Review: ‘Why Have Kids?’


Why Have Kids?
A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness
By Jessica Valenti

  • Date finished: Aug. 28, 2014
  • Genre: Parenting, Feminism
  • Year: 2012
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Summer 2014
  • Grade: A+
  • Thoughts upon reading:

You know, I haven’t given too many books an A+ grade this year, but even though Why Have Kids? seems like it would be your typical “flavor of the month”-type book, I really feel like Valenti deserves it.

I heard about this book around the time it came out, and at some point, wrote it down as one of those nonfiction books I really wanted to read. And so, when I was making my fall reading list a few weeks ago and looking for some other books to round out my summer, I thought, “Why not?”

Now, this book was short and I read it pretty quickly. I should probably re-read it, especially so I can let Valenti’s arguments sink in a little further. But I knew this was a great book when I felt moved about halfway through to send my best friend a message, urging her to read this book. I also had a long and surprising conversation with my younger brother about this book, which was a little weird but then not, because gosh darn it, all I wanted to do during that week was talk about this book! Over and over again!

This book is about pretty much what you think it would be: a discussion of why we – as modern, American women – are having kids in 2014. It’s about the gendered and political expectations surrounding motherhood and parenthood. It’s about the myths that surround this expected rite of passage for most heterosexual married couples, from “maternal instincts” to whether children actually make us happier. It’s about what happens when a women decides she doesn’t want kids, or doesn’t want them when most other women want them – how this makes her “unnatural” and deserving of every rude comment you can possibly think of.

It’s a very interesting, and very, very, very good book. OK, maybe it’s not for everyone, and I’m not going to say that this a blanket recommendation. But as a young woman about to turn 28 (!) in a few weeks, whose been married for almost two years now, and whose friends are popping out babies all over the damn place … it was very, very, very relevant to my life. This book was full of what’s been on my mind for years now, and it was so relieving to find someone else who was able to hold this kind of discussion, not to mention in such a fearless fashion.

When I did recommend this book to my friend, I did feel the need to warn her that Valenti is a Feminist with a capital “F”, since I wasn’t exactly sure how she felt about the whole feminist movement, and whether that would distract her from the book’s overall message. I definitely didn’t have a problem with it. Ever since I read The Feminist Mystique last summer, I’ve done a lot of thinking about gender roles and what is expected of women in our western, Judeo-Christian-based society. While I am pro-choice and do believe women should earn wages equal to men, those are not my battles; my fight I feel, is about gender roles. Who says that, as a woman, this is what’s “expected” of me? Who says my life, and what people believe I’m capable of, should be defined by my ovaries?

Valenti nails this, attacking the ideas that, as women, we are expected to: desire motherhood, quit our jobs to stay home with the kids, be satisfied with earning less money than our husbands, and just “be OK” wiping up spit and doing laundry all day. That’s not to say that, as a woman, you are not allowed to want those things – I’m not on board with the militant feminists who demand that all women, everywhere, should deny feelings like that as unnatural and be men. If being a mother is something you want in your life, then you should be unashamed of that desire. However, I do have a problem with the idea that a) the only people who are capable of having these feelings are women, and b) as a women, it’s unnatural if I don’t feel like this. Why aren’t we constantly asking men: “Why don’t you have any children yet? Don’t you feel the need to be a father?” And why do we – as a society, as women, as mothers – treat each other like absolute crap and lay on the guilt whenever you make an “unnatural” decision regarding womanhood? “Oh, you’re going back to work and sending your baby to daycare? That must be so hard on you. Don’t you want to be home with your child all the time?”

The guilt game that’s unfortunately such a huge part of modern motherhood has also properly scared me about this whole business. Nowadays, you can’t do anything without running up against some new expert, whether it’s a “real” expert (even if what they’re spouting is stupid), as well as the experts we all think we are these days. Valenti has an interesting discussion about how, given all the conflicting new parenting advice that circulates every five minutes, parents are feeling more and more confused, stressed out, and well, like they’re bad parents. Arising from this is the “natural” parenting movement, which instead says that the parents are experts on EVERYTHING when it comes to their children – suggesting, I don’t know, that how to make organic baby food is written in our DNA. Unfortunately, from this you have the nut jobs who are refusing to vaccinate their children because of their poor ability to filter and analyze random information they find on the Internet, which is turning into a bigger problem every day.

Anyway, I can go on and on about this book, which is (again) the reason I gave it such a high grade. I would recommend this book to anyone of procreating age, whether you’re a feminist or not, if only so that you’re forced to think analytically and critically about parenthood. Because for me, that’s what parenting will be: a decision I make with my husband based on facts, taking into considerations the real risks and timing concerns, and not glossing over the hard realities of what parenthood will involve. We are not particularly religious, and so we’re not exactly “called” by any higher power into raising little ones, so that may set us apart from others’ and their lives. But even if you are religious, we all need to be having these discussion. We all need to be questioning things. We all need to realize that it’ OK to fight back against expectations and make decisions that work toward YOUR ultimate health and happiness.

It would also help if we weren’t so uptight about this issue, and would just be a little nicer about it. Geesh.


3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Why Have Kids?’

  1. I was thrilled to see you not only read this book, but give it an A+! And even though I am past child-bearing age (maybe not by Hollywood’s standards) I think I would find this an interesting read. As a 45 year-old child-free-by-choice (NOT by chance) woman I’m sure I would find myself nodding emphatically in agreement with what this book has to say. You are right – unfortunately we as a society are unbelievably judgmental when it comes to motherhood and parenting. I see my “childed” friends both cope with and participate in this. And while I try valiantly to abstain (since I have no experience in parenting children), I’m sure I’ve even been guilty myself. I do think that books like this are terrific in simply bringing about an awareness.

    My own reasons for never wanting children have certainly morphed and changed over the years, but as far back as I can remember, the idea of becoming a mother has never been appealing to me. At a very early age it was all about my freedom. My parents were extremely strict growing up. All I wanted to do was grow up, get out, establish a life for myself and do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The idea of having a child was like the ultimate ball-and-chain. Then it became an issue of finances. Then it became “what if we have a child with some sort of impairment?” – “can we weather the financial and emotional storm?”. On any given day our reason(s) might be different, but they always seemed very valid to us. The sad thing is that we always “needed” to have a reason. The fact that we just weren’t interested was never good enough. I never wanted to be a parent just like I never wanted to become a police officer or a cashier. In my mind it’s always been that simple, but don’t try telling that to most people in society because it is an exercise in futility.

    I really could not agree with you more. I think it’s very important that society stop putting people in neat little boxes – “oh you’re a girl! so you’re going to grow up and marry a man and have babies!” BARF. What a dull place the world would be!

    I guess the biggest reason I was so excited to see you read this book is the simple fact that it indicates you are SERIOUSLY considering parenthood. You want to educate yourself on the subject before diving right in – which I believe is what most people do. I say all the time that most people put more thought into baking a cake than they do becoming a parent! I think the world would be a better place if more people employed your approach and entered into it with eyes wide open. Whatever you decide I’m sure you will be happy, and well wishes either way!

    P.S. I have ZERO regrets about my own choice.

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