Today I’m very excited to welcome Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and author of several books including her brand-new title Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores The Truth About Parenting And Happiness.
Jessica has been hailed as one of the most influential female voices of the last decade, so it’s not surprising that after she had her first child – a daughter named Layla – she had plenty to say about the culture of modern motherhood.
Though Jessica’s book and my book The Happiest Mom and blog have different purposes and sometimes reach different conclusions, it was fun to see how much we have in common when it comes to espousing a more relaxed, less intensive style of parenting that’s less stressful for both moms and kids.
Read on to see my discussion with Jessica, and get a peek inside the book below!
Meagan: As a woman who had my first child (unplanned) at the age of 20, relying more on handed-down wisdom from my mother and sister than advice from parenting books or experts, it sometimes surprises people when I tell them that I made a relatively easy transition to motherhood. It wasn’t until later when I started hanging out with more established, older, well-to-do moms online that I began to realize what a high-stakes, high-pressure job motherhood was held up to be. Do you think ignorance can be bliss?
Jessica: Sometimes, yes! I definitely think there’s a link between parenting related stress and unhappiness and the parental advice industry. I mean, it’s like the beauty industry – they only make money if you feel bad or inadequate about your looks. Similarly, parenting advice manuals are only going to sell if you feel unsure about your ability to parent. So your experience makes a lot of sense to me!
Meagan: Though I am an advocate for happier motherhood and believe moms can and deserve to be happy people, I think it’s downright unfair to expect kids to make us happy! Do you make a distinction here as well? How do you think parents can pursue their own happiness if it doesn’t come from the kids themselves?
Jessica: Yes, absolutely! The idea of having kids for the pure joy of it is a relatively new one – Americans used to have children to help out with the family store or to create good citizens. But with the rise of individualism, we’ve seen this expectation that having children should make you feel happy or complete. I think that’s a lot of pressure to put on a kid – and it’s an unrealistic expectation for ourselves as well! There’s no way that one person can be everything to you, especially a child. I derive a lot of happiness and joy from parenting, but I like to look at it as a bonus, not a given.
Meagan: Now that I’m moving into the big kid and teen years with my older children, I’m finding that mom guilt/pressure doesn’t go away, it just morphs into something new. Now it’s all about how to help my kids get better grades, get them into the “right” colleges or fork over lots of money for expensive athletics and enrichment programs…the judgment seems to be quieter and less shrill than it was when my oldest were babies, but it’s still there just check out the comments on my post about how I don’t feel I owe my kids a college education! I wonder if you’ve thought about the issues you’ll face as your daughter gets older, and how the cultural pressures you write about surrounding birth, breastfeeding and baby care come into play with older children.
Jessica: Oh, man – don’t tell me this! I was kind of hoping it would get easier. Seriously though – this doesn’t shock me. It’s interesting that the judgement is a “quieter” type. The issue I worry most about as my daughter gets older is how I’m going to talk with her about sexism and sexuality — I see heaps of judgement already put on moms who have daughters who dress a certain way or are sexually active. So that’s definitely in my mind. I actually am with you on the not paying for college front — my husband disagrees, so we’ll see! It seems like with other younger kid hot-button issues the problem here is the expectation that there is one right answer for every family. There’s not.
Meagan: Since you quoted my essay on why I don’t think motherhood is the hardest job in the world, I just had to comment on your chapter on that subject! I especially loved this passage: “We’re important because we’re one of the people that love and care for a growing human. But if we want to take some joy in that experience, we need to let go of the notion that we are the only ones who can do it correctly, and that if we are doing it right, it should mean some sort of suffering or tremendous self-sacrifice.” Yes. This is essentially my entire philosophy of motherhood, tied up into a neat and well-written little bundle. So thank you.
Jessica: Ha, you’re welcome! And thank you for your great essay. The “most important job in the world” phrase and sentiment has always really bothered me. It’s just such an empty platitude (and we’re seeing it a lot right now with Romney actually!). It’s like, if you think motherhood or parenting is so important — why don’t we have paid leave? Why don’t we pay moms? And why don’t more men do it?! And as you said, the personal aspect of that belief is also too overwhelming and unrealistic — my daughter is my daughter, not my job.
Meagan: Like my mother, I had children young, have spent significant time in the home without traditional work experience, and love to play a nurturing central role in my household. Yet I feel like I have so many more choices than my mother did, and so many more opportunities, and can indulge that side of myself while also being an ambitious career woman. And I feel like I see so many other women doing the same thing. Do you think that social networking, the internet, etc, is actually making it more possible for more women to choose something between opting out and opting in? In other words, is “personal choice” becoming a different animal — and a different debate — than it was ten or fifteen or twenty years ago?
Jessica: This is a great question. I hope that this is the case — that the notion of “choice” is changing as the world and technology does. Certainly that’s how it’s been in my case. I’m lucky enough to work from home — and while that does bring up its own set of unique issues in our parenting (ie, my job is always seen as the more flexible one, so if Layla gets sick I’m the one to give up working that day) it’s been great. And the internet is really what’s allowed me to do that. I think that for most American women though, there is very little in the way of choices that are financially feasible and emotionally fulfilling.
So yes, that’s why you see so many of us — and fathers, for that matter — trying to create our own flexible situations. But most parents don’t have that luxury. That really needs to change — I think the first step is that we need to start talking about these issues not as personal ones that we have to deal with individually, but political ones that the country and parents should take action on collectively.
Meagan: When I talk to other women about the way their mothers parented, I get the sense that it was much more OK to be hands-off to the point that would be considered neglectful today, and that moms felt more confident being relaxed parents. Have we gotten to the point where we know too much to be as matter-of-fact about parenthood as previous generations of moms might have had the luxury of being? Is there a happy medium between tying kids to trees to keep them from running away and parking strollers full of babies outside while grocery shopping a la 1950s moms, and the current ultra-hands-on, panicky, don’t take your eyes off them for a second!’ style of parenting we’ve all become accustomed to?
Jessica: I do think there’s a happy medium! The trick is that we have to accept that medium as being the best thing for our kids, rather than something we settled for. I think a lot of us look at that somewhat relaxed, non-panicked parenting as giving up a little, when in fact it’s the best thing we could do for our kids and ourselves.
I don’t know if that we know too much, though, it feels to me as if those of us who are trying the “ultra hands-on” parenting, as you put it, do that because of fear. My take on this has really been shaped by own experience with childbirth and parenting — I developed life threatening problems in pregnancy and had my daughter almost three months early. The world is uncontrollable and scary — especially when it comes to our kids, these little beings we love so much who are out in the world. So we focus on the minutiae to make us feel like we have a handle on things. It’s self-protective. I get that.
Thanks for the great discussion, Jessica!
To find out why Jessica thinks society “over values,” moms check out: Selling Ourselves Short: Is motherhood really the hardest job in the world? on Babble!
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