Even before giving birth, feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti knew, apparently, she would be an expert on “the truth about parenting.” Two days before Valenti was rushed into the hospital to prematurely deliver a 2-pound baby, she had lunch with her editor to discuss her new book,“Why Have Kids?” But the most visible blogger of a new generation of feminists — the one that has, The Guardian says, “dragged feminism into the 21st century” — writes that it took her own underwhelming reaction to maternity, albeit in the wake of her own failing liver and a child on the other side of the NICU glass, to truly question our inner Motherhood Industrial Complex.
Reacting and aggregating has become the lingua franca of the new feminism. It’s a glorious thing, all this conversation, but is this all there is? Unfortunately, “Why Have Kids?” is hardly a manual to navigate the noise. It’s a staticky playlist on shuffle: disconnected diversions about women jailed for bad parenting choices, the tyranny of toilet training babies without diapers, and pre-recession discourse about the decade-old New York Times Magazine article on mothers opting out of the marketplace. Each of these musings may have made a decent blog post but they fail to connect to larger arguments.
Valenti presents the book in two parts, “Lies” and “Truth,” broken into short chapters, which makes for an alluring table of contents. In execution, chapter headings become simply confusing, and sometimes politically problematic — a discussion of lesbian and co-habiting parents, for example is filed under “The Death of the Nuclear Family.”
The book’s title question — Why have kids? — is never answered even in the concluding chapter that bears its name. Plus, the book’s subtitle, which promises the low-down on parental happiness, yields only several pages in the entire book, and those pages mention just a few of the dozens of studies on the topic, taking lazy routes like quoting researcher Robin Simon from a Daily Beast article rather than Simon’s own eminently readable papers. Instead of trenchant moments in her own struggle to navigate the cultural and personal battlefields, the occasional anecdote cues eye-blinking. Like this big reveal: “This was the moment I had heard about, the moment I was waiting for,” that proves “there was no book or philosophy that would prepare me for parenthood” turns out to be nothing more than her nursing daughter sneezing a big booger onto her breast.
Valenti suggests that her reader might consider Googling her to send hate mail after reading her proclamation that today’s parents have an overblown sense of importance. This only underscores how today’s feminism plays dress up in a costume of controversy, embroidered by blog readers who take to comment queues in torch-bearing hordes, comments that often stand in for original reporting in Valenti’s book. Her surface-skimming reactivity — mothers have “gone from worrying about satanic day care workers to lobbying friends to help their children get into exclusive preschools” — yields empty rhetoric. Such frothed-up generalizations undercut her equally frequent spot-on proclamations about motherphilia and its discontents, like how “[t]here’s a multimillion-dollar industry built on the notion that parents are clueless,” or how “in our quest of perfect parenthood we’ve lost all sense of community.” But rather than unpacking her aphorisms and backing them up with research, Valenti frequently leaves them hanging on the line like so many cloth diapers.
Too often we end up with ideas squandered in sloganeering like Valenti’s directive, “If what we want is deliberate, thought-out, planned, and expected parenthood — and parenting that is healthy and happy for our children — then we have to speak out.” About what, exactly? And to whom?
Unfortunately, even Valenti’s slogans often contradict themselves. Valenti tells us that mothers are “too ashamed to admit that despite the love they have for their kids, childrearing can be a tedious and thankless undertaking,” and then announces that women not only “know many of the reasons they’re dissatisfied” but we “regularly discuss the everyday problems that make parenting harder.” She dismantles the arguments for breastfeeding only to tell us it’s “obviously,” what she supports--it was just too tough with a preemie who wouldn’t latch. And while she tells us she confidently jettisoned those cloth diapers, she also wants us to know they were awfully hard to find small enough for her kid.
Perhaps in Valenti’s case, many of these contradictions stem from her own understandably conflicted feelings about motherhood, both personally and politically. That would have been great material to mine if only she took the time to consider the nuance and ambivalence beyond her child’s treacherously complicated birth, which certainly elicits sympathy.
Occasionally, Valenti offers a glimpse of what the book could have been: “there’s a reason that parents who have more resources and more financial security are happier.” But instead of following through with this systemic critique, she concludes the book — after giving brief, de-contextualized lip service to the need for better maternity benefits — “The truth about parenting is that the reality of our lives needs to be enough.” It’s the truth about parenting only in a country that makes vague complaints about the need for reform, but does little to achieve it. One way to shift the paradigm, which as Valenti has observed is crucial, is to develop a drumbeat of carefully constructed arguments, instead of something that feels merely sneezed upon our collective breast. “This book will likely make you angry. It’s meant to,” she coquettishly warns in the introduction. She’s right: It did, but not because of what it says, but because of what it doesn’t.Lauren Sandler is the author of “Righteous” and the forthcoming “One and Only: Why Being an Only Child and Having One Is Better than You Think.” You can reach her at email@example.com.