I haven’t always been enamoured with the idea of having kids and, to be honest, I’m still not sure I am! But when the topic came to the forefront, I did what I always do – I looked to books for guidance!
I had a lot of concerns when my husband and I first had our first proper “kids talk” – you know, the one where you actually discuss what it would really mean for you as a couple, rather than just a hypothetical might-happen-in-the-future scenario. Chris has always known that he wants kids one day, but I’ve literally never dreamed of being a parent. It’s just never been something I’ve aspired to.
So I did A LOT of soul-searching on this one. This was on another level, and books weren’t going to be able to help me here.
Well, that’s not entirely true…
If I want to learn more about something, 9 times out of 10, I look for a book about it. What I needed, in this case, wasn’t just the facts, but personal experiences, views and critical thought. I realised there was no reason I couldn’t find this sort of thing on the topic of motherhood – there’s loads of choice! I just needed to look a bit harder.
Parenting and motherhood are often painted in ways that I don’t find particularly helpful – it’s either too picturesque, or too focused on the ideal nuclear family, or downright contradictory, imposing impossible double standards on women (these same standards almost never apply to fathers). Fortunately, there are books, blogs and other websites that do seek to take a fresher look at modern-day parenthood – acknowledging that it’s messy, it’s tiring, and that parents need to find their own ways of doing things and not just follow the imaginary rulebook. From a personal viewpoint, I needed to read about experiences recognising that women often want and need more than motherhood, and that they can want and have other aspects to their lives too. You don’t stop being your own person just because you have a baby.
If you’re thinking about the same things, I hope this (very short) list helps –
Why Have Kids – Jessica Valenti
I should start by saying that this book is not accurately titled – it will not tell you why you should have kids. It will, however, look at the ways parenting is held up to ridiculous standards and how women are often left drawing the short straw when it comes to decisions about pregnancy and child-rearing. The focus is very much on American women, but I didn’t find this to be a problem – a lot of the issues are still relatable if you live in the UK.
This book did make me think about motherhood from different perspectives, although a lot of it wasn’t new to me. I think what I liked most about it was that it made me feel slightly more vindicated in my views, and less like I needed to apologise for feeling the way I do.
Valenti is a very inclusive writer and tries to address the issues from a variety of angles, including issues of class and race. When climbing up on their pedestals, people often forget that not everyone has access to the same levels of support or protection. It’s easy to extol the virtues of staying at home to care for your kids full-time when you don’t have to worry constantly about how you’re going to keep them. (Not a dig at stay-at-home mums – just saying that’s not a choice everyone can make.)
This is an excellent (and short) book for anyone, not just parents. I think that parents should be able to make the decisions that are best for their families without being judged, and this book seems to be a good step towards a more sensible view of parenthood.
Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine
Yet another one that won’t tell you whether or not to have kids! To be fair, that’s not the topic anyway. I’ve never been one to align myself with gender stereotypes – I was never a “pink princess” as a child and drove my poor mother to despair when I refused to wear anything but jeans for most of my pre-teen years. But part of me always wondered – can you really categorise certain traits as male or female? Are there areas where boys are inherently better than girls, and vice versa? Is it really all hardwired into our brains?
Turns out, not as much as you might think. Cordelia Fine blew my mind with this book. The main thing I learnt is that research into gender differences is often very dismissive of how our culture and society “shapes” our brains. It made sense once I thought about it – our brains take in so much information, and process so much every day, doesn’t it make sense that our brains are influenced by our culture just like our actions are influenced by our thought processes? Yet scientists continue to reinforce the idea of “male” and “female” brains with little conclusive empirical evidence to go on. Which, since it influences our parenting styles, our schooling and a whole myriad of other things, is really disturbing.
If you think I’m dumbing it down too much, read the book. It draws on a wide range of scientific and psychological studies – Fine has a lot of evidence and source material backing up her ideas.
The thing about this book that helped me with my own decisions about becoming a parent was simply that it helped me feel armed and ready. I don’t want anyone telling my daughter she’s no good at maths just because she’s a girl, or my son that he needs to conform to the ridiculous standards of toxic masculinity. It helped me to see that gender stereotyping starts from birth and, although by being aware of it I can do what I can to support my children, I’ve not failed if they fall prey to certain elements of a gender-stereotyped world. To an extent, we’re all a product of our society, after all. I just want to be equipped to enable my future baby to believe in his/her abilities, regardless of what our culture says.
Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears, Volume 1: Baby Talk
It may seem weird to end with a comic book series, but bear with me. If the other two choices in my list seem a little intense (and they often are in places), consider this some light, hilarious relief. After all my soul-searching and tears, reading something like this was just what I needed. Jessica Drew is going about her business as Spider-Woman, except now she’s pregnant. She has to deal with overprotective colleagues/fellow superheroes, plus a Skrull invasion of an alien hospital she’s visiting. Guess she’s going to have to save the day one last time before the baby arrives…
Yes, it sounds utterly ludicrous, but it’s fun, the dialogue is witty and it’s genuinely touching in places. On a personal level, it helped me to see a female superhero who is taking on the challenge of motherhood, but who’s determined not to lose her identity in the process. This is something I worried about constantly before deciding to have a baby – I don’t just want to be a Mum, I want to be a person, with skills, interests and thoughts of my own. Women are often damned if they do or damned if they don’t when they become parents. They get judged whatever decisions they make. I guess it just helped me to see a woman (yes, even a fictional superhero one) who acknowledged that parenting is hard, it’s wonderful in its own way, but it doesn’t necessarily have to take up your whole sense of self – at least not forever anyway.
I’d love to know what other people think about this – can books play a part in such an important decision? What books did you find helpful when you were making decisions about whether or not to embrace parenthood? For some people, remaining child-free is the right choice – are there any interesting essay collections or books on that topic? Let me know so I can add to my TBR!