Beyond Binaries: On ‘Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids’

March 31, 2015 | 1 book mentioned 15 8 min read


Growing up, parenthood wasn’t central to my fantasies of adult life — but it wasn’t in opposition to them, either. By the time I was in my 20s and working as a bookseller and writing, and then going to graduate school and then getting married, and still writing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids. But when I turned 29, the urge to be a mother arrived, and it was so powerful it embarrassed me. Baby Fever! I had it! It wasn’t so much that I made a decision as the decision was made for me, by my body. Thankfully, my husband thought it was a good idea. A year later, there we were: someone’s mother and father.

There are some parents who feel that parenting is their vocation, the central reason for their existence. I don’t feel that way. Raising my son is an important and beautiful facet of my life, but it’s not the only one. Maybe that’s because the desire to have a child came upon me suddenly, almost by surprise, or maybe it’s because I already have a vocation, writing, which took hold of me long ago. Despite my biological imperative, I’m certain I would have still lived a fulfilling life had I not had my child. For me, that makes parenting all the more pleasurable and meaningful. It wasn’t the only path of fulfillment and happiness I saw before me, and it’s never felt like some destined part of my identity, and yet, I chose it. I choose it every day.

The truth is, sometimes my childless self shadows me as I kiss my son’s soft, impossibly milk-pale neck, or when I’m answering one of his big questions (“Why do we have to die, Mama?”), or when we’re kneeling on the sidewalk inspecting a potato bug with the focus of portrait painters. That self is there for the shitty stuff too: when I fail to control my voice as I tell my son, for the sixth time, to get dressed for school already, or when all I want in this world is for him to go to bed so that my husband and I can have the evening to ourselves. My childless self is alternately bereft and relieved at the path not taken. My son has taught me so much about the world, myself, and the human animal in general, but to have decided not to do something — well, that would have taught me something too, wouldn’t it?

Both of my selves, the real one with a kid and imagined one without, read Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, which offers a diverse array of personal experiences despite the commonality of subject. Daum writes in her introduction, “I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.” That’s refreshing for this reader, who’s a parent but who also has no trouble identifying with non-parents; though we might come to different decisions (to become parents or not), we still worry and ponder and project in similar ways. Or maybe not: for example, compare Geoff Dyer’s witty opening, “I’ve had only two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved”), with Kate Christensen’s more sobering, “I don’t have kids, and I’m very glad I don’t, although there was a time when I wanted them more than anything.” The anthology’s variation in tone proves that, like those with children, the childless aren’t some monolithic group with identical motives.

coverAs a mother, I found comfort in Laura Kipnis’s essay, “Maternal Instincts,” which puts parenting in its historical context. Kipnis reminds us that the maternal bond is a fairly recent social invention, writing: “No one ever talked about such bonding before the rise of industrialization, when wage labor first became an option for women.” Sigrid Nunez echoes this sentiment in “The Most Important Thing,” describing her upbringing: “When I think of the people among who I grew up, it’s as if I were looking back not fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern belief in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun.” It’s not that I don’t believe in the preciousness of childhood or the maternal bond — I’m a woman of my era, after all — but it’s liberating to recognize that many of my essential behaviors are learned, just as it was liberating to read Gender Trouble by Judith Butler in college and question the naturalness of my female identity. Such recognition and questioning gives me the freedom to be whatever and whomever I want; it also, in the context of parenting, lets me share with my husband the tasks and responsibilities of child rearing without feeling like I’m any less of a mother. (If I had a penny for every time a person asks me, somewhat alarmed, “Where’s your son?” when I’m out doing a reading, I’d have at least a dollar by now…) It also keeps me from expecting myself to feel a certain way about parenthood: that I should love this part of it, or complain about that part of it, an endless list of shoulds that doesn’t make me a better, more present mother.

Within days of my son’s birth, people kept asking me if I was in love with my baby, if I felt a love greater than anything I had ever known, etc., etc. They expected my answer to be a resounding yes, and it didn’t feel like there was room for another kind of answer. “Sheesh,” I would say instead, “I only just met the guy.” In fact, many of my mother-friends have reported their love for their babies with a mixture of manic delight and intense relief. (Relief, that is, that one isn’t a monster, as feared, but a true, rightful mother.) Laura Kipnis reminds us of the pernicious political and social consequences of perpetrating the “natural” myth: “What’s the most advantageous story to adopt about female biology and nature? If we keep telling the one about nature speaking to women in a direct hookup from womb to brain, then guess what? This will parlay into who should do the social job of child rearing and under what conditions.” The cultural pressure we place on all women to want and have babies has a negative impact on those women who do end up having kids, and we are foolish to forget it.

The essays I enjoyed most in the anthology used the theme of childlessness to talk about something else. The first in the collection, “Babes in the Woods” by Courtney Hodell, depicts the author’s meaningful relationship with her brother, only 11 months older. She writes of their “private mythology of brother and sister as two faces of a coin” and describes how her own sense of self shifted when he became a dad. While she fears she’s “a kind of human geode: sparkly and hollow,” she is surprised to discover that her brother is a natural father. “How was he allowed to be different from me?” she asks. We’ve all been close to someone, and we’ve all asked ourselves this.

In “Just An Aunt” Elliott Holt is honest about her struggles with depression, and writes, “The fact that I don’t have kids is less the result of a decision than a collapse.” She’s referring to a deep depression she fell into at age 36, just when she would have had to make parenthood a priority; Holt uses that dark period to think back to other moments of depression and personal anguish and how that’s influenced her decision to remain childless. Holt is clear-eyed about herself and her struggles, and there is courage in admitting, “if I have another debilitating depression, I won’t endanger any kids.” Her spare style and her voice, at once confident and vulnerable, moved me.

In “The New Rhoda” Paul Lisicky writes, “In a not-so-distant past, men like me often died in their twenties and thirties.” His essay brilliantly glances at the anthology topic on its way to documenting what sex, life, and death meant for a gay man in the 1980s, and what it means to him now:

Imagine it. Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you came into intimate contact with. How could your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, your skin again? When you finally got the nerve to be tested, and found out that you did not carry those grenades, could you still think of that fluid as a substance you’d choose to make a baby with? Imagine it.

One does not feel exactly undead after being dead for so long.

This essay knocked me flat. As with Holt’s, I loved its honesty: “I thought I could imagine what it could be like to be in my straight male friends’ skin, to be swept and stopped by some beautiful woman as she walks down the street. But the sexual allure of reproduction? Really?” A sentence later, he isn’t afraid to assert difference: “I’ve never been more alien from the men I thought I’d known.”

In the end, though, what most fascinated me about this anthology was how certain some contributors were that parenthood would have kept them from writing. For her essay, “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” Lionel Shriver interviews another childless mother who says, “Had I had children, I would have written no books, nor would I have become a particularly successful journalist.” Sigrid Nunez, in her essay “The Most Important Thing,” quotes Jeanette Winterson in an interview she gave in 1997: “I can’t find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children.” Sigrid also quotes an interview with Alice Munro, in which Munro regrets batting her young daughter away from the typewriter. A couple of pages later, Nunez asks herself:

Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over.

I had a different childhood than Nunez, which makes a big difference, for I never went into motherhood with the expectation of total devotion, and I never placed before myself an either/or choice: writing or parenthood. I do think it’s possible to love your child unconditionally, and to also care deeply about one’s artistic pursuits. They aren’t mutually exclusive. (And I doubt that Alice Munro’s daughter holds a grudge against her mother!) For me, at least, there are quite a few female literary models to look to for support and guidance.

In “The Hardest Art” Rosemary Mahoney chronicles the anxiety she experienced upon becoming pregnant from artificial insemination and the feelings of inadequacies that took over. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia’s rules for good child rearing: “Infinite patience, infinite tenderness, infinite magnanimity — no less will do, and we must practise them as far as finite power will allow.” Finite power is right, people! Sheesh, is anyone, anyone at all, capable under this exacting rubric? (Also, do we need to be taking such ye olden parenting advice? I feel like Laura Kipnis would have something to say about this!) In her essay, Mahoney is wonderfully self-aware about her own faults, but I bristled when she pronounced, “The one who brings a child into the world has a responsibility to give the child everything, to put the child before all else.” This, to me, sounds like a kid talking, and in some ways it is, for the smart and thoughtful writers in this anthology speak not only as artists, but also from the experience of being children. Many of them still retain the specific longings and resentments of that role. Perhaps Danielle Henderson is most up-front about this in her essay “Save Yourself” when she writes, “I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself.”

This occasional motif of parenthood-as-complete-devotion isn’t a flaw of the anthology because it got me thinking a lot about why I made the choice to have a kid, and how my role as a mother has shaped my writing life, how it’s both energized and limited it. As Jeanne Safer writes in her essay, “there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything — no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it’s possible to live without regrets. Every important choice has benefits and its deficits.” It’s this kind of open-minded honesty that will move the topic away from its limiting us versus them binaries.

Emailing about this very subject, a friend recently asked me, “Doesn’t anyone bumble around, scared and uncertain about the future? Doesn’t time just sometimes pass? Isn’t everyone just doing their best? Isn’t everyone scared? Isn’t everyone worried about meaninglessness?” After finishing Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, and after living my own life, I can say with conviction: Yes. We all do. I’m happy to have the company.

(And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick my son up from school.)

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.