Jessica Valenti is a breath of fresh air. She offers the kind of raw honesty that can feel like a punch in the gut, but leaves you with the warmth of a deep embrace. Her opinions may not be popular ones. She might surprise or anger you with her view on current issues concerning women. Of this I am certain though, she understands the struggles you face as a woman and/or mother. She wants to support you and she wants your support. She knows that raising a child isn’t always easy or perfect, and sometimes it’s a complete flurry of agony. In her incredible new book, “Why Have Kids?” Jessica shares some of her toughest moments as a first-time mom in the hopes that we stop competing with each other as parents and start supporting each other as a community.
Did you always know you wanted to become a mother?
I guess I did, yeah! I had a great family growing up – and a super large Italian extended family, so it always felt like a given that I would have kids. I don’t think I entirely knew what I was in for, but I’ve always been really excited to be a mom.
I know you faced many surprises as a first time mother; discovering the reality of what raising a child actually entails, compared to our sometimes unrealistic expectations of motherhood. What was the biggest surprise?
The biggest surprise, which was difficult, was that I didn’t feel that immediate bond with my daughter – and no one ever really prepared me for that reality. It was mostly because of the circumstances under which she was born – I got life-threateningly ill and she was born almost three months early and spent months in the hospital. It’s hard to let yourself bond when you have a baby that sick. Luckily, Layla is fine today and pretty much the best kid ever. Our relationship just took a while to develop; I would have saved myself a lot of guilt and shame had I not bought into this idea that all moms love their kids immediately in this all-encompassing way. I was also surprised at how much throw up infants hold. I have NO idea where they keep it all.
What’s your stance on public breastfeeding?
Pro, of course! A baby has got to eat, and why shouldn’t they eat in public. I’m also pro-formula feeding babies in public without getting lectures about breast being best. (This is something that happened to me.)
Do you see an end to the “Mommy Wars?”
Goodness, I hope so. I think largely the “mommy wars” are a distraction that keep individual moms from organizing around issues that could really change parenting. Why do we care so much about extended breastfeeding, but not about the fact that there is no mandated paid parental leave?
Over and over the question has been raised, “can women truly have it all?” Why do you think we torture ourselves with these unrealistic standards?
We torture ourselves because the culture demands it of us! This standard didn’t come out of nowhere. The framing of “having it all” – and this is something writer Rebecca Traister has pointed out – suggests that wanting to have some sort of semblance of a work life and a home life is greedy or selfish. We want ALL of it! What we’re saying when we say women want it all, truly, is that women just want a little more fairness.
Why do you think men never get asked this question?
Because we’re not making them answer it! We continue to have these conversations and make them all about women. I understand why we do that – considering it’s mothers who do the majority of the care work. But as long as we’re not bringing men into the conversation, that gap is going to exist. Men just aren’t expected to balance in the same way women are – mostly because it’s assumed they don’t want to spend time with their kids as much as women do, which is just wrong. Men want balance in their lives as well.
What advice would you give to the prenatal you, about parenting, knowing what you know now?
Have no expectations! Go in hoping for the best but not expecting everything to be perfect, or even close to perfect. You never know what you’re going to get. That, and make sure to have a community of friends and family around to help out.
Is it harder to spend time with friends that have kids now that you have your own? Do you feel like you are constantly comparing notes? Does it ever get difficult with the different parenting styles?
I’m very lucky to have a wonderful community of friends, so it hasn’t been that hard. What was difficult was that because of Layla’s prematurity, she wasn’t allowed to be around other kids regularly (because of immunity issues) up until recently. So it was very isolating for a long time. Some parents are devastated to send their kids to daycare – I’ve been so excited that she finally gets to play with other children!
Some parents are adamant about breastfeeding because of the alleged benefits over formula. Is there anything that you are adamant about, when it comes to the health and well- being of your daughter?
Yes, vaccinations. I’m horrified to hear about how many parents aren’t vaccinating their kids – we have the biggest whooping cough epidemic in 50 years. This isn’t just a parenting issue, it’s a public health issue. Layla was so tiny and fragile when she finally came home – if she would have been exposed to something from an unvaccinated kid, it could have cost her her life. This is something I have no questions or reservations about – please, vaccinate!
What’s the most important lesson you’d like Layla to learn from you? (Meaning: words of wisdom, or important tips to remember that you hope Layla carries with her throughout her life.)
I don’t have words of wisdom as much as I do the hope that she grows up to be a critical thinker – someone who doesn’t take the world as it is, but asks questions and remains curious. Judging from her personality as a 2 year old, I don’t think this is going to be a problem! (The other day she asked me: What do boogies do?)
If Layla decides to one day have her own children, how do you hope the world will look? In what ways do you hope things change to make it easier if/when it’s her turn?
I hope if Layla decides to have children, that she lives in a world where women are judged by more than their reproductive functions or roles as moms and wives. I hope she lives in a country that respects their bodily autonomy – where women have full reproductive rights, where sexual objectification has come to an end and where women are valued for their intelligence, humor and compassion. Maybe a tall order, but I hope it all the same.
A big thanks to Jessica for taking the time to chat with me.