Jessica Valenti lifts the lid on mums' secret angst, writes Caitriona Palmer.
Most women receive flowers when they give birth. As feminist author, Jessica Valenti remembers it, she got "a two pound baby and a failing liver".
Rushed into emergency surgery to deliver a 29-week-old foetus in the summer of 2010, Valenti was shell-shocked at how her preconceived notions of birth and impending parenthood – natural birth, breast feeding, the magical moment of instant bonding – went out of the window as soon as it became clear that the life of her tiny child hung in the balance.
Valenti's baby girl, Layla, survived – thanks to eight long weeks spent in a neo-natal intensive care unit – but the experience rocked the author who struggled to accept that the harsh reality of motherhood was nothing like the fairytale she had been promised. Instead of feeling "complete", Valenti felt ambivalent and empty. Despite adhering to the 'breast is best' policy she struggled to nurse her daughter and in the end, defeated, turned to formula.
The standard of parenting in America – the breastfeeding, cloth nappies and fancy strollers – was a myth, Valenti concluded, one perpetuated by books, magazines and the internet.
The truth of being a parent, she realised, was much more complex and nuanced and not nearly as glamorous.
"Parenting needs a paradigm shift, plain and simple," Valenti writes in her new book, Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness. "The American dream of parenthood – the ideal that we're taught to seek and live out – doesn't come close to matching the reality, and that disconnect is making us miserable."
In my seven years of living and parenting here in Washington DC, I have seen more than my fair share of miserable parents. They are a weary and anxious lot, prowling the local playgrounds armed with giant Thermos coffee cups, yelling 'Good job!' every time their progeny performs some minor manoeuvre on the swings, shuttling bleary-eyed between school and a multitude of extracurricular activities that make their mini-me look like a tiny Wall Street executive.
It's not entirely their fault. The definition of a good parent in my neck of the woods is to be a busy parent. A parent entirely consumed by the day-to-day minutiae of their children; the Mommy and Me classes, the baby sign language courses, the pre-school applications, the test scores, pediatric appointments and soccer practices.
Here in this parental competitive hothouse, it is not good enough to be merely involved in your kids' lives – they must be the be-all and centre of your entire universe. The result? Exhausted, burned out parents – particularly mothers.
It's not the kid's fault, Valenti writes, it is the societal expectation of perfection, or overwhelming happiness that you're supposed to experience when you have kids that is making so many parents crazy.
"In killing ourselves to achieve this impossible standard, motherhood becomes less of a relationship and more of a job," says Valenti, who is also founder of the popular feminist website Feministing.com.
So how did we get into this mess? In part because of the woefully inadequate support system here in the US where parental-leave policies are the worst among industrialised nations, and where parents are forced to pay second mortgages for childcare.
New parents as a whole are also insecure, an insecurity that is gleefully preyed on by a growing industry built around a nation of parental worry warts – Valenti notes that there were five times as many parenting advice books published in 1997 as there were in 1975. From Tiger Moms to Attachment Moms to No-Nonsense Moms, there is no shortage of advice for stressed-out mothers.
Ada Calhoun, a New York mother and writer, has, like Valenti, written an 'anti-parenting' book called Instinctive Parenting, a rational appeal to parents to take a deep breath, relax and go with their guts.
"In my book I talk about focusing on shelter, food, and love," Calhoun told the Irish Independent. "As long as you are giving your kid those three things, you are doing a good job and should not worry about whether they should take Suzuki violin, or about which kind of pacifier is the most organic. The point isn't to win at some kind of parenting Olympics. The point is to raise your kid to be a functioning person. There are as many ways to do that as there are parents on Earth."
Calhoun's point reminds me of the time nearly six years ago when I confessed to my wonderful pediatrician about the pressure I was under by well-intentioned friends to sign up my then 20-month old son for the latest baby class.
We had already tried toddler music classes – a massive waste of time and money, in my estimation – but the collective chorus from the neighbourhood 'Yummy Mummies' that I try out the latest baby scam was too loud to ignore.
"Forget the classes," my pediatrician, a woman of immeasurable wisdom and practicality told me. "Just love him. That's all you have to do. Nothing else. Just love."