Not so very long ago, hardly anyone seemed to think deeply about whether to have kids. It was just what people did. Now, all that has changed. By 2004, the share of American women who had reached the age of forty without ever having a biological child hit a high of about 20 percent. Some of those women may now wish it were otherwise. But a growing number of people — men as well as women, married couples as well as single people — are making the affirmative choice not to raise children. And in Meghan Daum’s new collection, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, they are telling their personal stories.
Perhaps because all of the book’s contributors are successful writers, just about all of the chapters are engaging. (To see quotes from each of the writers, click here.) The kid question is often relegated — dismissively — to the women’s table, so it’s noteworthy that three of the authors are men. Many of the contributors are proud of their decisions not to have kids, yet not one of them demeans parents as “breeders” (though there are some amusing and irreverent perspectives on parenting). And none insist on calling themselves “childfree” rather than “childless.”
One of the most important themes of the book is the range of experiences among people who don’t have kids. Some of the contributors are adamantly opposed, while others always knew they were not interested and never experienced it as an issue. Still others were wildly ambivalent, and a few were bound and determined to be a parent — until they weren’t.
As they tell their stories, the writers take on how others denigrate them. With a book title that impishly refers to them as “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed,” they describe the insults and intrusive questions lobbed their way. They share the pain of being excluded by once-close friends once those friends have kids, and in one instance (Courtney Hodell’s essay), the sting of losing their place of prominence in the life of a cherished sibling.
They do not, though, make the case that parents get benefits and protections, in the marketplace and in the law, that people without children do not get. In fact, Laura Kipnis and Sigrid Nunez make a different sort of case — that the supposed valuing of mothers in America is mostly sentimentalized mush, a soft offering without the hard backing of policies that would make the lives of parents more dignified and keep their kids out of poverty.
Overall, the contributors have heard all of the standard arguments, constructs, and clichés about their lives, and they are not taking it anymore. They challenge the trope of “having it all;” remind us that “maternal instinct” is a cultural construct, not a biological imperative; and offer some cheeky come-backs to the charge that people who choose not to have children will deserve the blame if the species does not perpetuate itself. They have been taunted with the threat that they will regret their decision not to have kids when they get older. At least one of them, though — Jeanne Safer — is already at that age when she is supposed to be feeling the regret, but her experiences and perspectives offer a much more nuanced and affirming view of what it means to be within reach of your seventies without any kids of your own.
Perhaps surprising is that one of the contributors joins in on the bashing of the childless — and that it is Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a novel about a son who opens fire on his classmates and how his parents cope with having raised a murderer.
She may have written about a violent son, but Shriver lets us know that she “long ago wearied of being the Antimom.” About the many people without children in her social circle, she adds this: “My friends and I are decent people — or at least we treat each other well. We’re interesting. We’re fun. But writ large, we’re an economic, cultural, and moral disaster.”
Many of the contributors attempt to explain why they decided not to have kids — but one, Tim Kreider, is skeptical of these explanations. Science is skeptical, too. Stacks of studies show that we humans are not always very accurate about the reasons for our behaviors. It is not that we are deliberately trying to mislead other people (well, not all the time), but that we just don’t always know ourselves as well as we think we do.
Still, the contributors’ attempts to make sense of their decisions are worth reading, heeding, and celebrating. Daum’s collection is getting tons of attention — nearly all of it laudatory — and I’m delighted. It also makes me wish that earlier collections on the related topic of living single (Diane Mapes’s Single State of the Union: Single Women Speak Out on Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Happiness and Jane Ganahl’s Single Women of a Certain Age: Romantic Escapades, Shifting Shapes, and Serene Independence) had garnered as much fanfare. It’s been a while. Perhaps someone needs to try again, and, as Daum does, include men this time.
Here, though, on the subject of children, we have made some progress. When one of the book’s contributors, Jeanne Safer, first wrote about her choice not to have kids 25 years ago, she was so ashamed that she hid behind a pseudonym. Now she and many others write heartfelt essays and proudly sign their names to them. In 21st century America, the decision about whether to have children is a genuine choice. And that’s a true triumph.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
Picador, March 2015
Hardcover, 288 pages