No Kids, No Problem
This 2015 collection, edited and with an introduction by Meghan Daum should be read by anyone on the fence regarding children. I’ve often wondered how much a woman’s decision to bear children is her own desire, how much is societal pressure — a sort of avoidance of the stigma (cultural shaming) for not contributing to the birthrate. The actual title, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is an ironic shout back at media that has portrayed childless adults as such. After reading these sixteen writers, including three men (one gay), I feel in good company on my writerly path to no kids.
The collection does not pit the have-them against the have-them-not. The writers are all probing and anything but shallow, selfish, or self-absorbed. They all affirm what the enlightened reader already knows, that having children in today’s world really should be a respected choice, without shame or stigma, but with validation for one’s decision either way.
Writes Daum, it is “crucial that society stop assuming that everyone should be a parent, people who want kids will always outnumber people who don’t.” One writer notes that not long ago people had children to help with survival and to take care of them in old age. Now many parents must help their children well into adulthood.
Sigrid Nunez (born in 1951), who from an early age believed she had a vocation to be a writer, speaks for many female writers when she writes, “No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children. Colette . . . gave birth to an unwanted daughter whom she neglected.” And there is Doris Lessing who left behind two young children in southern Africa to move to London. Nunez quotes Lessing as saying, “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”
Of course, bearing children is not an either/or with regard to a writing career, but these essays shine a light on the depth and breadth of the decision involved. Daum says, “ . . . writers, outliers though they may be, are the ones whose job it is to write. They are the ones charged with putting the world’s complications and contradictions into more universal terms.” Thus, this book is valuable for those with or without, wanting or not wanting offspring.
Many of the writers give a nod to the wonders of parenthood. A few, no surprise, sound almost apologetic for choosing child-free (a word that seems verboten in the collection—they all use “childless”). Not one underestimates the great undertaking that raising children entails.
But then, there is the humorous dissing of kids in Geoff Dyer’s essay. Dyer writes, “Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)? It comes, I suppose, from wanting to have sex.” The satirical Dyer might be using hyperbole when he says that “an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles.”
Laura Kipnis takes to task the “overly sentimentalized notions of motherhood,” while other writers go out of their way to express love of children. Daum reports, “ . . . in no case do I think anyone’s choice boiled down to writing versus children.” In fact, she writes there are “a surprising number of real and would-be pregnancies in these stories, ending in elective abortion, miscarriage, or a sudden change of heart about trying to get knocked up in the first place.” Acclaimed writer Pam Houston approaches the child issue from “the tyranny of the ‘having it all’ message and the backward march of reproductive politics in the United States.”
The most abrasive writing of the so-called “child hunger” or mommy need is in Lionel Shriver’s take-no-prisoners essay. It originally appeared in the Guardian with this subtitle: The population is shrinking, but why should I care . . . My life is far too interesting to spoil it with children. Shriver writes about being called the “anti-mom” because of her novel We Need To Talk About Kevin (winner of the Orange Prize). According to the Guardian, Catholic websites criticized the book for “being hostile to family.” They would.
If you’ve ever endured the sound of silence after you reply No to the question Do you have kids?, you will appreciate Shriver’s unapologetic, booming offensive. The silence might be due to the fact that the person who makes such an inquiry believes you and everyone want children. I have stopped defensively following up my no with “oh, but I love them and have many nieces and nephews.” Let the asker fill the silence.
Recently, a New Yorker fiction writer used the word barren in his story to describe the narrator’s friends who had no kids. I couldn’t help but lose interest. It is just one of numerous demeaning, prejudicial terms, barren—a throwback to husbands who considered leaving “unworthy” wives who didn’t deliver their progeny. If the writer had used the outdated term with irony I would have followed his thread.
We have heard and continue to hear more about the wonders of motherhood, less about the down sides. It is time someone carried the other torch. As Daum and these sixteen writers do, let us all rail against “the taboo of choosing a life other than parenthood.”