I Don’t Need to Be A Mom: Jessica Valenti’s ‘Why Have Kids’

why have kids

If you’re in a heterosexual relationship in Utah, chances are you’ve felt, or are feeling, the pressure to conceive. That pressure is partly a byproduct of living amongst Mormons, people who belong to a faith which declares, “God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force.” The LDS Church is very pro-children, Utah is at the head of the pack for average household size (3.177 compared to 2.63 nationally). What that means for a lot of us is pressure to have children, pressure that, though well-intended, can often feel relentless, even for non-members of the faith. Personally, I feel a lot of pressure to have kids. I’m in a stable marriage, have a good job, graduate-level education, a house, and I’m healthy (insofar as I know). At our wedding, three out of four of our parents publicly pleaded for my partner and I to have children.

Intense external pressure to conceive, emerging desires about having a child of my own, and my need for researching all sides of a decision, led me to Jessica Valenti’s (2012) Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. I’m a fan of Jessica Valenti’s, and my short review of her book is a recommendation. I have no doubt this review is colored by the way I relate to Valenti overall, so take that for what you will. Although I sometimes find myself critiquing bits of her work, I think her feminism is constantly evolving, and she has my respect. Why Have Kids is well-written, funny, easy-to-read, and thoroughly researched. I liked the book, and I think you might too if you’re a person feeling pressure to conceive. Below are a few of the standout pieces from the book:

Parenthood is a gendered  mess that puts undue pressure on women in very specific and very damaging ways. You should know some of the risks before you dive in. 

A very specific ideal of motherhood and maternal instinct is pushed on cis-women, and it’s pushed hard to the detriment of them and their children. Valenti describes a moment when her daughter Layla, who was premature, was finally suckling away:

“I was looking down at her being nourished by my body, my eyes welling up. This was the moment I had heard about, the moment I was waiting for. The thought had no sooner crossed my mind when Layla sneezed, leaving a gigantic green-and-red booger stuck to the tip of my nipple. I realized then that there was no book or philosophy that would prepare me for parenthood. Despite my fantasy of a Dr. Sears-approved motherhood, reality hit me square in the tit” (p. 22-23).

Funny, a little gross, but funny, right?! She doesn’t just share her own story, but stories of mothers breastfeeding children until their nipples bleed, their children almost starve, and they nearly lose their minds—all in the pursuit of perfect motherhood. Why Have Kids reminds us that there is no reason to sacrifice your mental or physical health pursuing perfect motherhood, because it doesn’t exist (any human with a mother knows this).

The most important things you can do as a parent include fulfilling basic needs and providing a good ethical framework so your kid isn’t a monster to other humans. Breast feeding, unmedicated vaginal births, and homemade bento box lunches aren’t a necessary part of motherhood. We should all remember that.

It’s important to determine what is truly a desire for parenthood, and what is caving to pressure from people around you. There’s a kid’s future at stake, after all.

Valenti tells takes us back to 2008 when Nebraska decriminalized child abandonment. This “safe haven” law was meant to protect newborns from infanticide. Utah has a safe haven law, one where a parent, or anyone in custody of a newborn, can drop them off at a hospital, and staff will care for the baby without calling the police or asking questions. The problem with the Nebraska law is that it didn’t specify that a child be newly born. A couple of months into the passing of the Nebraska law, “thirty-six children had been left in state hospitals and police stations. Twenty-two of the children were over thirteen years old. A fifty-one-year-old grandmother dropped off a twelve-year-old boy. One father dropped off his entire family—nine children from ages one to seventeen. Others drove from neighboring states to drop off their children once they heard that they could abandon them without repercussion” (Valenti, 2012, p. 96).

The guy dropping off a family of nine is clearly an outlying example, but parenthood is a difficult job. A job that’s sold to people, especially moms, as the “most important job they’ll ever have,” but without the reminder that its thankless, guilt-riddled, and a lifetime commitment. The law in Nebraska changed to only protect dropping off newborns, but the age change couldn’t undo the fact that parents dropped dozens of kids off–parents who felt trapped by parenthood.

Make sure you’re committed to having children, that it’s something you really want, because no child deserves abandonment like the ones in Nebraska, and they also don’t deserve parents who would drop them off if the legislature allowed. It’s crucial that we determine that we really want to have kids, or if it’s just the parental goading, or your best friend’s new baby that makes you want to conceive.

Alright, after reading this review, it sounds a bit bleak, and it kind of is, but ultimately Why Have Kids was a stellar book. It reminded me of some of the reasons I’ve chosen not to have kids up to this point. It also reminded me that there are many different types of motherhood, just like there are many types of womanhood. It reminded me that I can be a mom who writes feminist literature like Jessica Valenti. In the end, even though I live in Utah, and even though there’s near-constant pressure for me to have children, I don’t have to. I don’t have to have kids because I’m in a position to, and Jessica Valenti’s book did its best job in reminding me of that.

I borrowed my copy of Why Have Kids from the Salt Lake County Library system, so there’s a copy to read if you’re interested after this review!

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