Thursday, September 13, 2012

Double Review: Beyond the Sling and Why Have Kids?

Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way by Mayim Bialik

Why Have Kids? by Jessica Valenti

Reviewed by Ingrid

Published: 2012

They're about: While both Beyond the Sling and Why Have Kids? would be shelved in the "Parenting" section of your local bookstore, they are two very different books.

Mayim Bialik has the more "traditional" parenting book; using stories of her own experience, she describes specific parenting techniques and explains why they work. Bialik advocates Attachment Parenting, a parenting style whose major tenants are co-sleeping, breastfeeding, baby wearing, and gentle discipline. Bialik claims that this is the most natural and intuitive style of parenting.  Much of the book is written like a memoir, with very short sections explaining the science (Bialik has a PhD in neurobiology) and statistics. She hits on all those things listed above as well as her experience with natural birth, breastfeeding into toddlerhood, elimination communication, and natural home remedies. Bialik argues that you should always do what's best for baby.

Jessica Valenti, however, isn't interested in telling you the best way to parent. She is more interesting in exploring how the messages about parenting within our society are often harmful to parents and children. Valenti challenges her readers to think critically about the choices they make and how they affect their children, their lives, and the rest of society. Interestingly, Valenti goes through a list of almost the exact same issues that Bialik writes about and directly challenges them with lots of statistics. Valenti argues that you should NOT always do what society tells you is "best" for baby, because often those things may not actually be best, and because doing those things reinforces the expectation that women need to sacrifice pretty much all of their time and energy to raise a happy, healthy child when that is not necessarily the case.

Mayim Bialik via
I thought: I don't have kids. But I like reading parenting books, because I'm cool. I also really like Mayim Bialik, because she's smart, articulate, funny, and I like the soothing sound of her voice. The thing that intrigues me most about her, though, is that she is both a Modern Orthodox Jew and a feminist. Women who identify as feminists AND as members of strongly patriarchal religious groups always stand out to me, because I am one myself - I identify as a Mormon feminist. A lot of people think these things are conflicting. They often are. But I think that having a strong stake in two conflicting communities provides more opportunites to explore questions pertaining to both communities in new ways.

Case in point: in Beyond the Sling, I was specifically interested Bialik's point of view regarding the intersection of feminism and the strong family values that stem from her religious views. The principles behind her parenting techniques were very appealing to me. She claims that attachment parenting encourages children to make strong emotional connections with their parents that will later translate into strong, healthy relationships with other people, as well a healthy sense of self-confidence. Those are certainly things I want for my future children, things I think most people want. This parenting style takes some MAJOR, commitment though, and I mean MAJOR. Bialik is literally involved with her children 24 hours a day - whether she's breastfeeding (on demand, day and night, until the child no longer shows an interest,) watching her child's body language to be able to discern when the child needs to be taken and held over the toilet to "eliminate," (sometimes this is every 15 minutes,) sleeping next to your child (and thus waking up every time they wake up,) watching them for any signs of sickness or discomfort, carrying them around every where you go in a sling, etc, etc. That is exhausting just to think about. However, Bialik seems to imply that the strong emotional connection to create with your child when you make this sacrifice is empowering to both mother and child.

While I still had Bialik's book on my mind, I saw Rebecca's review of Why Have Kids? a few days ago and borrowed a copy on my kindle right away. The first thing I noticed is that Valenti has a much more polemic tone to her writing. Bialik wants to gently suggest what might work best for you, and constantly reminds you that she knows there are many different kinds of parents with different circumstances and blah blah. Valenti wants to force you to confront the implications of your choices. A little jarring at first, but definitely effective. This is important stuff, after all. And it worked on me. By the end, I was all fired up and eager to explain to my husband about all of the unfair, unrealistic expectations put on mothers in our society.

Interestingly, both of these books were written by mothers who identify as feminists. I think this points to the fact that feminism is growing and evolving to encompass many different possible life choices and points of view, while still holding to the principle that women should hold an equally-valued place within society. I think this is a very good thing.

Jessica Valenti via
Obviously it's up to each parent to decide how to raise their child. I think it's worth reading both books and thinking carefully about which issues are most important to you and can benefit you and your child the most. However, these arguments can get a little exhausting. If you need something to lighten things up a little bit, I like this article.

Verdict: Stick them both on the shelf. Or maybe check them out from the library.

Reading Recommendations: Since these book address many of the same issues from different perspectives, it's quite enlightening to read them together.

Warnings: None.

Favorite excerpts:
"What I have discovered, and what I seek to share with you, dear reader, is this: you already know the majority of what you need to know to be an incredible parent. It was only when I believed this and began to apply it consistently to my growing family that my anxiety, worry, and exhaustion began to lift. It was then that I truly began to enjoy being a parent and to see myself as a successful parent; not a perfect parent, and not always the most patient parent, but a sensitive, loving, and confident parent who truly loves this life I have chosen." -Bialik

"Families that don’t force independence encourage children to grow at their own pace, fully express their needs, and feel truly understood. This style of parenting is not the only way to guarantee a securely attached child, but in my experience and observations, I would hedge my bets that this path, broad though it can be, is a great way toward a smooth and minimally complicated relationship with children." -Bialik

"This is a book about how the American ideal of parenting doesn’t match the reality of our lives, and how that incompatibility is hurting parents and children. Because the expectation of a certain kind of parenthood—one where we’re perfect mothers who have perfect partners, where our biggest worry is whether or not to use cloth diapers—makes the real thing much more difficult to bear." -Valenti

"My pump, which came in a jaunty little nylon purse that looked like a 1990s Kate Spade knockoff, made a rhythmic sound when operating that sounded a little too much like House music for my comfort. There’s something about a club kid beat set to your breasts being tortured that makes the whole ridiculous scenario feel even crueler." (Haha!) -Valenti

"Vast amounts of research show that children do best when they’re raised by a community of people—parents, grandparents, friends, and neighbors. It’s in our DNA—we are social beings, and we should be raised as such. Yes, mothers are important, but not because we are women or because we’re biologically related (or not) to our children. We’re important because we’re one of the people that love and care for a growing human. But if we want to take some joy in that experience, we need to let go of the notion that we are the only ones who can do it correctly, and that if we are doing it right, it should mean some sort of suffering or tremendous self-sacrifice." -Valenti

What I'm reading next: Possession by A.S. Byatt