Why Have Kids: Jessica Valenti on What Millennials Need to Know about Parenting

At the ripe old age of (nearly) 23, parenting is not anything I’ve considered seriously beyond occasionally asserting that I would totally have Joseph Gordon Levitt’s babies. My own mother has helpfully pointed out several times that my younger brother will probably have children before I do. I can now retort that if she wants grandchildren so badly, she can have them herself. Children seem way, way off in the distance, like when I have an apartment that’s bigger than 6.5’ X 8’, or a credit card, or health insurance of my very own.  

But given that the average age of a first-time mother in America is about 25 years old, and the average American man becomes a first-time father at around the same age, the question posed by Feministing.com founder Jessica Valenti in her new book is one that I (along with many other millennials) may have to ask sooner than I think — Why Have Kids?

“If parenting is making Americans unhappy, if it’s impossible to ‘have it all,’ if people don’t have the economic, social, or political structures needed to support parenting, then why do it?” Valenti ponders.

Valenti herself gave birth to her daughter, Layla Sorella, in 2010. She developed severe preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome, and had to deliver her daughter several weeks early, an emotionally and physically difficult experience for the author. (This did not, however, stop news organizations from tactlessly asking her how she lost her baby weight upon her book’s release.)

In a recent Reddit AMA, Valenti explained that her reasons for writing the book changed in the aftermath of her daughter’s birth.

“When I signed up to write Why Have Kids? I was six months pregnant and thought I was going to write a sort of polemic on feminist motherhood/pregnancy. But then I got really sick, and the birth of my daughter and her first months of life were really fraught. That changed everything for me. So the book came to be about that disconnect — the parenting ideal and the reality, and how expectations are not our friends...”

And when it comes to the question Valenti poses in her book, other young women seem to be asking themselves the same thing. At the Daily Beast, Jesse Ellison explains,

“I love kids. When my 21/2 -year-old niece reaches up to hold my hand, it brings me incomparable joy. But I also witnessed my own mother’s struggle as she juggled the demands of running a small business with those of raising me. And I’ve watched friends’ marriages tested, their careers derailed, their concerns over money and space and nannies and schedules skyrocket with the arrival of their children. I love children. I do. But I also don’t have any illusions about their being easy, and I don’t feel incomplete without them. If I end up not having any at all, that would be fine with me. I think. Right?”

Right? Wrong? I’m not sure. (I’m still wondering about that artificial wombs thing, but I guess that idea has fallen out of vogue.) And, in fact, neither are lots of other millennials, who generally care more about parenthood than they do about getting married. I spoke with Valenti via email to ask her about becoming a millennial parent, “mom-in-chief"s, and the future of feminism and families in America.

Sam Meier (SM): What questions should millennial women be asking themselves before deciding to have children? What about men? Are there differences in these questions?

Jessica Valenti (JV): Anyone who is considering having children should make that decision proactively. I don’t think that means there’s a set formula of questions we have to ask ourselves.

But right now, the default expectation in America is that we will all become parents, women especially. That needs to change.

I do think, though, that women in particular have the extra burden of having to think about equitable division of labor when it comes to child care. (It’s not something most men will usually bring up on their own!) Unfortunately, most American women still do the bulk of child care and domestic work, so that’s something you have to have not just one conversation about, but a continuing discourse about how to fairly divvy up the work.

A lot of parental unhappiness in women has been traced to that unequal division of labor.

SM: What are the best and worst habits, legacies, or trends our parents are passing down to us about parenting?

JV: That’s a great question!

I think the legacy I wish modern American parents took on more often is the “it takes a village” model of raising children. Right now, the supposed ideal for children is a single caretaker — most often women, and preferably at home. But the truth is that kids do great with multiple caregivers. We need to be thinking of daycare as a wonderful option for children, not the last available one.

SM: In your book, how do you factor in non-heterosexual parents, single parents of either gender, or child-free people?

JV: I have a chapter on being child free, and a chapter on “non-traditional” families, but I believe a lot of these issues of expectations and happiness affect people across the board.

SM: How do you think motherhood as a concept is playing out in this election? You mentioned Michelle Obama’s “mom-in-chief” self-designation in another interview. What about fatherhood, or parenthood in general?

JV: Motherhood is a huge theme right now in the election — on both sides.

What I think is particularly interesting though, is the tone deaf way the GOP is using it. This is the party that wants to enforce motherhood, and their continuing prattling on about how important mothers are, for me, really just brings attention back to the fact that they don’t support mothers and want to take away women’s reproductive rights.

Parenthood in general hasn’t been a theme, or fatherhood, because it doesn’t come with the same cultural messages that motherhood does. For Republicans in particular, they’re signaling to us what they think is important for women — what role they think is most appropriate for us.

SM: One of the accusations currently being leveled against second and third-wave feminism is the movements' failure to change child care policy in order to make it more equitable.

What are the first concrete steps to really changing child care in the U.S.? Should we be working on a social level, trying to redefine parenthood, or a policy level, or both? How does your work fit into that?

JV: Well, to be fair, second wave feminists fought very hard for child care and mothers’ rights. But there is definitely more work to do. MomsRising is a great place to look for information. We need mandated paid parental leave, paid sick days and affordable quality child care, to start off with. The political changes need to happen — but I do wonder if we need a cultural shift first in order to build the activist will...

SM: What has the reaction to your book been like, and what would the best outcome of your book be?

JV: The response has been great! I got the exact response you want when you write an opinionated book: A lot of people really love it, and some people are really angry about it. So long as it gets people talking, I’m happy.

I suppose the best outcome would be that it keeps people talking and makes folks think more critically about parenting from a cultural and political perspective. The thing I hope most of all, though, is that we can make sure parenting — mothering especially — is seen not just as a personal issue, but a political one.

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Sam Meier

Samantha Meier serves as the Identities editor at PolicyMic, where she writes on activism, gender, and new media. Sam was profiled in the New York Times for co-founding Sex Week at Harvard, and is currently working on a book about women and underground comix. Originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, she currently lives in New York.

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