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 Feministing.com, 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.”