that sink in.
The second half of the book presents “Truth” and includes chapters on the death of the nuclear family (the changing shape of families away from the ‘traditional’ model), why mothers should work, how “smart women don’t have kids,” and what happens when parents want to give up on parenting. This is stuff we need to know–and more important, stuff we need to talk about–if we want to demand not just equitable treatment of men and women but equitable treatment of parents and non-parents, women who mother and women who don’t. (Another fact: women who don’t have children make 90 cents to a man’s dollar; women with children only make 73 cents to that dollar.)
Some of Valenti’s statements are controversial, and they are intended to be. Valenti’s purpose here is to push a dialogue forward, and you can’t do that without ruffling some feathers. To wit, American culture likes to talk about how parenting is “the hardest job in the world,” but Valenti (who, remember, is a mother) disagrees.
If women continue to believe that the most important thing they can do is raise children–and that their children need to be the center of their universe–then the longer that American women will go unrecognized and undermined in public life, and the more frantic and perfectionist we’ll become in our private and parental lives.
Furthermore, she wonders, “if parenting is so rewarding and so important, why aren’t more men staying home to do it?”
You won’t agree with everything in Why Have Kids?, and a lot of it will probably make you angry, and that’s the point. The way American society–our families, our workplaces, and our government–conceptualizes parenthood and treats parents, especially mothers, is broken. We should be angry. At its core, Why Have Kids? is “about how the American ideal of parenting doesn’t match the reality of [parents'] lives.” Valenti offers up not just criticism of existing ideas and practices but a call for change and potential next steps.
If you believe that all women should be treated equally regardless of their reproductive status, that the parenting work men and women do is equally valuable and important, and that the pressures and expectations on parents in contemporary society need to shift before they cause further damage, Why Have Kids? is a book for you. If you’re not sure about some of these issues, or you’re open to having your ways of thinking about motherhood challenged, it’s even more a book for you. Lucky for all of us, it’s out today. Go read it now!