Jessica Valenti Tells Mommyish Why She Hates The Term ‘Helicopter Mom’

jessica valentiJessica Valenti, Feministing founder, poses many a modern parenting question in her book Why Have Kids? From the lack of maternity leave to calling bullshit on the “most important job” in the world, Valenti gives us a candid account of contemporary American parenthood. A hybrid of both her personal navigation through formula feeding guilt and the cultural lies that continue to pervade motherhood, Why Have Kids? has much to offer new mothers, prospective parents, and childless by choice individuals.

Valenti shares with us how much she loathes perpetual mommy labeling, what’s lacking in the parenting blogosphere, and why we’ve lost the “it takes a village” approach in our childrearing.

Your book highlights well the actual mommy wars mothers face such as wage gaps between childless women and men, lack of maternity leave, and outdated workplace policies. But you also note that even though there is an explosive mommy blogosphere, mothers don’t seem to be addressing these issues in a vibrant online community. Why do you think that is?

I wish I knew! It’s amazing, because parents online wield such incredible power – but it often feels to me like we’re exercising our consumer power but not our political power. Part of me thinks that it’s because going up against a company – like an offensive ad, or a dangerous product for kids – is not too controversial. But when you start talking about what role policies should play in parenting, it gets fraught pretty fast. Though given the threads I’ve seen on breastfeeding, you’d think bloggers would welcome the debate! I also think that parenting – which used to be seen as a community exercise – is now looked through the lens of a particular kind of American individualism. We have this sense of pride about being solely responsible for our kids – and policies like subsidized child care come up against that a bit.

How do you account for the cultural slide towards incessant mommy labeling? Helicopter mom, free range mom, etc. Do you find this absurd labeling, along with ”too posh to push,” to be as derogatory as I do?

I DO find it derogatory! There seems to be this kind of trend with wanting to label all women. I’m thinking of the label I hate most of all: “cougar.” Parents all have unique styles, priorities and ways of dealing with their lives and kids. Sometimes I think the labeling is an easy way to dehumanize. We stop thinking about the actual people involved, they’re just another ”helicopter mom.”

You posit that women can ”simultaneously love parenting, find it fulfilling and valuable, while also recognizing that the minutiae of our mothering isn’t as critical as society would have us believe.” What do you think it will take to culturally pull parents away from obsessing over the parenting minutiae?

I think it’s up to us to start. We need to let ourselves off the hook a bit! Trying to make sure our kid is stimulated every second of every day, or fretting if we need to (or choose to) formula feed instead of breastfeeding makes a fraction of a difference in our child’s life but takes a tremendous toll on our own. The math just doesn’t make it worth it. But I also think this is about a media and culture that tells women if they don’t put all of themselves – every iota – into parenting, that we’re somehow selfish or less-than parents. And of course this message doesn’t really get directed at men, who get father-of-the-year kudos when they show up to a soccer game!

You observe that parenting has become a much more individualistic endeavor and to the detriment of everyone: parents and children. How do you square your belief that ”it takes a village” with the growing recognition of childless by choice lifestyles?

I don’t think those two ideas clash at all – in fact, they complement each other! People wrongly assume that all childfree by choice folks don’t like kids or don’t want kids in their lives. I have plenty of friends who wouldn’t like to have children, but like to babysit or hang out with mine! But really, the heart of it is that we need to stop believing that the best thing for our child is a single caretaker (most often the mom) — kids need community, and we need a break.

You write that it’s considered rude to ask parents why they chose to have children, yet many feel entitled to consistently ask childless individuals when they’re going to start procreating. How has the default that everyone will ultimately parent impacted how we view families and children?

I think the impact is that we don’t see people without children as ”families,” which is a real shame. The presumption that all people will – and want to – parent is insulting all around. And it’s not a good default to have for society either. Parenting should be a proactive choice, one that’s made deliberately and with a lot of forethought. Sounds obvious but one-third of births in America are unintended so maybe it bears repeating!

”Having it all” is clearly a very privileged argument for only a small subset of American women. However, that narrative tends to dominate nearly every modern conversation about motherhood. Why is the tired ”having it all” script still kicking around in the press?

For the same reason we only care about watching certain people on television or the movies – ordinary people’s lives are not considered worthy of examination in the same way elite folks’ are. It’s wrong of course – because no matter the woes of the ”having it all” sect, their kids are going to be okay – well fed, well educated, and cared for. The same can’t be said for all kids in America and that’s the real issue.

When exploring the anti-vaccination movement, you suggest a connection between the rise of overattentive parents and doctors unwilling to tinker with vaccination schedules to suit their individual child’s needs. Why is this link so telling of our times?

I think there are a lot of reasons for the anti-vaccination movement, but the one I’m most interested in is what I perceive as a desire to reclaim knowledge and power. Women by and large are treated as if our opinions don’t matter – and here’s this movement saying, use your instinct, you know best! It’s very seductive. It also plays into modern moms’ wanting to be it all for their kids (and know it all). But there’s nothing disempowering about looking to science for answers, or to trusting experts.

In our offices we always joke that if mothers are in the press, it’s not for a good reason. Why are we so fixated on perpetual mommy shamming despite societal pressures for perfect, pristine motherhoods?

Ha! I’m sure you’re right. It’s kind of the same way we love to watch beautiful young women fail (think the public decline of Britney Spears) . Any thing that we put on a pedestal we have an even better time watching it fall. It’s incredibly sad.

Jessica Valenti will be discussing the truths and lies of modern parenthood at the 92Y Tribeca on September 20th along with Anna Holmes, Lori Leibovich and Rebecca Traister.


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