(By Vanessa Valenti)
Jessica Valenti's book "Why Have Kids?" raises questions about parenting.
A high-profile feminist and founder of the website Feministing.com, Jessica Valenti is also married and the mother of a two-year-old. Valenti, 33, of Boston, spoke with USA TODAY's Sharon Jayson about her new book Why Have Kids?, which focuses on the disconnect between expectations of parenting as pure joy versus the day-to-day reality, which isn't so easy. She raises some provocative questions, including whether to parent at all.
Q: In the book, you say that "Five times as many parenting advice books were published in 1997 as were in 1975. An industry built itself around a nation of parental worriers." You have a new parenting book. Aren't you part of this industry now?
A: I hope I'm not part of that industry. I'm kind of considering it an anti-parenting book. I am not doling out parenting advice. I'm not trying to make anyone worry about anything. My hope is that it will open up a conversation and ask questions about this framework of idealistic parenting that has been set before us that I think is pretty damaging and unrealistic.
Q: What's the problem?
A: I think that the ideal of parenting can make people unhappy. It's that this lie that they're being told by society that parenting is one thing - and when parenting is something completely different - that's what makes them unhappy. When you ask most American parents why they want to have kids, it's to bring more joy into their lives. So, when you don't feel that all-encompassing joy, it must be that something is wrong with you. I think it's dissatisfaction that the expectation was different than the reality.
Q: You say we need to stop talking about parenting as the default rather than a deliberate choice. Is it still that way?
A: It's becoming less so, but I think it's very much the default - just the way in which women's health care is centered around the idea that one day they'll become pregnant. From policy to culture, the assumption is that everyone - women in particular - will become parents. Parenting is still being considered the default rather than a proactive decision.
Q:Your book notes that after a baby arrives, once-egalitarian marriages become more traditional. How have you and your husband - both feminists - counteracted this?
A: It's been a struggle. In the beginning, the attitude was "We're feminists, let's just let things take our natural course and everything will be fine." But that's not usually how it happens. The default assumption should be that you are both the caregiver - not that mom is the primary caregiver and dad is going to help out. I also think it's a matter of letting go of control. Women are brought up to believe you are going to be the better parent and you know what's best. I don't think that's necessarily true. As much as we have to ask men to step it up, we have to take a look at ourselves and be willing to give up some of that parental power.
Q:You say that we should focus on raising our children as a community exercise. That's a throwback to the "it takes a village" idea that got attention in the 1990s. Have we gotten away from it? What should we do to refocus to the community approach?
A: We've definitely gotten away from the idea. It seems to me that culturally what's considered the best thing for a child is the one parent - preferably mom - to be at home raising them. That's about as far away from community as you can get. I don't think that's a great model for parenting or for women's lives. I think it's better for children to have multiple caregivers and be a part of a community. I think day care is terrific. Kids get to be around other kids and they're playing and they're teaching each other. When I was in college, my summer job was being a preschool teacher. I loved it, and after that experience, I said I can't wait to put my kid in day care because I could see how much they loved it. I do think we also need to reframe day care as a good choice and not the last available choice.
Q: You went to your first feminist march as a kid. How are you parenting Layla with this in mind?
A: I don't think I'm going to be forcing her to read any feminist theory or anything like that. I think the more you try to pressure kids to do things, the more they rebel anyway. In terms of toys and things like that, we do try to make sure she has a little bit of everything so she can kind of tell us what she'd like to do - even if that means sparkly tiaras.