We may with impunity opt out of real estate, of matrimony, of monogamy and even, possibly, of paying taxes, but the opting out of parenthood is a decision discussed “very quietly, indeed.”
“You don’t have kids?” goes the usual nosy but well-intentioned query. “Why not?”
Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a new collection of essays by writers who made the decision not to have children, offers several takes on the answer. With welcome, sometimes breathtaking candour, the writers (13 women, three men) debunk the idea that the childless by choice are homogenous. The essays do not give 16 different reasons but dozens of details, facts and choices in combination. The outcome is the same, but the leadup can be complicated, sometimes painful, always personal.
The judgment, suspicion and accusation of narcissism implicit in that frequent question – parenting is still the norm, after all – makes replying in protest such a practised routine that several essays still wind up mentioning that no, the writer doesn’t hate children. Several refer to Time magazine’s incendiary 2013 cover story: “The Childfree Life: When Having It All Means Not Having Children” – the one illustrated with all the nuance of a Sandals travel brochure with a couple on tropical sands, not a care in the world.
Considering the clickbait articles about having it all and leaning in, at face value, this could be a book for every woman who has ever cowered under the baby-shower-balloon archway. Most of whom, as Danielle Henderson articulates in her essay about healing from bad parenting (“Save Yourself”), wish there were more conversations about the decision not to have children that didn’t force the childless-by-choice into a defensive stance.
The best defence is good offence, and if read in their chronological order, editor Meghan Daum gets the niceties out of the way straight away.
In “Maternal Instincts,” the second essay in the collection, Laura Kipnis debunks our current romantization of the mother-child bond – an argument that could be expanded to book-length treatise all its own. The notion of motherhood as a fuzzy, feel-good experience is contemporary and culturally generated, Kipnis points out, contrasting our present stance with that of pre-Industrial Revolution Europe. Dry-eyed, Kipnis takes on social conventions with relish and deliberate provocation. “Pregnancies are useful for clarifying one’s life priorities, of course, but they also clarify a lot about the prevailing conditions of motherhood when you’re deciding whether or not to sign on for the long haul.” Few social supports for mothers exist in the United States (maternity leave is a few weeks at best); women’s embrace of motherhood as a “natural” state for themselves has caused them to be complacent, she argues, and therefore undervalued.
Niceties are a carcass by the fifth essay, “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” with this cold opening by the terrifyingly astute Lionel Shriver: “Meet the Antimom.” Shriver shares her experience of being on the receiving end of confidences from frustrated mothers after the publication of her bestselling Orange Prize-winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and among her own circle of female friends. “For the role of humble server, helpmate and facilitator no longer to constitute the sole model for womanhood surely represents progress for which I am personally grateful.”
Then to the panic about the Incredible Shrinking Family, Shriver boldly adds another layer – the race divide – another taboo, like class, that the Western world already doesn’t much want to talk about, namely that the birth rate is shrinking most among those of European ancestry. In fact, more than one essay references the West’s declining birth rate. In “The End of the Line,” writer and cartoonist Tim Kreider posits it might be nothing more than the result of wealth and plenty. He swipes at the smugness of one of the prevailing stereotypes of the voluntarily childless, a person who argues of a more rational and morally superior life without children (“about as interesting to me as the ongoing debate about Which Are Better: Cats or Dogs”).
There are also worries about money, alcoholism, precarious mental health. As Elliott Holt reminds the reader in “Just an Aunt,” about her history of anxiety and depression, suicide is the leading cause of death in new mothers. Then, just as the essays seems to have laid waste to the idea of galloping hedonism, comes Geoff Dyer’s “Over and Out” to expand on the “boredom and intellectual atrophy” Kipnis has already alluded to, with an additional helping of existential angst, class antagonism and contempt.
The anthology’s title is not entirely ironic. Why not be selfish and self-absorbed? Sigrid Nunez explores her mother’s past as a German war bride and looks at historic examples of children as more burden than blessing for women, invoking Doris Lessing, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Grace Paley while chastising Procter & Gamble’s “Thank you, Mom” Olympics commercials.
In “Amateurs,” Michelle Huneven laments the fragmented nature of her relationships with mom friends while also addressing how some parents “correct the mistakes their parents made, and even consciously address the intergenerational patterns of violence.” She reveals how she herself moved from being “childless due to damage” to “a place of choosing.”
Far from claiming that her lofty and noble life goals required all the energy she might have otherwise poured into child-raising, “The time I didn’t spend on raising kids,” Huneven admits, “I squandered on love affairs and staring out windows.”
For women who have opted to be childless, Huneven points out, kids stop being the issue – the main problem is other adults and their presumptions.
After dutifully rummaging around in his or her inner self for any trace of what is said to be a universal human impulse and finding none, “Why not?” is a bewildering question, as random as “Why don’t you live in Winnipeg?”
“But you’re so good with kids.” It’s true. Those who don’t have children often don’t hate children and may indeed like children as much as those who do. (Maybe more!) Pam Houston, in “The Trouble With Having It All,” offers a variation of the stock answer honed by ambivalent women after decades of practice. “My score on the LSAT indicates that I have the mental capacity to be a lawyer, but I have not gotten one single letter from a stranger or anyone else telling me that I would make a really great lawyer, that the fact that I am not a lawyer must be related to some deep-seated childhood trauma.”
Houston focuses on the choices afforded by feminism – she hit puberty during the Roe v. Wade decision and in hindsight, sees that as a pointer to her destiny – and like Kipnis, considers the state of contemporary American life, with its “trigger” laws on abortion, or politicians such as Todd Akin with their ignorance of women’s reproductive anatomy. She observes a general complacency in the culture, one that, concurrent with the celebration and exaltation of parenthood culture, has led to a retrograde lapse of approval for non-mothers. All this reaffirms that the relatively new freedom of choice is a precious one.
Accordingly, several writers have availed themselves of contraception and abortion. While sharing the circumstances around her terminations, Anna Holmes (“Mommy Fearest”) offers asides about the burden of child care, paralyzing fear and not so much doubt in her caregiver instincts as the suspicion that she’d be so good at it she would not need to do anything else. “Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.”
If there is precious little of this kind of self-deprecation in the collection, it’s likely because most writers will have used up their allotted supply of good humour over the years of being cornered at family gatherings/baby showers/dinner parties. As catchy as the practised, breezy replies are, for there to be any rapprochement between the two so-called factions, the conversation needs fewer glib quips and facile Time articles that place the choice to have children on par with, or at the expense of, indulging in other expensive fetish items such as Manolo Blahnik stilettos.
Some in the anthology have already gone down in infamy for their honesty in writing about the subject, whether in fiction (Shriver) or non, as psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer did 25 years ago when she published the article and subsequent book Beyond Motherhood. As she explains a stance she calls the “affirmative no,” Safer’s essay offers the benefit of both hindsight and déjà vu – when her original article came out in 1989, she was part of a discussion that played out with a previous generation, the daughters of 1960s feminism. The most pernicious thing grandiose articles such as the Time cover story do, she says, isn’t create an us/them dichotomy, but perpetuate the fantasy that it’s possible to live without regrets.
Essays such as Houston’s observe with empathy the reality of living with any choice: the close friends who love parenthood and find it as rewarding as it is challenging; the friends who thought they would like it better than they do; the few who pretend to love it “but everyone within 12 square miles can hear them grinding their teeth.” She pairs each dénouement with its corresponding childless opposite.
Parents don’t have the monopoly on what-if wistfulness. For these writers, the occasional pang of regret – wist’s louder and more plaintive sibling – seemed a better option than a daily one, but, lest we forget, Safer also reminds us that female biology makes the decision as irrevocable as parenthood: Non-motherhood is forever, too.
Nathalie Atkinson is an arts journalist and film critic, and a weekly columnist in Globe Style; she’s on Twitter @NathAt.Report Typo/Error