In both its spoken and written forms, the English language is constantly evolving. Grammar - the system and structure that underpin communications - and linguistics - the science of its study - can help us make sense of these shifts and changes. We talk with experts in each field about the quirks, foibles, understanding and glory of the written and spoken word.
Celebrations of motherhood pervade pop culture, politics and the publishing industry. All this led Jessica Valenti to wonder if American culture allows for only two categories of women: mothers and future mothers. Valenti joins us to take an honest look at why we have kids and how making motherhood a default expectation could be hurting American women.
- Jessica Valenti Author, "Why Have Kids?: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness"; founder, Feministing.com
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. A tiger mom tells us an unwavering hand raises the perfect child. An American in Paris explains babies need space to blossom. Motherhood permeates pop culture and political conversations. Ann Romney speaks of the deep love of a mother and Michelle Obama says her most important title is mom in chief. This might leave some women wondering, what if I don't want to be a mom?
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJessica Valenti, a feminist writer and mother is encouraging us -- all of us to think about motherhood as a choice not a default expectation. She's here to help us explore the realities of modern parenting. Jessica Valenti is the founder of Feministing, a blog for young feminists. Today she writes for the Nation and is author of three books, the latest being "Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness." Jessica Valenti joins us in studio. Welcome, good to see you.
MS. JESSICA VALENTIGood to see you. Thanks for having me on.
NNAMDIFirst things first, you identify as a feminist which can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people in groups. How do you define feminist?
VALENTII usually define it just using the dictionary definition, which is fighting for social economic and political equality 'cause it's nice and simple. And it's also a strategic choice. I think it's a definition that a lot of people can relate to. I think there are a lot of people out there who have feminist values. They believe in feminist issues but they're hesitant to use the word feminist so I try to make it as accessible as I possibly can.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join this conversation. We can start with do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not, 800-433-88500? Earlier this month an assistant professor at American University breast fed her sick child during class which quickly made the national news. How does that story and the varied reactions to it highlight the challenges that parents and women in particular face in the workplace?
VALENTII thought that was a really interesting story and particular because it became about whether or not this professor had the right to breastfeed in public and whether or not that was offensive to students. What I thought was the more interesting angle to this story was that she didn't feel like she could take the day off. What about paid sick days, right? Why is it that someone who's a college professor is so afraid of missing a day of class that they would rather bring their sick child to class then stay at home? And I think those kind of broader structural issues are much more important than whether or not a woman has a right to feed her kid in public, which of course she does.
NNAMDIWell, a lot of that has to do with the cost of daycare, does it not?
VALENTIIt definitely has to do with the cost of daycare. And of course, you know, if your child is sick you can't bring your child to daycare rightfully, so -- because you don't want to get the other children sick. But there needs to be some sort of options in place so that parents with sick kids can do something.
NNAMDIWhat changes in policy or cultural attitude do you think can provide these kind -- prevent these kinds of conflicts?
VALENTII think that, you know, part of it is just straight sexism, you know, where we see breasts all the time in public spaces but we see them in this very sexualized way. We don't see them as they're for babies, they're for feeding. So I think in part, you know, it's trying to fight for a cultural shift in the way that we see women's bodies. But we certainly also need policy as well, not just kind of on the state level, but in schools and in workplaces.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. You wrote -- you said on CNN that the real issue isn't whether a professor bared her breast in class or students are adults and should be able to handle seeing the simple act of a mother feeding her child. If she felt she had so few options when her daughter because ill, imagine what happens to mothers who work in the service industry or who don't get sick days at all. Breasts are not what is outrageous here. It's the policies.
VALENTIExactly. You know, we're talking about a woman who is relatively privileged. She's a college professor. She has a good job. She has benefits. For the vast majority of mothers this is not necessarily the case. You know, if you're pumping -- if you need a place to pump and you're breastfeeding most workplaces don't provide that. You can't necessarily bring your child to work. Just the mere fact that she could bring her child to work with her is an incredible privilege.
NNAMDIStudies show mothers earn 14 percent less than non-moms and are less likely to be hired even with the same qualifications. What do you attribute this apparent discrimination against mothers to?
VALENTII mean, I think that's just absolutely straight sexism. The assumption is that mothers are not going to work as hard, that they're going to need to leave early, you know. And there was actually a Cornell study that showed when they put two resumes in front of employers and they were the exact same resume except one was very clearly a mother and one was very clearly not, almost all of the time they picked the woman who was not the mother.
NNAMDIWe talked with Lilly Ledbetter in Charlotte when we were there for the Democratic National Convention and she said, this is not just a women's issue. Everything falls into a family category. An equal play from equal work, it can be a single woman, she still has a family. She's got a mother, father, maybe brothers, sisters. It's a family issue. If women are not paid equally and equitably when they're entitled to under the law, it not only affects their everyday lives, it affects the family's, it affects their future, their retirement. And once you get behind you never catch up, is what she said.
VALENTIIt's true. And I try to hit on this in the book as well, that this is not just a women's issue. It's a parenting issue but of course the majority of kind of media coverage we see about this, the majority of books that are written about parenting argue towards mothers. And as long as we kind of continue with that framework I don't think that we're going to see real cultural change.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing, a blog for young feminists. Today she writes for the Nation. She is the author of three books, the latest is "Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness." If you have children, how did you have your expectations of parenting aligned or differed from reality? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIWhen Ohio Governor John Kasich said that he was grateful for his wife's household work, you called for the governor to really value domestic work, that is monetarily with actual wages. What would that look like in practice?
VALENTIYou know, I'm not sure what it would look like in practice, but I think it's really interesting that we continue to have this conversation about how valuable motherhood is, how valuable domestic work is, but we're not really willing to be our money where our mouths are, or even consider that that could be an option. You know, back in the '60s and '70s, there were all of these sorts of wages for housework campaigns and those have really fallen by the wayside. And those -- you know, that's on the radical end of things.
VALENTIWe're still not -- we don't even have a fight for paid parental leave or subsidized childcare or paid sick days, which are just kind of the basic level needs I think that parents could do...
NNAMDISo you think we're regressing rather than progressing?
VALENTII don't know that we're regressing but we're certainly not progressing and we're certainly not up to par on the global scale.
NNAMDIPut on your headphones, please. We're about to go to the telephones, 800-433-8850. I go to the telephones because this is an issue we addressed earlier. Here is Kim in Alexandria, Va. Kim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KIMHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to comment on the breast thing in public and the professor. I agree that it's terrible that she didn't feel she could take a day off work. And it's even worse for people who don't have -- or are more disadvantaged. My only problem with the whole issue is that breastfeeding in public, I'm absolutely a dyed in the mold feminist, but breastfeeding in public I feel is rude only because it makes other people uncomfortable. And that's not fair to other people.
KIMThere are ways that you could breastfeed in public, there are (unintelligible), there are all sorts of other ways to do that. And it's not fair to everybody else if they're uncomfortable.
VALENTIYou know, I'm going to have to respectfully disagree. I think that a child's right to eat and a mother's right to breastfeed trumps people's comfort levels at the end of the day.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kim. You too can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think as a society we emphasize too much our own feelings of either convenience or comfort and that our inconvenience or discomfort becomes such a priority that other people should adjust their behavior whenever we feel either uncomfortable or inconvenienced?
VALENTII think that's a part of it and you see that -- I just read that there's an airline in Asia that's going to have baby-free zones. And as a parent who travels with her two-year-old, quite often I found this a little bit offensive. You know, I would like zones that are free from people who hog the armrests, but that's not really an option.
NNAMDIIn the 1930s, studies showed that marriages with or without kids were equally happy. But by the 1950s, childless couples were reported to be significantly happier. This trend, you argue, continues today. What do you think caused this well, surge in parental anxiety?
VALENTII think there's a couple of things. I think the most major is that today we see having children as something that we do to fulfill our lives, that we do it for the joy of it, and that's a relatively new phenomenon. So if you go into parenting thinking that is going to make you complete, that it's going to bring you a tremendous amount of joy, I think that your expectations may be a little bit dashed. That's not to say that children don't make you happy, but there's a lot of work there that's involved as well.
VALENTIAnd I also think that there's sexism there and that women in particular are told that, you know, having children is going to be the most wonderful, most amazing, most fulfilling thing that they can ever do. And when that doesn't really match the reality it can be very disappointing.
NNAMDIBut human society has always had children. It's something human beings do. What, since the 1950s it would appear, has made it take on a different kind of more special activity? Early this year a cover story in Time "Are You Mom Enough?" brought the so called mommy wars to the fore. How have, well, we the media contributed to the anxiety about being a good enough mother by being a fulfilling experience?
VALENTIYeah, you know, I think part of it is this kind of rise of American individualism where we used to, you know, see having kids as raising good citizens and being part of a community. Now we see it again, to make our lives happier, to make our lives more complete. And that does lead to a lot of disappointment, in particular with women who are told, you know, you not only have to love your kids and care for your kids, they have to be the center of your universe if you're going to be a good mother.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Our guest is Jessica Valenti. We move on now to Jess in Winchester, Va. Jess, your turn.
JESSHello, Kojo, hello, Jessica. I was calling because I'm extremely -- I consider myself a very extremely feministic person. I was raised in a matriarchal family and I have to say that what she's hitting on with the motherhood aspect where, you know, it has to be the center of your universe, I have found that that's absolutely true. And with my family in particular there was a lot of discontent I think when, you know, the children came along and it wasn't everything that they thought it was going to be.
JESSWe found a lot of resistance in that from our parents and I just -- I think that having a more realistic view of what to expect will allow the mothers to not feel so guilty when they're not thinking about their kids at 11:00 at night after a long day of taking care of them. I think that, you know, it's really important to allow the mother to not feel guilty at all times, which I feel like is pretty much what all mothers feel like. If they have to work, you know, then they feel guilty. If they have to bring their kids out then they feel guilty, you know.
JESSAnd I feel like it also contributes a lot to spoiling because, you know, if the kid's out there screaming and the mom feels guilty and the people around are staring she's more likely to give in to what the child wants. And in turn the child learns bad behavior is okay and will continue with it. So -- and also a comment on breastfeeding. My mom breastfed us until we were three years old. She was part of La Leche. But she's really hardcore about it and she encountered many people who were against her breastfeeding out in public. And I think that kind of just fueled her fire and made her want to do it more just to get on people's nerves.
NNAMDIMaking a public statement. Here's Jessica Valenti.
VALENTIWell, you know, I think what's really important in terms of what Jess is saying is we need to make space for women to be able to be individual people first and then mothers. There's this kind of trend right now of folks saying, I'm a mom first. I'm a mom first and foremost. I think it's important that we can say, well you know, I'm a person first and then I'm a mom. And in terms of the breastfeeding, you know, I did want to say we do have still this kind of public shaming of breastfeeding mothers. But you also see that with formula feeding mothers as well. And that's something I certainly encountered when I formula fed my daughter.
NNAMDIPeople criticizing you for not taking the natural approach?
VALENTIThat's right. I had someone actually come up to me in a public café and say, you know, breast really is best, you know, and not knowing anything of my history or why I was formula feeding or anything like that.
NNAMDIIt's the proselytizing that gets to you. 800-433-8850. You've received some pretty harsh criticism for your writing on parenting. Why do you think personal attacks so often result when someone tries to have a frank discussion about raising kids in a public forum?
VALENTIWell, you know, luckily I'm used to it having been a feminist writer for a long time. But, you know, these are really -- these are political issues of course but they're also extremely personal issues. And I think mothers in particular are so used to being shamed for their choices and being made to feel guilty for their choices that when we start to have these conversations about their personal lives they can get really angry.
VALENTII think that's okay though. I think we have this idea that there's something wrong with, you know, vigorous debate among women. All of a sudden it's called cat fighting or mommy wars. To me that's just debate and talking it out.
NNAMDIJessica Valenti is our guest. Her new book is called "Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness." We're going to take a short break. If you have called stay on the line. If the lines are busy you may want to send us a Tweet at kojoshow or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Have you chosen not to have children? How did your friends and family react? You can also go to our website kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Jessica Valenti. Her new book is called "Why Have Kids: A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness." Jessica Valenti is the founder of Feministing. That's a blog for young feminists. Many women cope with the challenges of motherhood by starting a blog. How can a blogging culture help new mothers?
VALENTIYou know, I like in blogging to kind of consciousness raising groups. Back in the day with feminists when they used to sit in the living room and it was, you know, ten people talking it out. And now I think folks are doing that and finding community in just much bigger and different sorts of spaces.
NNAMDIYou write that squabbles over whether a mother should stay at home or go to work are, quoting here, "a fight over a choice that few women have." If that's the case, is there a way to shift the national debate to a more productive conversation?
VALENTIYou know, it's a difficult question because yes, you know, there are very few American women who have the "choice" of whether to stay at home with their children or not. Most American families need as much of an income as they can possibly get. That said, I do think that it's important and it's culturally relevant whether women do stay at home in large numbers and, you know, if women -- upper middle class women make the decision to stay at home I think there's been kind of this assumption of whatever a woman chooses is feminist and we shouldn't discuss it and that's her choice.
VALENTIBut that's like saying women's choices don't matter. Women's choices do matter so they should be kind of up for discussion.
NNAMDIHere is Ana in Potomac, Md. Ana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANAYes, hi. Thank you for taking my call. I just want to make a comment about women going back to work. I am a fulltime working mother. I have an active three-and-a-half year old son and I cannot imagine not working because going to work is actually my break from my actual work which is at home. Every day at 5:00 I go home and that's when my work starts. So, I mean, personally I cannot imagine not going to work because that's when I get all my adult interaction. That's where I'm appreciated for, you know, my skills and not for cooking and cleaning and, you know, my entertaining skills. And I'll take my comment off the air.
NNAMDIAna, I'm glad you said that because I'd like to add to it that Jessica Valenti says that women must believe that parenting is the hardest job in the world because the truth is, just quoting here, "too damn depressing." What is the truth and do you think it's wrong to characterize motherhood as a profession?
VALENTIYeah, I don't like characterizing motherhood as a job. I think it's a relationship, not a job. My daughter is not my work product. I don't have a boss. I don't get compensated. It's a relationship that requires a lot of hard work, to be short, some of the hardest work that I've done. But I think that when, you know, the media and American culture characterizes motherhood as the hardest job in the world or the most important job in the world, it's an empty platitude. It's a way to get us to be satisfied with doing so much hard work, even if we're working outside of the home and we're doing the second shift when we do get home.
VALENTITo be satisfied with doing that with very little support and we're just supposed to be happy with the sheer joy of it. And I don't think that's enough.
NNAMDIAnd how about the point that our caller made about being able to go to work where she has adult company where she is and being able to indulge in things that she as a person would like to indulge in that she really can't do when she's at home where she is perceived as just this mother.
VALENTII agree with that very much. You know, I am able to enjoy time with my two-year-old a lot more because I do have an outlet out in the public world. And, you know, that's not to say I'm sure that women who don't work outside the home also have those outlets and find those outlets. But it is important because staying at home with the kid, especially a young baby, can be very isolating.
NNAMDIIndeed we got a Tweet from Courtney who says, "Many of us don't want to stay home. I love my job and I love daycare. I think it makes me a better mom." But what affect did this idea of parenting or motherhood as a profession have on women who choose to stay at home with their kids?
VALENTIThat's an interesting question. You know, I think that again it's a way of framing the conversation and framing the debate to make women who make that decision to stay at home kind of happy with what they've got. And I don't think that there is enough support for them or women who work outside the home. And I would like to agree with Courtney. You know, I think that it's too bad whenever we see kind of articles about moms who work, the assumption is always, but I'd rather be home, but I, you know, wish I had more time with my kids.
VALENTIAnd with daycare especially it's too bad that daycare is seen as kind of the last best available option that there is rather than a really terrific option for kids.
NNAMDIWhen we were at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions both parties emphasized the role of mothers in our country. How do politicians on both sides of the aisle use motherhood to their benefit?
VALENTII thought that the most interesting thing about the RNC was the role that motherhood played there. I thought it was a really bad move the way they kept focusing on mothers because for me it just kept bringing the focus back to the idea that this is the party that wants to enforce motherhood. You know, there was a line -- I think that Ann Romney said something like, you know, for the family who doesn't know if they can afford to have a second child, while for that family birth control and abortion, you know, might be some good options to have.
NNAMDIWell, how about at the Democratic National Convention where the First Lady herself, an accomplished professional, described herself as primarily mom in chief.
VALENTIYeah, you know, I did -- I had a problem with that moment because it does seem like all of these kind of ambitious accomplished women have -- feel the need to identify themselves as a mom first. And that's not taking away from the fact that, you know, as a woman of color, as a First Lady who's also black it's important that she be able to say that she's a mom first, considering how kind of disdainful we are of mothers who are women of color.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again we go to Andrew in Arlington, Va. Andrew, your turn.
ANDREWHi, Kojo. Great show. I'm calling mostly on behalf of my wife I guess. She is a very successful professional woman. She and I have both decided not to have children and we're both feminists unapologetically. But my wife is affected often negatively by her coworkers who are moms but taking on the work that requires afterhours work or any work that requires travel so that the mothers can be accommodated. I'd just be curious to know what you thought about that. Is that just my wife's tough luck or how should it be?
VALENTIThat's a tough question. No, I don't think that's how it should be. I think that in just the same way that workplaces should have kind of flex time and flexibility for people who are parents, I think we should have flexibility for people who aren't parents because they have outside interests and lives as well. But it is a difficult thing to enforce kind of as a policy certainly.
NNAMDIAndrew, thank you very much for your call. Trying to make another kind of connection here, where do cultural expectations surrounding motherhood and debates over reproductive rights in your view overlap and diverge?
VALENTIThat's really important and something I've been thinking about a lot, particularly as we hear more and more that women should be moms first -- that they identify as moms first. While I understand that inclination I would actually like to make an argument against calling yourself a mom first because that's what so much of the kind of rollbacks of reproductive rights depend on is the idea that women should be mothers first and foremost at any cost.
VALENTIYou look at things like the personhood amendments and those are quite literally, you know, giving -- trumping fetal rights over women's rights.
NNAMDIIn the case of which abortions would be -- the Republic National Committee Platform makes no exceptions for abortions in the case where the life of the mother is threatened. You make the argument that that in that case deprives the mother of personhood because it makes the life of the child superior, if you will, to the life of the mother.
VALENTIThat's right. And there have been cases literally where women have been in hospitals and their fetus was appointed a lawyer and they were not appointed a lawyer. So, you know, you can see this play out in a very tangible way. It's not just a conversation that we're kind of having in the ether.
NNAMDIJust wanted to pursue that for a second because the whole ideological notion, if you will, of motherhood being the most important function that a woman can perform, you're making the argument is linked at its base to the notion that that is not simply the primary function, but in the minds of many people the only function that women are really important for.
VALENTIThat's right. I mean, that's why, you know, on the one hand kind of the positive spin you see everyone talking about how important mothers are. But then that's why at the same time you see the conservative movement pushing not just to end abortion but to limit birth control. Because in their minds the most important only role that women should play is that of wife and mother.
NNAMDICongressman Todd Akin serves on the House Science Committee, yet his recent comments about legitimate rape were scientifically inaccurate. Do you think that reflects a general misunderstanding of women's issues in congress across the board?
VALENTII do and I think that anyone who doesn't understand the way that pregnancy works should be forever banned from legislating pregnancy. There should be some rule. I do think there's a -- you know, when you look at, of course, the majority of male representatives, there's this kind of lack of knowledge, of science of women's biology that's astounding really when you consider that these are people who are making laws that affect our bodies and our choices.
NNAMDIYou know how we rule. I heard, my friend told me, I've got a friend who's a doctor who told me.
NNAMDIWe go now to Diane in Warrenton, Va. Diane, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANEHi. Thanks to both of you for taking my call this afternoon. I just wanted to express my feelings with regards to feminism and the choices that I'm making to raise my three boys. I am a product of a mother who worked outside the home. And I took women study courses towards my minor in college. And one of the professors described to my class at one time that a feminist is any woman who doesn't want to be treated like a doormat. So that's kind of been my -- how I describe being a feminist to people on the outside when they have a misperception.
DIANEBut I think keeping women from just being moms or just being objects of reproduction for this -- for our society what I've chose to raise my boys with -- because I think it starts with the community, it starts at home, it starts with the village that you live in -- is women are not just sex objects. Women are not just hobbies. They are -- you know, I'm teaching my boys -- and I'm one of four girls in my family -- that women are to be respected. they are not just beautiful on the outside. They're beautiful on the inside.
DIANEYou know, my husband and I have an incredible relationship where my boys see that he cooks dinner, I cook dinner. I take them to hockey practice, he takes them to hockey practice. So my boys and what my husband and I have determined to do is to raise them in an environment where they see their parents really as equals and sharing and contributing and compromising and not just it all being stuck on one person or the other. So I think it starts within the family where there is that teaching moment. And that's all I wanted to say. I'll take the comments offline. Thank you.
NNAMDIJessica Valenti, we were having those conversations in the 1970s.
VALENTIYeah, we were having those conversations in the 1970s. And it's not that we're still having the conversation now but I think it's important that people like Diane are doing what they're doing and they're modeling a quality in the home and in their relationships. And, you know, a lot of those studies that show that parents aren't necessarily as happy as they thought they were going to be, some of those studies have been linked to the inequality in the home and the unfair division of labor, particularly when a new baby arrives.
VALENTISo it is important not just that we can have this conversation once in partnerships but that we continue to have this conversation day in and day out and that it's a proactive part of our parenting lives.
NNAMDIDiane, thank you very much for your call. Vogue recently published a story on one woman's struggle to obtain a tubal ligation or sterilization at 20 years old. Doctors said that she was too young to make that decision and it took her five years to find a doctor who would perform the procedure. And then we got this from A. J. in College Park. "I am a 42-year-old woman, childless by choice who has fought with doctors and insurance company employees, male and female, trying to get sterilized for 20 years only to be told, you'll change your mind. Because obviously my biological need to utilize my uterus for its god-given intent will kick in and overwhelm my poor confused girly brain. It hasn't happened yet.
NNAMDII'm tired of being treated like a freak because I have the audacity to think for myself and challenge social norms. I hope we can have conversations about what it means to be a parent, why one might and might not want to be a parent and under what circumstances one might and might not want to be a parent. I want all children to be wanted and raised by parents who have given some thought for what they've signed up for, including all of the unknowable situations that they can never even begin to imagine."
VALENTII think that's a great comment. You know, she prefaces by saying that, you know, the American government in America has a history of forcibly sterilizing certain communities of women. So I think it's important to say that before we get into the -- you know, the fact that there are a lot of women who would like to get tubal ligations. They would like to get kind of long forms of birth control. And they're denied it, especially younger women.
VALENTIYou know, you hear a lot from women in their 20's who want to be sterilized, going to five or six different doctors who tell them, you're going to change your mind. Don't worry. it's this very condescending sort of attitude that if you think that you don't want children you're just wrong.
NNAMDIBut what happens when guys decide that they want a similar procedure?
VALENTIIt's not quite as difficult for them. I think it's -- culturally it's much more understandable to people when men say that they don't want to have children. And when women say that they don't want to have children because motherhood is seen as, you know, a quote, unquote "natural role," it's seen as going against nature. We're doing something unnatural. Just wait it out. You'll change your mind.
NNAMDIMaria in Washington, D.C., your turn. Go ahead, please.
MARIAYes, hi. I'd like to go back to that whole comment about families, a woman being more child-centered these days because I think that's really interesting, and it kind of helps shape the character of the next generation of children, and I think that a lot of that has to do with family size and that fact that we have smaller family sizes. The fewer children you have, the more likely you're bound to go overboard in attention, and it's just harder to raise them in a way.
MARIAAnd speaking from experience, we have three children, and one of the things I like about it besides the fact that you have like three distinct personalities running around the house, which is a lot of fun, is that, you know, everybody has to learn how to wait. Everybody has to learn how to be patient. Everybody has to be tolerant, how to be resilient, and these are characteristics that have to do with family size in a way because everybody has to wait.
MARIAHowever, you know, because of economics, not everybody can do that, you know. The numbers keep getting smaller and smaller, and the other flip side of this is that if you choose to stay at home, the more children you have, the longer it's going to take you to get out to the market, and the less attractive you're going to be to the market because you've been out for longer. So it's all tightly wind I think to demographics in some way, and I'll take myself off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Maria. Jessica?
VALENTIYou know, I could see the argument about family size, but as a parent to an only child, I think there is a way to parent in a way that's not completely child centric where your child is the center of your universe that you don't need to have more kids to be able to do that. I think that it's a cultural expectation, not just for appearance, but for women specifically that your child is going to be the center of your universe and that your child needs you at all times, that they need to be stimulated at all times, that they need to be scheduled constantly, busy constantly, and I don't really think that's necessarily true.
NNAMDIThank you, Maria. Got to take a short break. When we come back, you can still call us at 800-433-8850 to talk with Jessica Valenti. You can also send email to email@example.com. How does your family balance work and kids? You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Jessica Valenti. Her new book is called "Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness." Jessica Valenti is the founder of Feministing, a blog for young feminists today. She writes for The Nation. We're taking your calls for Jessica Valenti a 800-433-8850. Natural parenting has become a bit of a flash point. If one way of parenting is natural, you ask, what are the other ways? Do you see a connection between that movement and others like the slow food or DIY movement, or is it borne out of something else entirely?
VALENTII mean, I think that they're connected certainly, but I do think -- well, to distinguish, right, there's attachment parenting which has become quite a thing, which, you know, tells mom you should breastfeed, you should co-sleep, you should wear your baby, all of which are things that I've done, but I wouldn't call it natural, you know. I kind of am against this idea of calling kind of parenthood more natural than another kind of parenthood.
VALENTIAre there kinds of parenthood that aren't natural? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, and I think it really is just another way to shame women for their parenting choices, especially when you consider a lot of these natural parenting choices are only, again quote unquote "choices" that certain people can make.
NNAMDIHere is Joyce in Fort Washington, Md. Joyce, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOYCEYes, hi. Thank you. I hold to the belief that for man, the primary life thrust is to work. So if motherhood is not primary, then what is for any woman who has a child? I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
VALENTIIf -- well, I guess I'm trying to understand the question. I think that having children can certainly be a tremendous part of your life, but I don't think that it's necessarily the one most important thing, or what you're put on earth to do is to raise a child. I mean, certainly it seems like for Joyce that's the case, and I think that's wonderful for her, but I think that we need to be equally respectful for people who do not feel that way, and I think that's part of the problem, is when you talk to people who don't have children who've decided not to have children, there's this idea that they're being selfish or they're doing something wrong, they're doing some unnatural.
NNAMDISusan in Lothian, Md. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANWonderful. Thank you for letting me on the air. I am -- I was 40 years old when I had my first child. I am stay-at-home mom now. I have a master's degree. I had a very fulfilling rewarding work career before coming to this place in life where I am a stay-at-home mom, and I just wanted to comment on the mommy wars, and I think that whether we're talking about staying at home with your kids, or returning to work full time, breastfeeding, not breastfeeding, co-sleeping, not co-sleeping, women tend to tear each other apart and really criticize one another in these horrific ways, and I think it's all rooted in the fact that we don't -- we're not necessarily comfortable with our own decisions.
SUSANBut if we were comfortable with our own decisions, we wouldn't feel the need to criticize others who are doing it differently.
SUSANAnd I was wondering what Jessica's thoughts are on that.
NNAMDIAllow me to add to that, Susan, and email we got from Laura in Takoma Park. "Thank you to Jessica for having the guts to talk about this loaded topic. I've chosen not to have children. I'd like to know when people other than close family and friends will recognize that asking a woman when she is having children, or asking why she doesn't have children are not socially acceptable questions. I've had perfect strangers question me about this, particularly on Mother's Day. No one ever poses such questions to my husband. Why don't people realize how impolite this is?" Could you link this with Susan's question?
VALENTISure. Well, you know what, with what Susan is saying, I think she brings up a good point. I do think that part of that is rooted in our feeling of inadequacy as parents, but I also think that it's in part, you know, the way the culture supports, you know, moms kind of fighting with each about these issues, is it's a distraction against the larger structural iniquities that we could really make some headway on.
VALENTIIf we're too busy kind of fretting about Time magazine's cover of the woman breastfeeding her four year old, then we're not talking about the fact that we don't have paid parental leave, or we don't have subsidized child care. To Laura's question, yes. I think it's really interesting, and that's part of the reason, you know, I titled the book "Why Have Kids?" Because it's this question that people without children get all the time. Why aren't you having kids? Why aren't you having kids?
VALENTIBut not a question that parents tend to get. But parents are the ones who are bringing another person into the world whereas, you know, people without children are just kind of maintaining the status quo. So it seems like we should probably leave them be.
NNAMDIWell, we got a tweet from Joy who asks, "Can you address the public perception of child-free women as being selfish."
VALENTISure. Again, I think that goes back to this idea of having children as the natural thing to do, having children as the most important thing women can do, and when women buck that, it's seen as supposedly selfish. I mean, it's really unbelievable to me that we're still having this conversation, but I think it's really important that we are because when you look at things like the state of women's reproductive rights, I think that all of those things are connected.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Susan. We were talking about the natural parenting movement. Well, how can that natural idea be draining on expecting or new mothers?
VALENTII think it can be drain -- I mean, with attachment parenting in particular, if you kind of by the book, the assumption is that you are supposed to be with your child at all times. Like your child's attached to you in the sling 24/7, sleeping with you, breastfeeding. It's a really unrealistic expectation from my point of view. Not just in terms of your emotional health, I think that can be really difficult, but in terms of practicality, you know. How many American women can have their babies with them 24/7?
VALENTIYou have to be extremely privileged to be able to do that, and when you're positioning this kind of parenting ideology as the best kind of parenting, then you're saying to all of these women who don't have that choice, you're not doing a good enough job. You're doing subpar parenting.
NNAMDIThere's been some debate over whether natural parenting stems from feminism. What's your take?
VALENTINo. I don't -- I mean, no, I don't think so. I think that there is -- I guess in part I should say it is. I think there's been a backlash to kind of the overmedicalization of birth and a backlash to the way that women's roles and women's voices are not taken seriously. So I think that that is part of it. So sure, in that way. But I also see it, to be honest, as framing something as feminist because we don't have a ton of power outside of the home. So it becomes easier to say I'm making a feminist choice in doing this stuff domestically because that's the power that we have.
NNAMDIWell, speaking of overmedicalization, an offshoot of natural parenting seems to be the anti-vaccination movement. How and why do you think the wealth of medical information online has fueled a mistrust or misunderstanding of professional medicine?
VALENTIYeah. This has been the most difficult subject for because for me there's no sort of nuance or equivocation about -- you should vaccinate your children, that, you know, stops. That's it. But again, I think there's been this backlash, particularly among mothers who feel like medical professionals were not listening to them, and were not listening to their, you know, quote unquote "instincts." And while I certainly sympathize with that, that doesn't trump science, and that doesn't trump the community need for vaccinations.
VALENTISomething that you see a lot within the anti-vaccination movement that I think is really interesting, but also really problematic is this idea that I'm going to do what's right for my kid. I'm not going to vaccinate my kid, but of course, what about the rest of the children that are out there. And as, you know, a mother to a child who was many months early, and who had, you know, a very weak immune system, I'm particularly sensitive about this issue.
NNAMDIOnto John in Mount Rainier, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNYes. Hi Kojo, good morning. I just want to say I saw you on the Internet today for the first time. I broke my rule of radio and saw the host. But you look younger than I thought, so congratulations.
NNAMDIHe's talking about you, Jessica, not. No. Go ahead -- go ahead, John.
JOHNSo Jessica, I wanted to help you to answer that lady. I might have to get off at any time because I'm standing here in the kitchen with my five-month-old, Maeve, right now. She's got a wooden spoon in her month, and is playing with an orange. And I just want to point out, speaking of sexism, no offense, but it's 54 minutes into your show and I haven't heard the "F" word, which would be father in this case. You know, there's about a half a million or more dads, according to the New York Times, staying at home with the children while the mother works.
JOHNThere's going to be a conference in DC October 6 for stay-at-home dads, and I just want to point out, before I stayed home, my partner and I, she works at Greenpeace, and I'm a siding contractor, and even though a couple years ago I made more money, I'm staying home and she's going to work, because we decided for example, her today interviewing the executive director of Greenpeace, Kumi, about how they closed a coal plant in downtown Chicago that saved children's lives was maybe more important than me putting siding on commercial properties in DC.
NNAMDIWell, have you, John, seen any backlash, any stigma associated with being a stay-at-home father? Because we got this email from Erik who writes, "My wife is a working engineer, and I recently became a stay-at-home day. There seems to be a social stigma against dads staying home, as if dads have somehow failed professionally and are fairly incompetent when it comes to raising kids. It is so not the case," writes Erik. "I'd like to hear your guest take on this attitude." I'd like to hear your take too, John.
JOHNWell, sure. I mean, sometimes when I'm bouncing down the street with a Baby Bjorn on, and I pass the construction workers, you know, I get a little chuckle. At least I don't get a whistle at me. But, you know, I'd like to point out that at least in my opinion, if we let men stay at home for awhile, and the women have more of a voice in running the world, perhaps we'd have an outcome that wouldn't include so many wars and other such unpleasantries.
VALENTII'm glad that John brought this up, because it is a really important point that there is kind of you see this increase in fathers who are staying at home. And there is a stigma still attached to that unfortunately because, you know, sexism hurts men too, and men are supposed to be the providers and make an income, and if they're not doing that, somehow they're not masculine or manly enough. And even kind of you see this reflected in government.
VALENTIWhen the census counts up child care, they count father's care work as babysitting, in the same way that they count, you know, daycare or nanny's. The only care work that counts as parenting is motherhood.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, John. The title question of your book is open ended. "Why Have Kids?" But I'm curious, what's the answer for you?
VALENTIThe answer for me changes every day. A couple of days ago, "Why Have Kids?" I answered with, well, my daughter asked me what do boogies do, and that for me lasted a few days.
NNAMDIWell, that's why you have kids, so you can...
NNAMDI...learn the answers to questions like that. You make it very clear that you're a happy mom, still, have you wondered what your daughter will think when she ultimately reads this book?
VALENTII have, absolutely. Everything that I write about parenthood and my daughter, I think of what will she think if she reads when she's 10, 13, 18, so I stand behind it all.
NNAMDIHere is Kristi in Frederick, Md. Kristi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KRISTIHi. Thanks for taking my call. I was talking to the screener and I said, you know, I have a six week old, and I was like...
NNAMDIWe have a screener? Go ahead, please.
KRISTISorry. I have a six week old, and I, you know, kind of get these pity looks when I say that my maternity leave is coming to an end soon, and I often struggle with how to say, no. I'm okay with that because I miss my job. I want to go back to work. I've always known that maternity leave was going to come to an end, and while I cherished my time at home, I'm very happy to go back to work, and I...
NNAMDIThe assumption being that Kristi wants to stay home. I only interrupt because we only have 30 seconds left, Jessica Valenti.
VALENTIWell, I'm very glad to hear that Kristi is happy with her six week old, and is happy to be going back to work. That seems like an ideal situation.
NNAMDIKristi, thank you very much for your call. Jessica Valenti is the founder of Feministing, a blog for young feminists. Today she writes for The Nation and is author of three books, the latest is "Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness." And I have to share this final tweet with you. Shockvalue tweets "Feminism is like God. Many profess to believe, but few are able to define it to everyone's satisfaction." Jessica Valenti, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier and Elizabeth Weinstein, with help to day from Stephannie Stokes. Also helping us, Jessica Guzman and Ryan Mixson. The engineer is Timmy Olmstead. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. See, we don't have a screener. Natalie Yuravlivker is our telephonic interceptor. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives, CD and free transcripts are available at our website kojoshow.org.
NNAMDITo share questions or comments with us, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Join us Facebook, or send a tweet to @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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