The motherhood mystique

Mother and baby circa 1950.

Mother and baby circa 1950. Photo: Getty

There are few matters in modern life that are subject to as much scrutiny as the ins and outs of motherhood.Whether it’s former US State Department superstar Anne Marie Slaughter lamenting the difficulties of combining parenthood with a top level job, “tiger mum” Amy Chua whipping the anxious white middle class into a frenzy that their children’s futures might be usurped by insurgent immigrants, or French iconoclast Elisabeth Badinter asserting that breastfeeding reduces women to animals, the message is clear. There is something rotten in the state of parenthood, and whatever you’re doing (even if you’re not doing anything related to parenting at all), you’re probably doing it wrong.

The latest voice to join the conversation is Jessica Valenti, the 34-year-old founder of leading Gen Y feminist blog, mother of one, and author four books including Full Frontal Feminism, The Purity Myth, and now Why Have Kids?, a zippy but politically poignant tour through the battlegrounds and contradictions of contemporary motherhood.

Why Have Kids? sets itself apart from its “mummy war” predecessors with its lack of prescriptiveness. Valenti’s issue isn’t with mothers who stay home to care for their children or with those who go to work, but with a culture that presents motherhood as a non-negotiable – something every good woman ought to do – but simultaneously depicts it as “the hardest job in the world;” a difficult and unpleasant chore that can only be done properly if the mother sacrifices her freedom, body, identity, and even, if necessary, her life.

Jessica Valenti's book.

Jessica Valenti's book.

“Part of the problem – and I think the word sacrifice is exactly right – is the idea that if you’re not sacrificing all things all the time, then you’re not being a good parent,” she told me over soft drinks recently. “But what does that mean? How far do we take it? Does ‘sacrifice’ just mean not going to the movies as often, or does it mean sacrificing your mental health?”


If that statement sounds over the top, consider these statistics. Twenty percent of new mothers experience symptoms of depression, and a 2008 study of 5000 families from the Centre of Paediatric Research at Eastern Virginia Medical School showed that one in ten fathers experience the same – and they don’t have post-baby hormones to account for the decline in mood. Another study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that 90 percent of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after they have a baby. Again and again, research has found that people who have children are less happy than those who are child-free.

It’s not that kids make their parents unhappy – to the contrary, most parents list their children as one of the greatest sources of joy in their lives. It’s that the present culture demands that they “crowd out” all sources of potential happiness.

Just as we didn’t always marry for love, it is only recently that we’ve started having children for the same reason. Before the advent of reliable birth control, becoming a parent was less a choice than it was an inevitability.

Now that we have the ability to choose when and how many children we have, Valenti says, we expect more – from our kids and from ourselves. We anticipate hard work and sleepless nights, sure, but we also expect to find that work joyful, and to feel on balance happier and more fulfilled than we did when we were childless. In turn, parents are expected to devote everything that can to nurturing their children, the implication being that if they don’t, they risk screwing them up for life.

In Why Have Kids?, Valenti repeatedly references Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist classic, The Feminine Mystique, and it’s not hard to see the parallels between the two books. When Friedan was writing in the domestic chimera of the post-World War II 1960s, women were struggling with a world that publicly defined them by their relationships with their husbands and children. Today, we are encouraged to be independent and to carve out an identity outside of our family relationships: in work, in travel, and in our friendships.

But although that independence lasts longer than it did in Friedan’s day, it is still marked with an expiration date. Once we become mothers, the narrative goes – once we become good mothers, certainly – motherhood will become the most important aspect our identities, the driving force behind our decisions, our compromises, and our value in the eyes to the people around us (sometimes literally – the latest UK research shows that new mothers can expect a $15,000 pay cut when they return to work). 

“The expectation is that your identity will be completely consumed into that of your child, if you’re a good mum,” Valenti says. “If you’re a good mother, if you’re doing it right, you should have no identity whatsoever, except for ‘so-and-so’s mum. … It does make me worried. I don’t want my daughter being raised to think that the best thing she can ever do is take care of another human being. I want her to know that she can impact the world in other ways, too.”

And just as the Feminine Mystique left Friedan’s women trapped in quiet, Betty Draper style malaise, so too does the Motherhood Mystique. In Why Have Kids?, Valenti cites a 2009 post on the website Secret Confessions, in which a woman calling herself ‘Ann’ admitted: “I am depressed. I hate being a mom. I also hate being a stay at home mom too!” The thread continued for three years, with women leaving anonymous responses about feeling trapped, at breaking point, as if their lives were over. “Motherhood feels like a prison sentence,” wrote one. “I feel like I have completely lost any thing [sic] that was me,” wrote another.

What makes the contemporary malaise different from the one Friedan described is that “women now have a way to articulate sexism,” says Valenti. Where Friedan’s mystique was literally “the problem with no name,” today’s parental anxieties have been named over and over again. As the thousands of comments on the Secret Confessions thread demonstrate, today’s unhappy mothers know perfectly well why they’re unhappy. They just don’t feel able to rearticulate motherhood in any other way.

Some of Valenti’s solutions are practical and tangible: affordable childcare, more intimately connected communities, paid parental leave for men as well as women – even enforcing men’s parental leave, Sweden style. But equally important are the changes to the way that we collectively conceive parenthood – and the ways we think about motherhood in particular.

One way to do that is to make motherhood a decision, rather than a default. “When people don’t have children, they’re still expected to explain why they don’t,” she observes. “Even though really it should be the opposite, when you consider that parents are the ones who are bringing another person into the world.”

Also key is reframing motherhood from “the hardest job in the world” back to what it really is: a relationship. “I’m not saying that parenting is not hard,” Valenti says. “Parenting is certainly very challenging and exhausting. But I don’t think that framing parenthood as a job or a profession is helpful for anyone. My daughter is not a work product.”

And just we would hesitate to lose ourselves in any other relationship in our life, so too should we be wary of losing ourselves in our children. “The relationship you have with your child is certainly impactful. It’s one of the most important relationships you’ll have in your life,” Valenti says. “But a good relationship doesn’t necessitate you losing your identity. In fact, most people would call that a bad relationship. A good relationship is supposed to make you the best version of yourself, happier and more active. So that’s what I’m aiming for.”


  • All very good points. Fathers suffer too - in our case we have both found the teenage years very difficult, but I find that I can deal with the problems much better in some ways (perhaps pregnancy and childbirth trains a mother to endure more) than my husband, who gets very despondent and misses all the joy that we had with young children. I think as parents we really need to manage our expectations so that we have a realistic understanding of parenting.

    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 9:29AM
    • Expectations and reality can often be miles apart, many of today's generation struggle because they want it all and they want it now.

      It takes a lifetime to live a life and one single event should not define us, whether its having children, getting that great job, house, car is just parts of the sum total.

      " A good relationship is supposed to make you the best version of yourself, happier and more active." How does a job or consumer item form a good relationship?

      It is the people in our lives that count and the parent child relationship helped make me a better version of myself, less self centred, happier and satisfied with my lot.

      I hated all my jobs except one!
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 6:48PM
  • I agree.
    Why are all women who have children now defined by them as "Jaime's mum"? or "Robbies mum"??
    It invalidates women twicefold, once if you are a mother, than you have no identity other than being that mother and second, if you are NOT a mother, then you are redundant somehow.
    In the 21st Century, can we, in the first world, please cease having such a mentality of entitlement about families and how "society" owes parents. Please see past the rhetoric of governments, please analyse it a bit. Every person can be worthwhile, mother, father, sister, brother, childless or orphan.
    I note with chagrin, that people who are canvassed about their children are people with small children. Canvass the opinion of older parents, with grown children. I strongly suspect that the majority of them will no longer be saying how much joy their grown children have brought them. I think that Nature designs us to love the creatures that we nurture and when they are grown independent of us, then we also need to move on to other things. So let us say, children and young adults are lovely and loved by those who created them most, and then let us let them go.

    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 9:33AM
    • A couple of months ago, there was a discussion on these forums about the so-called schism between mothers and child-free women. I came on to say that I support mothers, think they are doing a great job, and might like to be one myself one day... but that in the meantime, I'd also like to have my position (as someone who is unsure about when or if to have children) respected as a valid choice.

      A mother responded to me by asking; "Why should I respect you for doing nothing?"

      So that's the choice, nowadays? Either be a mother or you're doing "nothing"? Suddenly I saw my worthwhile job, my close community, my whole life through the eyes of those who regard me as worthless until I become a vessel for another person. It was beyond depressing, but not as bitter as the knowledge that, if I do have a child someday, a whole segment of society will devalue me as a sub-person whose needs and wants are entirely irrelevant to my solely-defined purpose as a mother.

      Red Pony
      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 10:28AM
    • Huh? Surely a grown person who can relate to you as another human being is more lovable than someone completely dependant and demanding? Unless you just didn't make your point very well, you seem to be advocating people raise their kids into adults and then forget all about them. What about the relationship and love that was forged in those 20 years of caregiving?

      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 5:24PM
    • That mother was clearly an idiot for saying you did "nothing" and a big part of the problem. All of this judgement of mothers is one thing but what about mothers judgement of those without kids? Can't we all just get on with our lives and not worry about what everyone else is doing?

      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 8:38PM
  • This sound to me like the debate new parents have, because becoming a parent is the world's biggest brain burst, messes with your me-first identity big time and yes, babies and toddlers do take up your whole life. But once your kids are older things settle down, the angsting diminishes and you retrieve some head space and me time. So it's a stage, people. I'd rather put my energy into debating why our culture doesn't support disabled kids more - for their parents there is no relief as their kids get older.

    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 10:00AM
    • Agreed - about the parents of disabled kids needing way more support.

      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 11:54AM
  • My experience leads me to believe that your child comes out of you a full personality whose essential nature doesn't change but is shaped by the experiences of life. So while you can't change who your child is, you can damage that person or alternatively provide them with a safe and positive place to be the best version of themself they can be. Realistically as none of us are perfect when we start we stagger along as best we can hopefully juddering around the right end of the scale. What makes the most difference is choice. If you are able to have a child or adopt one, you make a choice to have a child if you are lucky enough to live in a society, where that is an option and then you make a committment to do the best you can.
    Many more people should chose not to have children and society should ecourage this.
    I think the end game of feminism might be when every woman (in the world not just the developed one) really has the right to choose whether to be a parent or not to be a parent, and society fully supports either choice without judgment. Willing and sturdy parentling creates real value and so do many of the other ways men and women contribute to our common good.
    (Background - one biological child now 21 years old - also worked outside the home from the 5th month of my daughters life)

    Date and time
    November 19, 2012, 10:04AM
    • "I think the end game of feminism might be when every woman (in the world not just the developed one) really has the right to choose whether to be a parent or not to be a parent, and society fully supports either choice without judgment."

      Haven't you forgotten somebody here, the father? Martha Burk from NOW if I remember correctly said a similar thing.

      Date and time
      November 19, 2012, 2:38PM

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