Review: Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti

If any reader was, I was primed to like this book, which was sent to me for review by the publisher. I teach feminist philosophy, and have admired and even assigned some of Valenti’s past work. I enjoy Feministing, the feminist website Valenti founded in 2004 (she retired in 2011). Valenti visited my campus last year, and I know for a fact her talk inspired some of our undergrads to take a degree in Women’s Studies. I also think that pregnancy, childbirth, and mothering are meaningful experiences for many women, as well as primary sites of women’s oppression. So I was excited to read this book. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in Why Have Kids?

Why Have Kids? is slight, at 167 pages of text divided into twelve short chapters (and expensive at $15.14 for paper and $9.99 for the Kindle edition). In the introduction, Valenti writes that “this is a book about how the American ideal of parenting doesn’t match the reality of our lives, and how that incompatibility is hurting parents and children.” The first section, “Lies”, includes chapters on such as “Children Make You Happy” and “Mother Knows Best.” The second section, “Truth”, contains chapters such as “Giving Up On Parenthood”, “Smart Women Don’t Have Kids” and “Women Should Work.”

Why Have Kids? is a kind of nonfiction you may know well: a nimble pastiche of reports of entertaining, if cherry picked, studies, personal anecdotes, and the buttressing stories of random women (“As Laurie, from Alabama, says…”). As is par for the course in this type of book, there are a lot of vague, unsupported, and hedged claims, like the idea that “We’re scared to death thanks to the media” or references to “the kind of secret depressions so many mothers seem to be having.” Valenti is very self-consciously writing to educated laypersons. As she said in a 2009 interview in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, “My informal writing style is a political choice, because I want feminism to be more accessible. ” As a reader, I don’t expect or require in depth analysis, careful arguments, or scholarly use of resources in this type of book — especially, to be honest, if I already agree with the author. But I have to get something out of it, whether it’s a resonant personal narrative, a systematic critique, a fresh take on an old issue, or, heck, even a laugh or two. Instead, this book reads as a disorganized, superficial effort curiously disconnected both from its title — a topic barely addressed — and the childbirth and parenting experiences of the author which purportedly gave rise to it.

Many of the claims presented in Why Have Kids? are in apparent conflict with each other. For example, how is it that natural births are on the rise at the same time cesarean births are? How is it that at the same time women are listening uncritically to medicine tell them about how to be pregnant and give birth, they are challenging CDC vaccine recommendations? How is it that women are both “too ashamed to admit that despite the love they have for their kids, child rearing can be a tedious and thankless undertaking” and yet “regularly discuss the everyday problems that make parenting harder?” How is it that we “overvalue mothering in woman” at the same time we fail to provide maternity leave? How is it that “parenting is the most difficult job” is a “lie”, yet the entire book gives reason after reason for thinking mothering is the worst of double binds for women — economically, emotionally, politically? How is it that “American culture cannot accept the reality of a woman who does not want to be a mother”, yet “American attitudes towards women choosing not to have children have become more accepting than in years past?” Valenti did not seem notice these seemingly disparate realities, let alone integrate them into a coherent feminist analysis.

Valenti recommends that “we need to start thinking about parenting as a community exercise” without suggesting how we go about doing that, or what about our capitalist, patriarchal society actively discourages it. Most of her concrete suggestions amount to admonishing individual women to change their attitudes, for example, “We have to get real about our expectations”, “We need to let go of the notion that we [mothers] are the only ones who can do it correctly.” and “It may be that American mothers are so desperate for power, recognition, and validation that we’d rather take on the burden of considering ourselves ‘expert’ moms rather than change the circumstances that demand such an unreasonable role for us.”

Valenti apparently has little faith in her readers or in the power of women to rationally disagree. At several points she cautions the reader that “This book will likely make you angry”, “you might feel insulted” and even warns “Before you throw this book across the room or frantically Google me for an email address to send hate mail to, hear me out.” In the chapter on breastfeeding, Valenti cites approvingly Joan Wolf’s book Is Breast Best?, notes that Wolf has been compared to a Holocaust denier, and recounts a visit of Wolf’s to a daytime talk show in which she was “raked over the coals by a panel of well-coiffed celebrity MDs.” But the truth is that Wolf’s book, while offering interesting insights on public health promotion of breastfeeding as it plays into social expectations of “total motherhood,” was controversial for cherry picking data (to take just one example: ignoring evidence about the causal connection between formula feeding and obesity) and failing to offer convincing empirical evidence for her own assertions. There are some balanced critical reviews of Wolf’s book out there, but if you read Valenti, you wouldn’t think anyone is capable of it.

Valenti shares stories of being accosted by strangers for daring to formula feed, of a crazy woman on Twitter who harassed her, of a woman who was so cowed by the breastfeeding mafia that she “almost inadvertently starved her son” etc., etc. Is everyone who disagrees with her a nutty zealot? Is there any reason to think breastfeeding advocacy actually is a feminist issue, and not just the purview of busybodies with nothing better to do than make formula feeders feel guilty in shopping malls? What about the lack of workplace support for breastfeeding moms? Or shaming of breastfeeding in public? Or women whose husbands pressure an early end to breastfeeding because they are being denied access to their “sexual property”, women who are reported to child welfare agencies for breastfeeding “too long”, or women who are told they can’t keep their milk in communal fridges because it is “too gross”? What about the ways that the formula industry, in particular companies like Nestle, have promoted formula around the world with ad campaigns that were far more misleading, costly, and damaging than anything the DHHS and FDA breastfeeding campaigns could approximate? All of those are key issues for many women, too. But perhaps Valenti is acknowledging that when she concludes a chapter devoted to debunking the superiority breastfeeding over formula feeding with the statement, “Obviously I support breastfeeding.”

In the end, I was disappointed in Why Have Kids? It rehashes old debates without moving them forward, and isn’t nearly as bold as the author seems to think. It’s yet another entry in the tiresome mommy wars waged between privileged white women, except this time, by a “third wave” feminist who at least makes parenthetical references to the 99%, which is either a tiny step forward or completely insulting depending on your point of view. It’s half-baked, wan, and rarely engaging. Save your money and wait for her next effort.

3 responses

  1. “a kind of nonfiction you may know well: a nimble pastiche of reports of entertaining, if cherry picked, studies, personal anecdotes, and the buttressing stories of random women ”

    Even without having read this book, I have read this book.

    Like

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