Growing up in a big family, Jessica Valenti loved babies and always knew she wanted kids. But the stress of parenting a 2-pound preemie, born after preeclampsia and an emergency C-section, hit her hard. It was two months before her daughter could go home from the hospital, and even when her baby’s health stabilized, Valenti struggled with a feeling no parenting book had prepared her for.
“It wasn’t unhappiness so much as an unsettling sense of dissatisfaction, an itch of emptiness that was accompanied by overwhelming shame for not feeling ‘completed’ by parenthood,” she writes in her new book, “Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness” (New Harvest). We talked to Valenti, 33, founder of Feministing.com, about the sky-high expectations surrounding modern motherhood. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Studies consistently show that parenting doesn’t make you happier. Why not?
A: This idea that children bring joy, which parents give as the No. 1 reason they want to have children, is a relatively modern phenomenon. We used to have kids to raise good citizens and to help out on the farm.
Now, it’s become less about community and more about individualism: I want kids to make my life happy. The expectation is part of the problem. And of course, the big issue is that we idealize parenting to this ridiculous degree in the U.S., but have very little in the way of structural supports that actually make parenting easier.
Q: Having read your book, I’m now suspicious of people praising me really highly for doing unpaid work.
A: Exactly! It’s placating. It’s a Mother’s Day sentiment made to make you feel OK about doing a tremendous amount of unpaid and undervalued labor. I just don’t understand how any mother could really believe that motherhood is valued in this country.
I’m not even making the ‘70s wages-for-housework argument, although I wouldn’t be against that. I’m talking about things like subsidized child care. Currently the most basic supports for parents are somehow seen as controversial because it’s “my kids, my responsibility.”
Q: We’re so committed to that mindset; we’re so committed to making the work-life balance work on the personal level – are you saying it really can’t?
A: I don’t know if it can, it depends on the person. But I think the expectation – the having-it-all framework – it’s unrealistic. What does that even mean? I feel like that whole conversation makes the goals so nebulous, as to not make it clear what we should really be fighting for. If satisfaction is the end goal, what do you do to get that?
That’s going to be a different set of actions for every person. It used to be that the end goal, at least from a feminist perspective, was social justice and equality, not happiness and satisfaction.