I’ve been avoiding writing about Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids? for more than a month now. A friend handed out copies to our baby group, and so I feel a little bound not to say only bad things, but I’m groping for good things. It’s not only that I don’t identify with the dilemma she poses, but also that I find her input fundamentally destructive.
Valenti is a blogger who wrote the book during her first year of motherhood (I think her baby is younger then K). It’s about the disappointment that she faced when she couldn’t live up to the perfect image of motherhood, and then moves on to an attack on the way that an image of perfect motherhood is used to make women feel bad–not just mother’s, but all women who are made to feel like it is necessary to be a mother to be fulfilled. It’s not really clear who does this oppression, but at various times she blames just about everybody, the medical establishment, the media, politicians, etc.
The simplest reason that I resent the book is that it just isn’t necessary. There is a lot of room and reason for critiquing American parenthood, but Valenti is mostly interested in making a loud bang and scoring some points. It’s like piling onto a bar fight. At best, you’re just adding to the noise and confusion; at worst, you’re pointlessly adding to the number of people hurt.
Another reason for resentment is that I just don’t feel like I live in the same world as Valenti. She is, for example, is particularly incensed by the “soul-crushing drudgery of day-to-day parenthood that we’re too embarrassed to talk about” (xvii). But who on earth gave her the idea that parenting was going to be easy and not involve an enormous amount of housework? She seems to blame Dr. Sears for telling her that she would spend all day cuddling in perfect bliss, which is probably proof she didn’t read The Baby Book very well. That book is full of information about dealing with fussy baby’s and changing diapers and anecdotes of just how crazy difficult it is to raise a kid. And who on earth isn’t talking about the drudgery of parenting? In my baby group that’s the better part of the conversation; people aren’t embarrassed to talk about it, they’re relieved.
I suppose I should be grateful to Valenti for this then. She crystalized my feelings about parenting as work. My previous job as a professor involved a lot of grind of course. Piles of papers to grade, reports to write up, meetings to attend, that kind of thing. But with a child, that grind all means something. It’s not that it doesn’t sometimes make me want to tear at my hair when K runs away from me as soon as I mention her messy diaper, or that she fights like a cat to keep me from putting her pants on, but there’s no question in my mind that I’m learning something in every battle, and that she is too.
But the grind of parenting as a stay at home dad has taught me something I think I could never have learned any other way. Maybe Jackson Pollack, in the middle of the thousandth drip of paint, sighed and wished he could be watching television, but when he went back to work he knew why he was doing it. Even if the canvas he was working on was turning out spectacularly bad, he must have known this was what he wanted to do.
Diapers are like that. It’s not exactly that they are to be enjoyed, but for me they are a reminder that K and I profoundly linked, and that when she is grown, I will know her in a way that only Ko and I do.