Book Review: Forget “Having it all”

Forget “HAVING IT ALL” How America Messed Up Motherhood and How to Fix It by Amy Westervelt (2018)

I picked up this book at the library recently because it spoke to my experience of going back to work (and then back to being at home).

Going back to work with a 2 1/2 year old and a 3 month old to care for left me feeling frazzled every work day. And I was only going to the office two days a week! But those days were so hard. Every one of them seemed to require the preparation equal to that of a weekend away. The bags! For the big kid’s extra clothes, and lunch. My work bag and lunch and pump. The baby’s diaper bag (diapers and clothes and pacifiers) and milk. I think I only left the house with every thing I needed a handful of times.

I thought my part-time gig was ideal and I would be living the dream, but it never felt that way. It felt terrible. I felt bad at momming and bad at work. So, what was the solution?

This book offered a fascinating look at why I was feeling so terrible and made me feel like it probably wasn’t just me! That maybe the way we have set up our society just doesn’t work.

From the earliest days of this country, Westervelt tells us, women were given the entire responsibility for child rearing. Men used motherhood (an identity distinguished from the act of mothering) to keep women out of power and in the house.

Throughout history as different waves of feminism crested and crashed, motherhood continued to be a way that women were left out of society. The book gives a litany of interesting histories and details about the way religious and political ideologies have kept women in the mommy box. And how society has purposefully crafted that box to make it difficult to contribute to the workforce on.

One of the things that most stood out to me in this book is Westervelt’s intentional inclusion of other kinds of mothering. She calls out the motherhood world for focusing so much on white, heterosexual, middle-class mothers. She includes information on indigenous and black communities at each stage of history. She references scholars of color and highlights the importance of their work and how it is filling significant gaps in the research. There are so many different experiences of motherhood. The least we can do is acknowledge that and try to include as many types of stories in our conversation as possible.

This book made me feel like it’s not just me and the women in my life I hear struggling to find a balance between work and home. Society has been specifically designed to make that balance impossible. And maybe we shouldn’t be trying to survive as mothers in a capitalist society, maybe we should be finding ways to break it down, blow it up, and start something completely different.

Westervelt offers a variety of ideas; policy and cultural, to fix our society’s broken motherhood. It includes cultural changes, such as valuing care-taking work, and policy changes like mandated maximum work hours. The concept of motherhood and the family has been wrong from the earliest days of this country. Compounded by years of damaging patriarchal capitalism, the society we live in does not work.

What would a caring, woman-centered reality look like?

She recommends a matrifocal society, one that values all people regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, or socioeconomic status. Matrifocal societies are based on care and collaboration. They protect the health and well-being of all and promote community.

I liked this book for the history it provided. I liked that it offered ideas and made it seem possible to make some changes, or at least provided places we could start.

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