When I was a girl, I fantasized about my life as an adult. All girls do. In my consistent fantasy, I was single, living in a city, books stacked in my apartment, and I had some sort of go-getting job where I would wear fashionable raincoats to walk to my office. And of course, I had hair as long as Crystal Gayle’s (what?!? I was a child of the 70’s – and that was fucking gorgeous hair!). But my fantasies never included weddings or husbands or families or children. When I got to college and my girlfriends were planning weddings before even being engaged to anyone, or making statements about how they would raise their many children, or exactly how many they would have — I was thinking about getting the hell out of school so I could LIVE and have ADVENTURE. I don’t know if anyone is actually “cut out” to be a mom, but my motherhood definitely didn’t come naturally by any sense of the word.
Thankfully, this week I found out I wasn’t the only one. Jessica Valenti’s incredible new book, Why Have Kids? is an echo of the thoughts of any mom like me (and I’m betting there are more than a few), only much more well said and with awesome citations.
I have been a huge fan of Valenti’s since I read Full Frontal Feminism, and my favorite of hers (until now), The Purity Myth. In fact, as a high school teacher, I can’t remember how many copies of The Purity Myth I have handed to my female students graduating into the world — I still keep extra copies on hand for young women of my acquaintance. I am a daily reader of Feministing.com, a welcoming place Valenti and her compatriots have imbued with feminist thoughtfulness. With Why Have Kids, Valenti has breached yet another barrier for me, a GenX feminist mom. To read it, for me, was to find a reprieve from my own tortured thoughts about how I fail as a mom.
I don’t know if we’re the 2nd or the 3rd wave of feminism now, but either way, we GenX moms have a LOT of trouble not letting the wave roll back out to sea while we are tugged ashore by the consistent and pervasive gender role traditions that won’t let go of us (wow, that was a horrible analogy). I assume Valenti is a bit younger than me, but the general age group is the same – and obviously, the tug of war that we experience is identical.
Valenti begins by describing how her entry to motherhood was not at all what she planned or expected when her baby daughter was delivered by emergency a month early and Jessica herself had life threatening issues with the pregnancy and delivery. I immediately could relate. I did not face the extreme challenges she did, but from the moment my first pregnancy ended with my baby girl dying five months before she would have been born, my second pregnancy was anything but fun. The story of my first loss is a hard one, as it is for any parent who has gone through that, and I freely admit it completely colored how I entered my 2nd pregnancy. I had moments of normal “pregnant mom” stuff, but generally speaking I just wanted to get through it and meet The Kid (who would hopefully be healthy). I was already 30 years old when I was pregnant with my son, and I don’t even remember my 31st birthday because I spent it in the hospital– either the baby or something about my own body had caused my ribs to separate and I was in excruciating pain that the doctors did not have a way to relieve. I spent the next (and last) 2 months of my pregnancy in a semi-bedrest position in a giant La-Z-boy recliner borrowed from my dad. The next fun part was that he tried to come out and the docs wouldn’t let him. I had my labor stopped medically TWICE before I went in for a scheduled birth – which was AGAIN postponed because a massive tragedy had happened in our community and they cleared out the hospitals of all “elective” procedures in order to cater to the emergencies. I had to wait two more days and when they finally tried to induce me into giving birth, nothing but my contractions happened. Sixteen hours of contractions – didn’t dilate. at. all. So my doc (Great Spaghetti Monster bless her), came in and suggested we just get him out. My C-section was uneventful… well, except for the poor nurse who got in the way of my projectile vomiting, and the intense recovery pain.
Postscript on the story: when the pediatrician checked him, he declared that he’d cooked too long– no wonder he wouldn’t come out the regular way – he was probably 3+ weeks past when he should have come out! So that whole stopping my labor was really a great idea. That was a long story to say that no matter how we plan, the way we become mothers can be incredibly unexpected. I didn’t get to feeling any more “natural” about it after that experience either.
Valenti’s book is beautifully organized into LIES and TRUTH. The LIES section starts with the old axioms that make all of us feel completely inadequate as moms. I’d just like to briefly give a glimpse into how each of these LIES chapters made me feel so much better as a mom and a human being:
“Children Make You Happy”
This isn’t to say that parents don’t love their kids or find joy in raising them. Of course we do. It’s an incredible, unparalleled experience. But we also tend to add a happy gloss over our lives as parents because to discuss the hardships is considered whiny, ungrateful, or… losing.
It shouldn’t be a revelation to hear a fellow mother say these things, but for me it is. And I have at least eight or ten years on Jessica in being a mom (my son turned ten this last June). I was thinking the other day about how I self identify (this is one of those meta-cognitive exercises I go through regularly, especially since being laid off) — and I was somewhat taken aback that “mom” was not even in my top 5 identifying descriptors. I thought I must be a horrible woman and mom for it not being my number one way to self identify. After some private self berating, I realized, like many things, this wasn’t something that was going to change for me. Maybe I started too late, maybe I just never had the “mommy gene” or maybe I just have too many other parts of my life that equally compete with the mom side of me. I don’t know. But for the first time, reading this book helped me realize: who gives a shit? If I’m raising my kid with love and respect and humility, then the things I identify with will be equally important to him. And frankly, I am proud he’ll grow up steeped in feminism, respecting all humans, no matter their race or creed, loving to learn and create, and geeky over sci-fi! He adds his own personality and twist with things I’ll never be good at (example: gaming), and so I learn how to be a mom from him as much as I just experiment as we go. Nowadays, I just want to make sure that he’s fed, sheltered and feels secure during these rough days when I have no job or home with which to provide for him all that I’d want to. And, hey, that’s okay too.
“Women are the Natural Parent” & “Breast is Best”
Hell hath no fury like La Leche League scorned…
So as I mentioned, my kid had a fairly traumatic introduction to the world, mostly because he cooked for longer than he wanted to (he really did try to get out on time). We had trouble right away with breast feeding and with that age old “bonding.” I heard all of it: “you’ll fall in love the moment you see him!” “nothing can beat that incredible bonding you’ll feel when you first hold him!”… well. I was sobering up from massive amounts of drugs for the first hours of my son’s life so I didn’t even hold him until much later. Then, though I think we both tried really hard, we just couldn’t make the breast feeding work… the nurses had to supplement him from day one because nothing came out. I didn’t feel an ounce of “bonding.” The Mommy Glue wasn’t there for me.
Then the La Leche woman came in. She sternly directed me. I cried. She sternly corrected me. I sternly said “fuck you, get out of my hospital room.” …actually, I didn’t. I felt too inadequate. I now WISH I’d said that, but I just cried more. I couldn’t feed my kid, I was exhausted and couldn’t walk due to the c-section cut, and I didn’t really like any of it. In fact, I hated it. But I smiled because everyone else was smiling at me, expecting me to be brimming over with happiness. There was no bonding. Not for weeks. My then-husband was extremely supportive and said “fuck ’em” for me. A week after we got home, I stopped trying so hard. We switched to formula, I stopped trying to breast feed, pump, etc. The moment I did, I think both the baby and I sensed something had shifted. We no longer had to perform for each other. The bottle is what finally allowed us to bond.
Of course, like Valenti notes, there is no end to the warnings non-breast feeding moms will get, and I got them all: my kid would have constant ear infections, a faulty immune system, he would be sickly, I would stay fat, MY immune system would be faulty…and of course, his IQ would be significantly lower (yes, someone did say that to me). The Kid has never had an ear infection in his ten years of life, he gets the normal winter colds, but has been extremely healthy otherwise, and oh, shocker, he’s smarter than I am. Also, I lost all the baby weight within 3 months. So there.
I wish I could get some cheer-leading pom poms and stand up next to Jessica Valenti at all her book signings and cheer “Fuck ’em all! Just be your own mom!” (except probably that would do more harm than good, especially in family-friendly bookstores).
“Children Need Their Parents”
Men aren’t simply excused from the conversation, they’re actively excluded by a culture and politics that still promote the idea that the only appropriate caregiver, the only natural parent, is the mother.
Valenti deftly handles the “mommy wars” issue in this book — I can’t remember how many different books and articles I’ve read over the years from the different sides of this “war.” She hones the issue down to its real merits: sometimes the mom can’t stay home, and sometimes she can, and sometimes she doesn’t want to. How society provides (or, more to the point: does NOT provide) a framework for either is the point. I fell into the 3rd group. I was never going to be a stay at home mom. It wasn’t me. Also, at the time, my career was the main income for our family. So for the first 18 months of The Kid’s life, his dad stayed home with him. It never failed: At least once a week, when they were out somewhere together, his dad got all kinds of kudos for “babysitting” or “how nice you’re giving Mom a break!” I’ll never forget when an older woman asked me what my husband did. My reply was that he was a stay at home dad with our new son. Her response? “Oh, is he sick or on disability?” Yes, the only reason a dad would choose to stay home was if he COULDN’T work.
It amazes me how we still consign ourselves to these roles that we KNOW are outdated and, most of the time, completely useless to our real lives. But though I knew I never could have survived being home with the baby, it never stopped me from feeling guilty for not being a “good mom.” But you know what? It was better for The Kid. He didn’t need to have his introduction to the world crowded by my neurotic tendencies. We had plenty of time together. And he spent his early years experiencing deep bonding with his dad, rollicking fun with Miss Ruby, his day caretaker, and the other kids there, and with Teacher Becky, his amazing preschool teacher. In addition, we purposely built a village around him of aunts and uncles (both by blood and by friendship), grandparents and friends who cared for him, taught him things, and celebrated fun times with him…and still do.
As Valenti wisely notes:
Americans believe it’s best for kids to be with their parents as much as possible; the truth is, however, that our kids do better when they have a lot of people invested in their growth and development–not just their parents, and not just their mothers.
It’s true. And how thankful I am to hear it from someone else than myself. And you know what? Not all marriages continue on for the life of the child created within them. Ours didn’t. But when our marriage ended (by mutual agreement and without toxicity that would have grown had we stayed together), the village around our son was steadily in place, and our transition to a different form of family has been absorbed deftly by that village that both his dad and and I still rely on and deeply appreciate. The Kid is so much more wealthy as a human being for all the people other than his parents who have taken part in his growth.
“The Hardest Job in the World”
…as much as I love my daughter, I don’t believe caring for her is the most important thing I’ll ever do either. Yet in my relatively short time as a parent, I’ve heard from dozens of people telling me that what I’m doing is the hardest, most important job in the world.
Actually, it was pretty challenging to be a human rights worker in Northern Ireland in the late 90’s. It was also not that easy to get a master’s degree with a 2 year old. Also, a second master’s degree 8 years later. Also, teaching teenagers. Also, learning to play “Settlers of Catan” (I just threw that one in there because my 10yr old I and just played it for the first time and he tromped me). Those things were and are incredibly important events and jobs in my life and I’m pretty proud of them. Like Valenti, I don’t know why being a mom needs to be “the hardest.” I find parenting daily challenging, and it has certainly changed me and will hopefully always grow me as a woman and a human. There have been traumatic and horrible moments: that night the 4 yr old came into the room with blood pouring out virtually ever orifice of his head saying quietly “mommy, something’s wrong!” (he’d gotten a massive bloody nose that had backed up down his throat so the blood was coming out his mouth and nose in enormous quantities-resulting in our one major rush to the emergency room). There was that time he was wrongly diagnosed at 9yrs old with type 1 diabetes and admitted to the hospital for two days of needles poking him until they realized, oh, his blood sugar is totally normal! There was that time, 4 months ago, when we made the momentous decision for him not to return to institutional school this year. Parenting is not easy. There’s no getting around that. But that doesn’t mean it has to be this enormous specter that leers over every other kind of work you face or attempt in your life.
Valenti once again drives home the true point: one reason why motherhood seems so goddamned hard is that our society perpetuates the difficulty. The assumptions about what mothers should do and be and look like… the lack of support for single mothers, mothers in poverty, mothers and fathers who just need some fucking help without being judged is overwhelming. And don’t get me started on the moms whose kids weren’t born out of their bodies: step-moms, adoptive moms, foster moms. And what about the moms and dads of children who were never born alive or are no longer alive? Holy crap, the quiet desperation that mothers (and fathers) in the most modern country in the world suffer is insane and belies our entire image of ourselves as being a progressive, forward thinking society.
I can forgive the Baby Boomer moms. The moms of my mom’s generation were the first ones in our modern society to try breaking free of these bonds and lies that tie us up as parents. The Baby Boomer moms paved the way for us in innumerable ways that we may never fully appreciate. We GenX moms seem to have fallen prey to some backsliding. Why are we so neurotic about mothering – shouldn’t we be set free from all this by now? What are the young, Millennial moms going to think when they look at us: still arguing with each other about staying home or going to work, still allowing our own country to belittle our position as the majority of breadwinners (see the stats in Hanna Rosin’s new The End of Men), or at the very least, professionals deserving of goddamned paid maternity leave!
“Mother Knows Best”
While Layla was in the NICU, the only sense of control I had, the only “maternal” power, was my instincts and ability to trust myself.
Valenti hits on the ultimate truth of mothering. We don’t really know what we’re doing — and I admit it: I’m highly suspicious of women who claim that they do. This idea that motherhood bestows on us some other-worldly wisdom and knowing about how to raise our child, what to do in every circumstance, how to handle ourselves and our children right into their adulthood is, in mommy-lingo, pooey. The honest truth is that we don’t know how to do things, and we have to trust others and each other in order to figure it out. It’s humbling, but it’s also a gift. I don’t think I could handle all that instant Mommy-knowledge. I would have too many expectations on myself — which is exactly what this societal thinking does to all moms:
Women aren’t experts just by virtue of being women, or by being mothers… believing that our maternal instinct somehow means we know more than anyone else not only puts undue pressure on ourselves and our ability to feel like good parents, but it also furthers the idea that there is such a thing as a natural, overwhelming mother love…
I feel very validated here in my consistent, ten-year record of not knowing a damned thing about what I’m supposed to do in any particular parenting situation. I just usually try not to fuck it up too badly. I will say, however, I do pride myself on knowing which things to spit on and which not… so far I have discovered that all things are deserving of my Mother-Spit. So there, that’s the extent of my natural, overwhelming mother love.
Valenti goes on to give us wonderful TRUTHS: “Giving Up on Parenthood,” “‘Bad’ Mothers Go to Jail,” “Smart Women Don’t Have Kids,” “Death of the Nuclear Family,” “Should Women Work,” and “Why Have Kids?” Each of these chapters gave me a new sense of belonging in the sisterhood of mothering: Something I have never fully felt with other mother friends of mine. Like Valenti, I wasn’t well prepared for parenthood, and my willingness to let go of control, I think, is my saving grace.
I was never going to have more than one kid (don’t get me started on what people have said to me about THAT). I am now a single mom of a boy, and though I have the gift of a cooperative ex to work with on parenting, I’m still on my own for the most part. My screw ups are my own…yet they feel way more public than my triumphs. My son’s village is a huge support …and sometimes a huge network of busybodies. My career is on hold while I’m laid-off and looking for work again, and so my self identity is suffering in ways that can’t be cured by being told “well you can focus on being a Mom now!” (yes, I’ve heard that one several times). And now we’re unschooling, which is a whole new mess of societal assumptions and expectations and us figuring out our own way.
Valenti’s book is a revelation for me, and I’m sure for many moms like me. To see in written word the things I’ve always thought and wondered, to see the straight-forward way she attacks the stereotypes and the expectations, is a wonderful validation. We’ve reached the 21st century. It’s time for moms, and especially the moms of my generation, born of the Baby Boomers and precursors for the Millennials, to stop caring so much for these old, traditional pressures. Throwing off the assumptions and the roles and all the other shit is the gift we can give ourselves and the moms who follow. Just being ourselves is enough. And Why Have Kids? celebrates that.
The way I’m a mom is neither right nor wrong. It’s just me. Sometimes, the entirety of my parenting skills boil down to me and a 10-year old doing a Doctor Who marathon while eating too many Hershey bars. Sometimes, we have deep conversations about humanity or presidential politics or the universe. And sometimes, we just snuggle.
Thank you, Jessica Valenti, for the gift of this book.