Our culture glamorizes being a mommy, but also frequently reminds women that they can’t “have it all.” So if parenting makes so many Americans unhappy, why do it?
Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti, a new mother the New York Times calls “a gutsy young third-wave feminist,” daringly examines everything from “mommy wars” to “tiger moms” in Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, 2012), aiming to provide a thought-provoking resource for those who want to have children, and those who don’t. In the following excerpt from the book’s introduction, Valenti discusses the thorny truth—and unsettling consequences—of the socialization and heavy “expectation of perfection” for parenthood, especially motherhood.
Most people get flowers when they give birth—I got a two-pound baby and a failing liver. Thanks to a critical bout of preeclampsia, my foray into parenthood was marked with medical urgency rather than congratulations. There were no balloons or cigars passed around, just worried glances and the hum of machines checking vital signs.
When I went in for a routine exam during my twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, I felt fine. The look on my doctor’s face when she took my blood pressure for the third time, however, made it clear that I was far from the healthy, glowing pregnant woman I imagined myself to be. Even after I was admitted to the hospital a mere ten minutes later, my husband and I figured it was all a fluke. After all, I didn’t feel sick, and we had months to go before our daughter was due.
But within two days, my liver was in danger of failing from a second pregnancy complication called HELLP syndrome, and I was rushed in for an emergency C-section. It was twenty-four hours before I was well enough to see my daughter, Layla, and almost a week before I could touch or hold her. She spent eight weeks in the hospital, over which time she endured more medical invasiveness than most adults could bear. During that time, we held it together—mostly because we had to.
Once the immediate danger was over—when my husband and I knew that Layla would be fine—that’s when my real trouble began. I was incredibly grateful to have my daughter and my health, but I couldn’t stop mourning the pregnancy and childbirth I thought I was going to have. I desperately wanted the entrance into parenthood that I expected, the one I had planned so carefully for.
Just two days before I was hospitalized I had been leisurely touring St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital wondering what kind of birth experience I wanted. I was torn between the birth center—relaxation tubs and bragging rights on giving birth “naturally”—or a hospital room, where there were sweet, sweet epidurals. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to choose what circumstances my daughter would be born under, and it certainly never crossed my mind that I could end up with a sick baby.
Later, I was thrown another parenting curveball when I didn’t feel the sense of all-encompassing joy and love for Layla that friends and family told me would come. (One friend told me that the welling of love she had for her son felt almost like an emotional orgasm.) When a colleague asked me over lunch what new-mom emotion I found most surprising, I had to admit that it was ambivalence. Now, the frightening events surrounding Layla’s birth certainly influenced how I felt about my daughter—I was too afraid to feel the incredible love I had for Layla because I still feared losing her—but as the months went by, I was able to compartmentalize the post-traumatic stress and sadness I felt about how my daughter came into the world.
This feeling was something else. Something that no baby book or words of wisdom prepared me for. It wasn’t unhappiness so much as an unsettling sense of dissatisfaction, an itch of emptiness that was accompanied with overwhelming shame for not feeling “completed” by parenthood. This was not what I expected.
Parenting needs a paradigm shift, plain and simple. The American dream of parenthood—the ideal that we’re taught to seek and live out—doesn’t come close to matching the reality, and that disconnect is making us miserable.
Fewer than 5 percent of American families employ a nanny, according to Sara Mosle in Slate. Most parents don’t spend over five hundred dollars on a stroller, or use cloth diapers. Hell, most mothers don’t even breastfeed for longer than a few months, despite all of the hoopla over breast being best. What is being presented to us as the standard of parenting—through books, magazines, and online media—is really the exception. The truth is much more thorny, and not nearly as glamorous.
Americans are desperate to figure out why, exactly, they are so dissatisfied and anxious over parenthood. They seek advice from every Tiger Mother or bebe-raiser to help with their parenting woes. But looking to other cultures—or, more accurately, generalizations about other cultures—is a fruitless search for a quick fix.
American parenting is too complex to lead one to believe that a brutal schedule of piano lessons or a croissant will magically erase the nuances and troubles that go along with raising children. Parental leave policies are woefully inadequate—if not nonexistent—at most American workplaces, and many mothers worry about losing their jobs or being forced onto the “mommy track” once their child is born. Parents are paying exorbitant amounts of money for child care, and feeling guilty to boot about dropping their kids off. Social expectations about what constitutes a good or a bad mother haunt every decision, and the rise of the parental advice industry ensures that moms and dads feel inadequate at every turn. Our children bring us joy (most of the time) but the parenting hurdles—whether systemic or personal—are still there, unchanging.
Parents can no longer smile pretty, pretending that the guilt, expectations, pressure, and everyday difficulties of raising children don’t exist or that the issues that plague so many American families can be explained away in a how-to guide.
Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan wrote the groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique about “the problem that has no name”—the everyday domestic drudgery that made a generation of women miserable. Today that problem has a name (and quite often, poopy diapers). The problem isn’t our children themselves; it’s the expectation of perfection, or, at the very least, overwhelming happiness. The seductive lie that parenting will fulfill our lives blinds Americans to the reality of having kids.
Excerpted from Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti, ©2012 by Jessica Valenti. Published by Amazon Publishing/New Harvest September 2012. All Rights Reserved.