Goodreads Synopsis: After filing a story only two hours after giving birth, and then getting straight back to full-time work the next morning, journalist Amy Westervelt had a revelation: America might claim to revere motherhood, but it treats women who have children like crap. From inadequate maternity leave to gender-based double standards, emotional labor to the “motherhood penalty” wage gap, racist devaluing of some mothers and overvaluing of others, and our tendency to consider women’s value only in terms of their reproductive capacity, Westervelt became determined to understand how we got here and how the promise of “having it all” ever even became a thing when it was so far from reality for American women.
In Forget “Having It All,” Westervelt traces the roots of our modern expectations of mothers and motherhood back to extremist ideas held by the first Puritans who attempted to colonize America and examines how those ideals shifted — or didn’t — through every generation since. Using this historical backdrop, Westervelt draws out what we should replicate from our past (bringing back home economics, for example, this time with an emphasis on gender-balanced labor in the home), and what we must begin anew as we overhaul American motherhood (including taking a more intersectional view of motherhood, thinking deeply about the ways in which capitalism influences our views on reproduction, and incorporating working fathers into discussions about work-life balance).
In looking for inspiration elsewhere in the world, Westervelt turned not to Scandinavia, where every work-life balance story inevitably ends up, but to Japan where politicians, in an increasingly desperate effort to increase the country’s birth rates (sound familiar?), tried to apply Scandinavian-style policies atop a capitalist democracy not unlike America’s, only to find that policy can’t do much in the absence of cultural shift. Ultimately, Westervelt presents a measured, historically rooted and research-backed call for workplace policies, cultural norms, and personal attitudes about motherhood that will radically improve the lives of not just working moms but all Americans.
I found this book at random the first time I went to my new library. I briefly searched through the parenting section because I was excited to have a library that allowed in-person browsing. But because I had just got my library card there was a limit of a two-book loan. Passing by, I saw the title and thought, “huh, that could be interesting.” And decided to give it a whirl. Little did I know how thought-provoking and insightful this book would be.
Forget “Having It All” is written by a mother and a journalist, which combine in the book beautifully. She speaks from the experiences of trying to navigate home life and childcare with the job she loves. And also speaks from the experience of one who has dove deep into history, statistics, and interviews.
Amy Westervelt breaks down her chapters into specific problems with the American maternity policies, as well as ideals and expectations around motherhood. She walks through the history behind how we got to where we are now, and at the end of each chapter she focuses on what we can do to change. Which as a future historian I really apricated, I learned a lot of fascinating information on the culture of the patriarchy and motherhood. I also enjoyed the pacing of her chapters, which I felt focused just enough on the history without making the book feel like a history textbook. It made the book feel accessible to everyone. Those who wanted to learn more could take a look at her references, and those that don’t have enough information to understand the context.
She walks through the difference between motherhood as an institution and mothering as the individual experience. This book will make you furious, but what I loved about it was the fact that Westervelt also left you feeling like there was hope. In the last chapter of the book she says this, “The patriarchy need not be replaced by a matriarchy per se, so much as a more matrifocal structure that rebalances society around the community rather than the individual.” And I feel like that really sums up the focus of this book.
I would highly recommend this book to all first-time parents because it makes you think about culture and how you want to parent within it. I’m currently almost 23 weeks pregnant and not only did Westervelt’s book give me other books to read, but it also started some very interesting conversations between my husband and I. Motherhood is not a part of life that I want to walk into uneducated and unprepared and this book really helped me to feel like I had more of a handle on the changes coming up.
In the end I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads.
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