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The history of motherhood ... and how America messed it up

"Forget 'Having It All: How America Messed Up Motherhood — and How to Fix It" by Amy Westervelt (Seal Press, 320 pages, in stores)

If you're trying to balance work projects, breastfeeding the baby and keeping your older children out of trouble, you're a lot like Amy Westervelt. And if it's not working so well, she wants you to know it's not your fault.

“Forget 'Having It All' " is part history lesson, part manifesto. I found the history bits more interesting: Who knew the abortion rate probably peaked in the mid-1800s, or that the Puritans thought fathers should be the main teachers of their families because they didn't trust women's moral foundations? In these, Westervelt draws clear contrasts between the experiences of white, black and American Indian mothers, and includes immigrant families from other parts of the world in later chapters. These chapters make it clear that there has never been one type of American mother, or clear agreement on what a mother should be.

The manifesto is broken up into a few pages at the end of each chapter, offering a “cultural fix” and “policy fix” for the issues raised in that section. Some of the more straightforward ideas include government-subsidized day care and family leave for both mothers and fathers, and coming up with more equal ways of dividing up the chores at home. She points to the example of Japan, however, as proof that policies themselves aren't enough — Japanese law offers generous benefits to parents, but employers haven't gotten on board, so that most men still work long hours and many women have decided not to give up their careers to raise a child without help.

By the end, Westervelt calls for a radical reimagining of American values, which would assign just as much value to caregiving as to competition. In this theoretical future, neither men nor women would consider caring for children or aging parents an embarrassing pursuit, and they would have a variety of formal and informal structures to help them balance it all.

The lack of detail about how a culture could be changed so drastically is one of the book's two flaws, and more insight into how reformers of prior generations worked could have made the “cultural fix” portions feel less like wishes. The other flaw is that it could have used a closer editing: one same-sex couple's story is referenced three times, with the exact same quote in two chapters.

— Megan Wingerter, The Oklahoman

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›