This post could be subtitled: Wherein I Refer Not To Your Book (which I haven't read) But To The Interview I Heard On The Radio The Other Morning.
Jessica Valenti founded a website I like a lot and has recently written a book: Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. She is mother to a toddler (I gather) and has been making the rounds as a "young feminist" who is tackling "the issues" or, diving headlong into the profitable and ridiculous "Mommy Wars" which is a phrase I already regret typing despite that last thing I said being (subjectively) true. I was disappointed at many points during her interview in ways that I frequently feel disappointed with my contemporaries in the feminist community.
Dear Ms. Valenti,
I realize that mine is a difficult undertaking, given that I haven't read your book. To be honest, my reading wish list is long, and includes many things I plan to read for reasons other than providing thorough refutations of Internet Personalities' views on parenting. So, please cut me some slack in that department and I'll stick to what I heard you say in this interview on NPR to which I would link if I could find it.
You seem to be taking the position that I've read and heard so often in the past few years: that parenthood is too hard on women. That attachment parenting is demeaning and demanding in unreasonable ways, particularly to women. That "problems" with these newfangled methods are, then, a feminist issue. I heard you smugly chuckle at the idea that some parents choose to watch their babies for elimination cues and take them to the toilet rather than change diapers. You scoffed, audibly, at the recommendation that parents wear their children as much as possible; at co-sleeping. You implied that these choices -- made by adults, generally after doing some research -- are making women unhappy, and that if it were more widely publicized that parenthood sucked so bad, if there were more affordable avenues for leaving your kids with someone else while you get on with your life, maybe fewer people would respond so negatively to the experience of raising children.
I'd like to talk a little about this, personally. While obviously not the case for everyone, my children were my liberation. After years of working jobs I didn't like to make ends meet, putting off the possibility of seeking out work I found fulfilling because I couldn't afford to fail, I got pregnant. There was nothing noble or progressive about the job I had when I got pregnant, but quitting it to raise my children has easily been the most controversial parenting choice I've made. Politically active, feminist-identified friends have given me figurative head pats, pep talks about re-entering the workforce someday, and treated me like a twee relic because I choose not to work outside the home. They have congratulated me on being self-sacrificing enough to take on things like cloth diapering because, while they'd really love to, they just can't imagine having the time. Like many people, I've had lifelong struggles with my body image. It wasn't until having children -- birthing them, unapologetically feeding them in public, witnessing their guileless exploration of my flabby upper arms, acne scars, and stretched belly -- that I began to accept and eventually appreciate my body for what it was and expect that others do the same. I found myself hoping for my kids to find meaning and joy in their days and, in trying to engineer that for my children, I've learned to search for and value the same for myself, whether it's a paid, intellectual pursuit or not. Because it almost never is.
When asked the perfunctory question (why have kids?), you said there were two answers, a real one and a jokey one: you came from a large Italian family, and (basically) because kids say the darndest things. I realize that this was oversimplified but it still gave me pause. I had kids because I wanted to create a family with my partner, because I thoroughly enjoy children and because I knew I'd be good at it. Familial expectations didn't play into my decision, and similarly, I didn't have another child just to give my son a sibling. People should be parents because and only because they want to be, and believe they would be good at it. I agree that parental unhappiness stems in part from the lack of resources, but cheap daycare is not on my list of ways to make parents generally happier (It is, however, on my list of things we should do because it makes sense.). Instead, I take issue with a society that throws weddings to which children are not invited or relegated to a "childcare room" (because 200 adults can't just redirect a kid sticking his fingers in the wedding cake? Or, god forbid, hang out with some children?). I blame a country wherein breastfeeding in public is a debatable issue, and 30-something year old friends meeting my daughter for the first time say they've never held a baby before. We are setting up parents to fail by treating children like burdens we need to escape from, rather than welcoming them into the communities they'll inherit. We keep kids' normal behaviors a secret until those often confusing traits are foisted upon underslept, stressed parents focused on maintaining their "normal lives" and wondering why nobody told them that newborns actually eat every 3 hours...for 2 and a half hours. Including our children in our lives in both meaningful and mundane ways, incorporating them into everyday life so that they become as much a fixture as our phones, exposing others to the normality of childhood so that they know what to expect of young people: that's a way to make people enjoy parenting. Realistic expectations breed success. Attachment parenting, allowing a place for children in our everyday lives, enables that.
The question: are you mom enough? is not a question posed by well-meaning fellow mothers or even sympathetic feminists. It's yet another shitty patriarchal device used to pit us against one another, and it, along with all the other trappings of misogyny, are what's making women unhappy. Just as I don't allow the patriarchy to dictate where my value begins and ends, I don't want to teach people that their value will begin when they can make themselves useful (by my standards), or that I will put up with their difficult nature as long as it doesn't hinder my own pursuits. I had kids to teach, to love, to pay attention to and nurture in whatever way they need. I hope to have many years of watching my independent offspring fend mostly for themselves, but that just isn't the deal when they're little and I knew that when I signed up for this gig. If it were a more widely known fact about parenting, perhaps that would make for happier parents.
Attachment parenting isn't making women unhappy. Following others' whims rather than deciding what works for your family? Sure, that'll do it. Uncertainty makes judgment feel harsher, hurt worse. Trying to squeeze your child into a philosophy that doesn't resonate with her? Failure: that'll make everyone unhappy. But don't blame women who believe fervently in and advocate for a more responsive way of parenting. Don't chuckle about parents who make educated choices that differ from yours. Then you're just throwing fuel on Time Magazine's beach bonfire. Some people find liberation in raising babies and chickens and the freedom to go to the library at 11am any damn day of the week, and nobody gets to tell me that isn't a part of my feminism.