Review by Erika Rothberg
Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness is an undoubtedly interesting book by one of today’s most influential feminist writers. Valenti wrote Why Have Kids? after she gave birth to her daughter, Layla, prematurely and nearly died in the process (as a result of severe and sudden liver failure brought on by her pregnancy). In it, she discusses a plethora of parenting issues like the constant battle of breast milk vs. formula, whether or not women should stay at home to parent, and the cultural norm of viewing women in stark terms as either “mothers” or “childless.” She covers a huge range of issues in the slim 167-page book, which is divided into two sections: “Lies” and “Truth.” Valenti opens the book with a statement proclaiming that her book will insult and offend some people—and it is meant to; it is clear that she wants to shake things up. She explains that we should discuss the ambivalence that comes along with parenthood instead of asserting that it is all sunshine and rainbows. She believes there needs to be a “paradigm shift” in the way we, as a society, view parenting. I do agree with some of her points, particularly her claim that there should be both maternity and paternity leave offered by employers to better divide household responsibilities. I agree that we shouldn’t criticize women (or couples) who are childless by choice, and that people should not feel like they “have” to have children since it’s become a standard by which American couples are judged.
However, I did find myself disagreeing with Valenti more often than I agreed with her, and I must admit, my own reactions took me by surprise because I am a fan of hers. One particular bone of contention for me is that she sporadically claims that (typically upper-middle class) women who are in a position to choose whether they want to stay at home to parent or return to the work force need to think about their decision as it affects all women. In the penultimate chapter, Valenti simultaneously claims that “people’s life choices should be honored” after saying that there may actually be a “better choice” regarding the stay-at-home/working mom argument—she believes moms should work so they don’t become financially dependent on anyone else (158-59). How can she flip-flop mid-paragraph, deciding that mothers should, apparently, all work? And who is she to decide that no woman should be financially dependent on her spouse? Might I not be able to grasp some of this seemingly contradictory argument because I am unmarried and childless? Maybe, but I don’t think so. As for considering how one’s personal choice impacts other, less financially stable women, I’m not quite sure how that is one’s responsibility. Is it because I’m still young and foolhardy enough to think that my choices should be mine, and mine alone, to make? I just fundamentally disagree with making my own choices while studiously considering cultural norms, and I think it’s hypocritical of Valenti to claim that we should. After all, she spends most of the book telling us that women should choose whether or not they want to have kids, pick their desired milk, use attachment parenting or different parenting styles, etc. based on what is right for that individual woman. So why does she argue that we need to consider the impact of our own choices if she is so gung-ho about bucking societal restrictions placed on all women, apparently, by these very choices?
While I definitely found it fascinating, I cannot say that Why Have Kids? was a particularly effective book. I know emotional detachment is not typical of Valenti’s writing style, but I think this book would have been more compelling had she written about the ambivalence she sought to portray, well, with more ambivalence. Valenti says that we should talk about parenthood as an endeavor that produces a range of emotions, but it feels to me like she is only espousing the negative. I understand that she wrote this as a reaction against saccharine sweet “Parenting is Fun!” books, but she comes across as very cold, having only recounted negative parenting experiences while withholding any joyful personal anecdotes that would balance out her tone. It’s also pretty ironic that while she argues that women cannot be viewed in stark “mother” or “non-mother,” “pregnant” or “not-pregnant” categories, she divides her entire book into two very much black-and-white “Truth” and “Lies” sections. I don’t really understand why it was so remarkably short, and I think Why Have Kids? would benefit from the addition of a hundred pages or so. Making the many broad arguments Valenti wants to make is nearly impossible in less than 170 pages.
I do think it’s important to note that every person who reads this will get a very different message from the book. I’m sure that when I read this again in 10 years, 20 years, 30 years, I’ll find myself walking away with a different perception of the book each time. Because I am not a mother, I might not be able to truly understand some of Valenti’s claims: I can comprehend them, but I will not be able to 100% understand them until/unless I actually have a child. I would still recommend picking up Why Have Kids? if you get a chance. Even though I disagreed with much of the book, it made me think about motherhood in a very different light. Challenging social norms is important, regardless of my own personal opinions on the norms themselves. Just as Valenti says her book will anger some, I’m sure many of the people reading this review will completely disagree with me, which is fine and expected. At the end of the day, Valenti wants to foster a discussion—and my review is proof that she is doing just that.
Jessica Valenti is a daily columnist for the Guardian US. She is the author of five books on feminism, politics and culture, and founder of Feministing.com. Her books include Why Have Kids?, The Purity Myth, Yes Means Yes, He’s a Stud She’s a Slut, and Full Frontal Feminism. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Nation, among other publications, and she speaks frequently at colleges and organizations across the country and abroad. Jessica currently serves on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America. You can find her on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.