Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness

In what is essentially the American version of Elizabeth Badinter’s polemical “The Conflict,” feminist Jessica Valenti has a lot of controversial things to say about women and motherhood; unfortunately, like Badinter, she doesn’t take the time to focus her discussion, hone her points, and effectively advocate for reform – and isn’t amusing enough to make up the difference.

Though it touches on wide-ranging topics, “Why Have Kids” reads like one long blog post (complete with annoying typos and citation of random online comments as evidence) questioning the wisdom and responsibility of stay-at-home parenthood. Valenti writes, “In a perfect world, the United States would provide a wage for housework and child care – after all, it’s labor that contributes to the economy.” But since “that’s not the world we live in right now,” she claims that full-time parenthood is not a job – because it’s not that hard, important, or rewarding – and asserts that “women should work” for their own benefit as well as out of obligation to other women and society at large.

Before addressing these incendiary claims, it’s important to note that Valenti argues against a background assertion/assumption that anxious, perfectionist parenting is the new norm. Is it a trend among relatively wealthy, first-time parents? Yes. American parents as a whole? Not that I’ve seen. (Valenti writes, “I’m sure some parents have learned to let go, but I haven’t met many of them.” I would be happy to make some introductions.) Moreover, Valenti clearly oversteps when she suggests that stay-at-home mothers definitionally (or even just largely) fuel this perfectionist fire and embrace all-encompassing, omnisacrificial motherhood. Stay-at-home mothers may be at greater risk for “total motherhood,” thanks to their occupational investment in the role, but many of us do the job and also demand the flexibility (from our kids, spouses, community members, and budgets) to carve out a “life independent of []our child[ren].” All that is to say, while over-parenting and subsuming motherhood are real problems worth discussing, Valenti’s exaggeration of their scope creates a shaky foundation for many of her contentions.

As for the real meat of her argument, Valenti writes:

[I]n 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. . . . Do American moms really believe that diaper changing trumps pediatric oncology? Or that child rearing is harder than being a firefighter or factory worker? And if we do believe the hype, if full-time motherhood really is the hardest job in the world, why isn’t it paid? If it’s the most rewarding, then why do so many of us have other people care for our children? And if parenting is the most important job in the world, why on earth aren’t more men lining up to quit their frivolous-by-comparison day jobs . . . ? Now, this idea – that parenting is the most difficult job in the world – may just be cultural hyperbole, but it’s also a lie that too many of us have bought into.

Um, okay. Deep breath. Aaaaaaaand go. I won’t waste much time on her argument’s flippant overstatement and unhelpful logical fallacies (suffice it to say, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, that our country always rewards hard, important jobs – like teaching and nursing – with high salaries; and that men as a group are widely known to jump at the chance to do important work regardless of prestige or compensation). I’ll also try not to follow in Valenti’s footsteps and conflate the “hard,” “important,” and “rewarding” issues.

First, do I believe that stay-at-home parenthood is harder than, say, Barack Obama’s job? No, I do not. But I’ve been a catering gopher, a public high school teacher, a law clerk, and a practicing lawyer; and stay-at-home parenthood is as hard if not harder than those positions. There are a handful of jobs that are undeniably harder than stay-at-home parenthood, but that does not mean that stay-at-home parents who believe their job is hard are deluded or delusional. If Valenti truly believes that “when we see parenting for what it is – a relationship, not a job – we can free ourselves from the expectations and the stifling standards that motherhood-as-employment demands” – that is, that the job is only hard because we’re making it hard on ourselves – she’s the one who’s deluded. I can conjure Valenti’s image of a mother run ragged by “elimination communication” or a drive to constantly stimulate her child, but I think there’s a lot of daylight between that woman and the one who narrowly avoids action by Child Protective Services. Along that spectrum sit many stay-at-home parents working extremely, but not unnecessarily, hard.

I quibble with Valenti’s theory as well as her facts. She seems to think that people tell stay-at-home mothers that their job is hard as a way to both patronize and placate. I believe the reverse is true. The stay-at-home-parenthood-as-a-difficult-job narrative is one that prevents others from taking advantage of women. As the term “second shift work” acknowledges, “child care, housework, and domestic responsibilities” often remain at the end of a work day. The only way to convince a working parent to split this evening work equitably, is to ensure he understands that a stay-at-home parent’s first shift is just as hard as his own. (If stay-at-home parenting were less difficult, a longer shift would be justified and working parents everywhere would be within their rights to plop down on the couch and watch TV while their spouses bathe children and scrub floors.) Seen through this lens, emphasizing the difficulty of stay-at-home parenthood works to value women’s contributions, not diminish them.

Furthermore, we absolutely do “need to start thinking about raising our children as a community exercise” and reject “solitary caretaking” as too demanding; but doing so would make stay-at-home parenting a truly viable job option on the difficulty front, not eliminate it as one.

Now, is stay-at-home parenthood more important than Barack Obama’s job? No. Is it so unimportant that it ought to be eliminated from the range of employment options available to women? No. Valenti quotes Linda Hirshman and others who assert “that women who choose to stay at home and raise children – especially those who are of the privileged upper-middle-class variety – are doing a disservice to other women and society at large.” “‘Whether they leave the workplace altogether or just cut back their commitment, their talent and education is lost from the public world to the private world of laundry and kissing boo-boos.’” Valenti adds: “We mock these moms as neurotic overachievers who are obsessed with their kids, but perhaps their zealous parenting is just the understandable outcome of expecting smart, driven women to find satisfaction in spit-up. All of the energy they could be – and maybe should be – spending in the public sphere is directed at their children because they have no other place to put it.” These arguments – that full-time parenting isn’t important enough to merit women’s time, effort, and skills – ignore two critical facts: private contributions become public and civic engagement comes in a variety of forms.

Education – academic, democratic, psychological, and sociological – is one of the most important issues for any society’s future. Valenti poo-poos the argument that stay-at-home parents are educating and socializing their children under the heading of women living for the accomplishments of others rather than achieving themselves. The problem with this reasoning is that plenty of respected occupations exist largely in order to maximize others’ contributions to society. No one argues that early childhood educators aren’t working. Where does that leave Valenti? With a numbers game. Daycare centers generally shoot for a five to one ratio. If I have four kids at home am I gainfully employed? Three? Is it the opposite of the environmentalists’ reproduction mantra so that if I’m doing more than just caring for my own replacement, it’s a job? I just can’t swallow the idea that whether or not my occupation serves society is determined by the number of children under my care – or, even less logically, whether they’re mine.

Moreover, Valenti simply can’t prove the claim that “‘[i]f you’re giving 80 percent of your life to your children, maybe you’ll add 1 percent of difference in your child’s life.’” Her question – “how much extra work will really make that much of a difference?” – is an open and legitimate one. Surely some of us go overboard. But my qualitative observation says that having a person who is invested, focused, and skilled teach children things like how to manage their emotions, how to embrace life’s trial and error process, and how to empathize makes a big difference in the people who those kids become. When I work to produce children who are intellectually curious, sociable, responsible, and happy I serve the public interest as much as a daycare worker, teacher, or athletic coach. Does it really help women to pit me against my gynecological oncologist friend in order to determine the exact relative importance of our jobs? Or does the fact that her husband stays at home with her son undermine that family’s net contribution to the world as well?

Valenti also fails to acknowledge stay-at-home parents’ public engagement. While staying home with the kids, I’ve served on a committee at the Seattle Children’s Hospital, facilitated an open play space for Seattle First Presbyterian Church (of which I am not a member), given my school board and city council members a piece of my mind, conducted food and book drives for local charities, organized half a dozen clothing swaps for other parents, participated in a city clean-up, and rallied other parents to help the YWCA’s efforts to normalize holidays for homeless children. Only one of these events happened on a weekend. While I may be uniquely committed to volunteerism – a.k.a., another mockable “neurotic overachiever” – my fellow stay-at-home parents often contribute in civic-minded ways. We also bear the brunt of maintaining our families’ and communities’ social fabric. And don’t forget the blogging; stay-at-home parents’ contributions to the public consciousness through written expression ought not to be ballyhooed. In sum, stay-at-home moms can be and often are women employing their continued dynamism to society’s benefit.

Third, there’s the question of stay-at-home parenting’s rewards and price. Valenti underestimates the benefits my current job provides me. Sure, some women will relate to descriptions of the “boredom of stay-at-home momism,” but others – and not just those with experience limited to “low-paying professions” as Valenti implies – will tell you that all jobs are a mixed bag (anyone loving legal document review?) and more enjoyable to some than others thanks to individual affinities and skills (think of the guy who works the front desk at the gym grinning like a pig in shit, or the sommelier who believes civilizations rise and fall based on wine pairings). People have multiple intelligences – including types that come in handy when parenting full time like kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist – but as Susan Stiffelman notes in another context, “we live in a society where . . . the highest salaries are paid to those most proficient in mathematic and language skills. . . . We tend to minimize . . . other forms of intelligence, underestimating the value of their contribution.” Folks who choose to provide childcare for their kids rather than paying someone else to do it may actually enjoy that work; others, especially those suffering from dissatisfaction and depression, should contemplate a job change. In other words, Valenti’s “not that interesting” point doesn’t serve to invalidate stay-at-home parenting as a choice for women; it just calls into question whether too many of us are choosing it in error.

Valenti bemoans the “longer-term sacrifices borne primarily by the parent who quits: the lost promotions, raises and retirement benefits; the atrophied skills and frayed professional networks.” These are absolutely valid concerns worthy of discussion, but also on the agenda should be what women – especially “elite stay-at-home mothers” who “opt-out” of the workplace – gain. For example, Valenti takes issue with the following statement by Caitlin Flanagan: “‘The kind of relationship formed between a child and a mother who is home all day caring for him is substantively different from that formed between a child and a woman who is gone many hours a week.’” I don’t believe that “women who work[] outside the home . . . miss[] out on the joys of parenthood” or that the difference is large, categorical, or always beneficial – but I perceive a difference. In the case of my family the difference works to my advantage (and to my kids’).

But I don’t just offset this lovey-dovey connectedness (or smug self-satisfaction, depending on the viewpoint) against “the lost promotions” and whatnot. Valenti also leaves off the balance sheet the skills that stay-at-home parents develop. Like many others, I consider my decision to “opt-out” to be like choosing a sabbatical from paid labor rather than retirement. Wikipedia enlightens: “In recent times, ‘sabbatical’ has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. . . [,] typically to fulfill some goal, e.g., writing a book or traveling extensively for research.” I plan to rejoin the workforce, certainly by the time my kids begin school, and I believe I’m accomplishing something in the meantime, not just for them but for me, and not just for private-me but for professional-me. In the last four years I’ve gained patience, perspective, creativity, and unflappability. I’ve enhanced my ability to multi-task, problem-solve, network, resolve conflict, manage time, and handle “difficult” personalities and behaviors. I will certainly be a superior lawyer or teacher for this growth, perhaps even better than I would have been with four more years of work under my belt.

Finally, Valenti argues from symbolism that the institution of the stay-at-home mother tells women that “their natural role is only that of a mother.” If that’s the case, then society tells my husband that he is nothing more than a marketer, and Lord knows that’s not true. I see the point she’s getting at; there definitely are tricky identity issues involved with conflating your work and private lives. But they’re not insurmountable on an individual or institutional level.

In sum, Valenti comes off as truly wanting to both “think critically – and be critical – of parents’ choices,” but she largely sacrifices the former for the latter in a way that saddens me. She sets up the straw man of the omnisacrificial mother and knocks her down. She overreaches her arguments’ fair and logical extent in urging all stay-at-home mothers to return to the paid workforce rather than simply asking themselves probing questions. Should I change the way I approach my work? (Am I making it too hard on myself? Can I make my days more social? More societally beneficial? Do I need to carve out more time for my own interests? Get more help?) Should I make a job change? (Am I good at stay-at-home parenting? Do I enjoy it? Could I better serve the world by switching careers?) Instead, Valenti essentially says, “Oh, you’ve got a flat tire and a crack in the windshield? Go get a new car. Better yet, walk. Your emissions doom us all.” Even if you buy Valenti’s conclusion that “women should work,” she offers no insight for women who have opted out not by choice but because available full or part-time positions aren’t workable for them. Part-time work often doesn’t cover the cost of childcare, demands more than twenty hours a week, requires more labor per dollar than that asked of full-time employees, or for a host of other reasons isn’t currently a legitimate option.

In focusing more on being critical than thinking critically, Valenti puts the onus on individual women to shoehorn their desires and ambitions into the glass slipper offered by society, rather than pushing the few novel ideas she throws out (like establishing some sort of wage system for stay-at-home parents) or brainstorming others (such as institutionalized support for childcare and other domestic labor swaps among families, putting social pressure on working parents to do more around the house, bringing the concept of job-sharing to law firms so that mothers can pool their time to meet billable hours and divide the salary, or creating legal positions that do only upstream work like research or first-drafts and therefore don’t require constant or consistent availability, to toss out a few). We need real change to expand the choices available to and tenable for women, not further limitations.

Valenti’s one accomplishment in “Why Have Kids?” is fanning the flames to keep an important conversation raging so that others can do a better job than she at organizing around solutions that will help women thrive.

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