Book review: Opting In

I just finished Amy Richards' new book, Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself. Amy is one of the big names in third wave feminism, and as you can tell from the title, her book is--at least in part--responding to the pervasive "opting out" discourse that started cropping up a few years ago in pieces in the New York Times and elsewhere. The title, in fact, was so appealing to me that I preordered her book and began reading it as soon as it arrived at the house. I got so pissed off at all that "opting out" stuff--the articles that claimed that women are leaving the workplace in droves to be stay-at-home mothers, spending all day at Starbucks hanging out with other privileged moms and their kids. First of all it's not true, and second of all the fact that the media couldn't get enough of talking about it speaks to how troubled our culture is by the changes happening in parenting, and how much we enjoy a good catfight between moms.

Amy (although I recognize that calling her "Amy" runs the risk of making me sound like a pretentious name-dropper, I actually do know her, so calling her "Richards" feels a little fake to me) starts the book with the "opting out" news stories, sharing the anxiety that they generated among her friends, even though those stories didn't reflect their own lives. The book goes on from there to cover a wide range of contemporary issues, from options related to pregnancy to recent studies about women's fertility, from what it means to do feminist parenting to how to balance work between two caregivers. She balances information and research with stories from her own life as a parent.

Amy has my number in the part of the book where she talks about how easy it is for women to judge other women for their parenting choices. Again and again she relates the point that "We can find a way to support the myriad of experiences without using one person's choice to obliterate another person's experience, or condemning the individual woman for making a choice we may not agree with." One of the strongest aspects of the book is that she assiduously resists anything approaching a catfight between moms.

And yet this open attitude is part of my disappointment with the book. She's so balanced, so careful not to judge, that sometimes she ends up not taking a firm stance--or as firm a stance as I'd like. There were parts of the book where I felt like she was saying, "Some women do this, and some women do that, and it's all okay as long as it's their choice." This may be true, but I found myself wanting a harder edge: choices have different contexts and consequences, and I want my feminist books to consider those, to frame individual choices in terms of larger institutional structures. (Some of the larger institutional structures that get short shrift in the book are class and race--much of what Amy's talking about relates to economically comfortable women.) OR I want a book that's deeply individualized, personal, grounded in the quirky particularities of Amy's own family life. The book didn't give me quite enough of either.

In fact, the taste Amy gave of her own personal life, the glimpses into the wrangling negotiations she and her partner Peter have engaged in as parents, were fascinating enough that I would have loved a whole book with that focus. Her life was a great case study because her own experiences in many ways don't fit the kinds of binaries that our public discourse likes to operate within ("stay at home" vs. "working mom," for instance), so when she tells her own stories, they help to destabilize those familiar (and unhelpful) narratives.

I think this will be a useful book for readers who aren't familiar with the history of US feminism in the 20th century--Amy does a good job of relating contemporary issues to their historical precedents. And she does provide an overview of some of the key feminist discussions happening right now around parenthood. But--perhaps because I lean toward being one of the judgmental, cranky, finger-pointing feminists--I found myself wanting more.


claire said...

Sounds like a great book. Can I borrow it? Yes, I love a judgemental book that validates my own choices.....or one that at least is willing to say that not all choices are equally good (although I guess it depends on what people are choosing -- cow's milk vs. soy -- good arguments on both sides; shorts with princess emblazoned on the butt for a toddler [or anyone who is not purchasing her own clothes] defintiely something about which I am judgmental).

Alison said...

Yes, you can borrow it. I'm glad my review made you think the book was great--even with all my cranky judgmental-ness, I didn't want it to seem that I don't recommend this book.