An Interview With Jessica Valenti

Jessica Valenti (the founder of Feministing, author of several patriarchy-smashing tomes, and young mother) very nicely agreed to talk to the Hairpin about her most recent book, Why Have Kids? She managed to respond to our questions despite being extravagantly ill at the time, because FEMINISM.

How did you lose the baby weight? (This is a joke.)

Ha! A strict regimen of pre-eclampsia, failing liver and hospitalization did WONDERS. Highly recommend it. Seriously though, I was irritated about that ask on so many levels. Obviously the editor hadn’t read the book or didn’t realize I was a feminist writer — and I’m sure they had no idea about my personal, medically terrifying experience. So it’s not like it was done out of animus or whatever. But still, to ask someone who has just pitched you a very political story to write about their eating habits…it just epitomized so much of what’s wrong with the way we talk about women and mothering in the media. I also hate to sound all smelling salts about it, but it was personally upsetting. Right after Layla was born whenever I met someone new and it came up that I just had a baby, they’d almost always “compliment” me on how thin I was. To me, though, being thin felt like being empty — like I was missing this baby that was supposed to still be there. So yeah. Fuck that.

I’d love to talk a little about the odd blend of anti-consumerist feminism on one hand and deeply conservative attitudes on the other that you find in the quote-unquote natural parenting movement (anti-vaxxers from opposite political poles, etc.). Why is our obsession with ‘good’ motherhood the point of convergence?

Yes for sure. At the core of it, I think, is a distrust of institutions — which for women, makes a lot of sense to me. The feminism at the heart of the homebirth movement, for example, is women being fed up with their bodies being pathologized and being told that they need all of these medical interventions to give birth. I get that. The medical establishment — and the government — has spent forever telling women they don’t know what is up with their own bodies, so it’s understandable that there’s a backlash against that. But there’s a difference between having a healthy skepticism of traditionally sexist institutions and believing that your “instinct” trumps science and established fact — which is what the anti-vaccination movement is very much about. I also think that a lot of the “natural” motherhood stuff as espoused by Dr. Sears is extremely consumerist — I mean, Sears has become a parenthood empire. But yes, the point of convergence always is “good motherhood” in that so long as we’re doing something in the name of being Best Mom Ever, it’s all good.

If you’d written this book when Layla was a little older, I suspect there would have been a chapter on the homeschooling movement (speaking of odd bedfellows!). What are your thoughts on the rising popularity of secular homeschooling/unschooling/Waldorf?

I’m sure that’s true! I’ve heard the feminist arguments for homeschooling or “unschooling” and I sympathize with the idea that our current model isn’t the best and that our educational system often reinforces sexism, racism and classism. That said, I’m skeptical of solutions that focus on the individual over the community.

I think it’s up to all of us to try to change the educational system. If you’re an activist for social change, it seems to me that you should be working to change these structures not just for your kids — but for everybody’s kids. Maybe homeschooling is awesome for your kid, maybe it means they won’t be subject to sexist indoctrination…but what about every other child in your community? How many people have the privilege of being able to stay at home and homeschool their kids? I just think children, broadly, would be better served with parents making a ruckus in our existing school system — not taking their individual kids out.

This is a little off-topic, though mentioned briefly in the book, but the issue of ‘Roe for Men’ is always fascinating to me. I actually have a ton of sympathy for men who find they have fathered children they do not want their partners to give birth to, as the experience of an unplanned pregnancy is a terrifying prospect for anyone. I don’t think there will ever be a workable legal remedy, and I agree that once a child is born, he or she is entitled to support from both parents, it just…sucks. I feel as though we can be overly dismissive of the concept. It’s bizarre to me to hear other women saying ‘well, he should have thought of that before he had sex/didn’t wear a condom,’ etc., as though we haven’t been fighting the good fight against bullshit statements like that for decades. Even if there’s no remedy, I think we could acknowledge that it’s unfortunate for men to fundamentally lack reproductive choice. This is barely a question, I’d just love to hear more of your thoughts on the matter.

I also have sympathy, for sure — but as you said, there’s no real legal remedy so long as women are the ones who give birth. So unless we’re going to get all Shulamith Firestone about it, this is what we’ve got. I think I would be more concerned for men if 1) Women actually had total reproductive freedom in the U.S., which of course we don’t and 2) If the men leading the charge with this “Roe for Men” stuff weren’t such blatant misogynists.

I love that you discuss the ridiculous racism implicit in the whole ‘African babies don’t cry’ sphere of attachment parenting, as though there’s some kind of mystical pan-African tribal utopia in which babies blissfully snooze the day away on their mom’s chests. I’m sorry, I’m pretty sure there are working moms in Johannesburg sweating to pay for daycare. Where does this come from? I definitely found a lot of value in the various anthro-y parenting tomes, but WHY are we making women feel inadequate for failing to parent in a manner which is only sustainable in a society that supports it?

Ahhhhh yes — I will never forget the moment I was looking at websites for Elimination Communication (a parenting style where you watch your weeks-old baby for facial cues that they need to “eliminate” and run them to the toilet accordingly). There was a line that said, “Elimination Communication — not just for African bush women!” And my jaw hit the floor. Among a certain sect of middle and upper middle class white mothers, there is this fetishization of so-called Third World moms. As if there’s this monolithic natural “Other” mom that epitomizes what real motherhood is supposed to look like without the trappings of Western culture. I get that a lot of it comes from this place of wanting to get past the horrifying parental advice industry — but it’s really quite racist. Moms do different things throughout the world! Babies wearing diapers is ok, really!

Oh, let’s talk breastfeeding. I’m going to give it the old college try again with my next baby, because I think it has a ton of value, but I’m thrilled when I hear women say it CAN be a shackle. Can a truck stop waitress breastfeed? Can she exclusively pump? What about when it’s her third child? I actually want to apologize to you, by the way: I read a blog post of yours via “The Feminist Breeder” in which you were critiquing certain policies at baby-friendly hospitals, and I absolutely disagreed with you and felt smug (I didn’t write about it, or anything), and I read it again after having a baby and felt like a total douche-waffle. I have seen ADOPTIVE mothers shamed on mothering forums for not ‘trying’ to induce lactation via, you know, Reglan and domperidone. I do wonder if I would have had a happier time those first few months if I wasn’t trying to stuff a nipple into my daughter’s mouth 24/7. In the book, when you mentioned that a friend of yours almost accidentally starved her baby, I looked back through my very early baby pictures for Amelia, and she was so, so painfully scrawny until I started supplementing. And I didn’t see it. I just kept breastfeeding every twenty minutes waiting for some kind of supply/demand alchemy to kick in. But people are nice about it, because I tried so hard. That’s bullshit. Why do we need to try THAT hard? Who do you need to make your ‘I tried hard enough’ application to?

Haha, I have felt smug over so many things and then felt silly about it — so no need to apologize. I actually was pretty sanctimonious about breastfeeding until I became a parent. I remember a girlfriend of mine was pregnant and I asked her about breastfeeding (in retrospect: WHY was this any of my business?) and she said she just didn’t want to do it. Didn’t want to try, wasn’t interested. I was horrified and shittily smug.

When I had Layla, reality smacked me dead in the face. It was like, guess what traumatized lady — no fucking way are your breasts going to pump anything CLOSE to what your baby needs! I didn’t know that though, because Layla couldn’t digest food for the first few weeks and was fed intravenously. So until her digestive tract developed I pumped constantly. I thought I was a total pro until she was able to take the milk and went through my supply in no time. The day she had her first bit of formula, I was the most devastated I had been since having her. I felt like I was a total failure and now my baby had to have poison. It was ridiculous. So I went to pumping over 5 hours a day. When I expressed concern to someone that I wasn’t going to be able to work and pump that much they said, “What’s more important — your job or feeding your baby?” So yeah, total mind fuck. The day I stopped breastfeeding for nutrition and just let her do her thing for funsies and to fall asleep was the first good day I had parenting. It’s what eventually allowed me to bond with her.

I think we’re so obsessed with ensuring that women prove that they do everything for their children, no matter how much it hurts or is causing mental distress. And then if you complain about these things, it’s just — oh, you’re not doing it right TRY HARDER.

The bravest, and possibly most controversial phrase in your book, I think, is: “…my other desires, ambitions, and beliefs are as much a part of me, maybe even more, than being a parent.”

Can you expand? I love hearing women speak honestly about not placing their child at the center of their universe.

I love my daughter more than anything and anyone — but I don’t see raising her as my life’s mission or the most important thing I will ever do. It’s the most important relationship I’ll ever have, I’m sure. But Layla isn’t a work product, you know? I want her to feel loved and important and to be an ethical, independent kid. I do that, and I can help her be the person she’s going to be, without making “mother” my primary identity. To be clear — I’m not saying that’s a “wrong” or less wonderful identity to have than any other. But for me, I’m not a mother first. I’m a person first, and being a mother is one part of me. I also have enough confidence in my relationship with Layla that I know she will never doubt the depth of my love for her.

I think this “mom first” framework is really troubling, actually. It’s why we venerate moms who are killing themselves to subsume their identity into their children. It’s even why every so often you’ll see some media story about a pregnant woman who refused to undergo chemo and died so her baby could live. That’s a brave choice to make, to be sure, but framing women who die as the best moms of all makes me mighty uncomfortable. Poe once said that “the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetic topic in the world.” I see those stories as sort of conforming to that narrative. I tried to do it myself — when I was in the hospital and things were getting pretty bad, they told me they were going to induce me soon. I tried to convince them and my husband to let me take on more risks health-wise to keep her in longer. It was stupid, actually, because me getting sicker didn’t do her any favors — but I think at the heart of it, I knew that a “good” mom would make it absolutely clear that her health and life came second. I derived some sort of perverse pride from it — maybe I still do, actually — but all it did was hold up what was an inevitable end to the pregnancy.

Because your book is more of a societal diagnostic than a ‘we should do x,’ you only briefly touch on the social infrastructure you think would help mothers. Let’s talk more about daycare, paid mat leave, paternity leave, etc. Which nations do a better job (without going broke)?

Everyone? I mean seriously, we’re very much at the bottom of the barrel here. Scandinavian countries are the ideal — naturally. It seems like you can’t have an article or book about child care without some sort of glowing section dedicated to Sweden. I think what’s really interesting about Sweden is that in addition to providing both maternity and paternity leave, they dealt with the fact that fathers at first weren’t taking advantage of the paternity leave. There’s a cultural roadblock there. So they created incentives in the form of lost subsidies if dads don’t take off. Now something like 85% of dads in Sweden take some time off. And this is key — we definitely need paid parental leave, paid sick days, subsidized child care. But we also need some sort of plan to deal with the fact that culturally the burden for all of these issues still falls on women — there needs to be a proactive model to handle that.

I’ve warmed up to Linda Hirshman myself, but I would like to talk briefly about the idea that we could pay women on welfare less to stay home with their kids instead of paying for daycare while they try to cobble together low-paid jobs to keep receiving benefits. Why is there such a disconnect between ‘women should be moms first’ and ‘but we want to watch them sweat’? Let’s get it straight: is staying home a privilege, a sacrifice, or what?

It’s a sacrifice if you’re white and middle class. Anything other than that and you’re lazy, apparently. The way we look at moms who stay at home is, obviously, through a lens colored by race and class. The truth is that most moms can’t afford to stay at home; most families need two incomes. But then you also have couples where the moms say that child care is too expensive and it makes more sense for them to stay home (and of course because of pay inequity and cultural norms, in straight couples it’s almost always the woman for whom this “makes sense” the most). Linda Hirshman got a lot of flak because of her focus on elite moms, but she makes a convincing argument that what elite moms do matter because it becomes what is considered “right” or desirable. She also really changed my mind around ideas of “choice feminism” — or the idea that we shouldn’t judge what a woman does because feminism is all about choices. But feminism is absolutely not about supporting a woman no matter what she does — it’s about analyzing and changing structural inequities. So it’s important that we talk about the cultural impact of some women staying at home instead of working — it means that our choices matter.

While I absolutely love the book, and the conversations it’s spawning, I do try to remember that, say, attachment parenting, although it seems like 90% of people I know are trying to do it, is a BLIP on our nation’s radar. Most babies are on formula, most babies are in daycare, most babies are vaxx’d, most boys are circumcised, etc. I hate to pick on people who are already on the fringes for trying to defend their choices, many of which are great, sensible choices. How can women attempt to agitate for issues which ARE choices without being judgmental? One could say, never, but if you think that circumsion is genuinely wrong, do you say so to other moms? Do you try to convince people? When is it ‘mommy wars’ and when is it ‘lobbying for change’?

Well here’s the thing — they may be on the fringes population-wise, but not in terms of their cultural power and significance. And I don’t see it as “picking on” as much as I do thinking critically. But maybe that’s a fancy way to say picking on, I don’t know. And some of these issues — like anti-vaccination — have a huge impact even if they’re just practiced by a few people. The CDC says the whooping cough epidemic is at the worst its been in 50 years. If you can watch a video of a kid suffering with whooping cough and still not vaccinate…I don’t even know what to say. So that’s a tremendous public health issue. But with all of these issues, it’s always going to be painted as “mommy wars” so long as it’s women debating things. The difference for me in terms of what we should be focused on is lobbying individual mothers versus trying to create systemic change. It seems to me that all of this nastiness on mom boards and blogs (and I’m sorry, there IS a lot of nastiness) is a distraction that keeps us from politically mobilizing. So no, I’m probably not going to say to an individual mom that I think such and such is wrong (unless it’s vaccination then I’m just going to make sure my kid goes nowhere near her kid) because it’s not likely to create change that has any lasting impact.

OH, one last question, because it’s part of the book and definitely part of our readership, but to what extent is the childfree movement (holla, childfree ladies!) gaining greater traction BECAUSE motherhood is looking more like a gulag and less like Candyland every year? Obviously, people are not childfree because of ludicrous parenting standards, but they might be noisier about it.

I think that’s a part of it — sure. There’s more transparency about what having children looks like. But it also seems to me, from the folks I’ve spoken to, that a lot of them always knew they didn’t want kids or they always felt ambivalent about it. Now, we’re getting to a place where it’s more acceptable to express that ambivalence (though obviously there is still a stigma attached to being childfree by choice). There is just no logic attached to questioning childfree people as to why they didn’t have kids — it’s all cultural expectations. A third of births in the U.S. are unintended — that’s fucked up. That’s what we want to get away from. We don’t ask parents why they had kids — even though we’re the ones bringing new people in the world. Childfree folks are just maintaining…the only reason to question them is that as a culture we simply cannot fathom the idea that a woman (men get a lot less shit) might not crave kids on this intense biological level.

You can read an excerpt from ‘Why Have Kids’ here, and if you’d like to berate Jessica in person, she will be at the 92YTribeca Mainstage tonight at 7 p.m. for a panel on modern parenting and happiness.