It’s typical for me to read contemporary feminist journalism ambivalently; on the one hand, I hold a doctoral degree in Women’s Studies, and I specialized in feminist theory. On the other hand, I wrote my dissertation on evangelical women (much to the horror of some of my committee members, who didn’t stick around long). Both my faith and my commitment to at least some principles of feminism have made me suspect to members of each “camp,” though I know I’m not alone as a woman of faith who takes questions of feminism seriously.
That is all to say that I’ve been pondering Jessica Valenti’s publicity for her new book Why Have Kids? with mixed feelings. Take her recent interview, published in USAToday for example. I absolutely agree with Valenti that becoming a parent should be a thoughtful decision (something I’ve written about before) as opposed to a default position. I agree as well that the publishing industry and popular culture also love to sell anxiety to parents, but that is the nature of capitalism: create a need (usually by identifying a “flaw”) and then sell us a product (in this case, parenting manuals) to “fix” it/us/our children.
I start to disagree when Valenti discusses the idealistic joy of parenting; for one thing, it seems like new parents who are shocked by the work and downright drudgery of caring for small children haven’t actually spent much time around people with small children. I agree that the ideal exists, but a bit of time with actual children can transform that in an instant. I think part of the problem there as well is a cultural confusion between happiness and joy; I see the first as circumstantial and the second as transcendent. No, I’m not happy about changing diapers or getting thrown up on or being sleep deprived for months (maybe years) on end. There is joy there, though, that comes from my faith, and my conviction that serving others honors God, that caring for the vulnerable is pleasing to God, that raising children to know and love and obey God is likewise pleasing to God. Those jobs don’t always make me happy because they’re not always fun, but they are joyful for me.
I agree with Valenti that the task of raising children is significantly easier (and, I would add, more joyful) in community, but again, I don’t think this is ultimately a place where we see eye to eye. I think it’s great that her daughter loves daycare, but Valenti (at least in this interview), seems to ignore the fact that the good daycares she talks about are simply not available to all families. Daycare can be good when it’s good, but for whom are those kinds of centers in reach? Further, I am primarily a stay-at-home mom, and my children and I are by no means isolated. We take part in community events at the local library, local farms, the local nature center, and at church; we see neighborhood friends at the playground; we visit regularly with my parents and take part in playdates at least once a week. It sure feels like a village to me, where every day my children are exposed to different people in our community.
And no, we’re not rich either, but we’ve set up our lives intentionally to live out our values with our children—a privilege I realize that comes with at least economic stability, if not affluence. So, sure, we’re traditional, and my marriage looks more traditional after children than it did before. Valenti talks about women giving up “parental power” to accept and expect the equal support of men; that’s good advice for the kind of egalitarian marriage she describes. The underlying point is that nobody gets it all their own way, but we ought at least to consider the sacrifices we’re making as genuine, thoughtful choices instead of some kind of social requirement. After all, I’m a stay-at-home mama with a PhD and a traditional marriage, and in spite of, or maybe because of the choices feminism has made available to me, I wouldn’t have it any other way.