In comedy, motherhood can be as touchy a subject as race or politics. A comic who talks onstage about her parenting skills risks being judged for them by the audience. The same goes for a comic who talks about not wanting children, which is still a foreign concept to many.
But a comedian’s private life is often fodder for her public work. Jen Kirkman, author of the new book “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids,” is one of a crop of female stand-up comics writing about the pressures involved in declaring not to want children. Meanwhile, “mom comedy” — comedy by moms, for moms, about motherhood — is emerging as its own genre.
“My whole act is based on the fact that I can’t believe that this is what happened to me and I became a parent,” says comedian Jessie Baade, who lives in Swampscott and was part of a “Mom Showcase” at the 2013 Women in Comedy Festival. “And I became somebody’s wife. It just wasn’t in the cards. The person who was 25 when I started [in comedy] should never have kids. But the person who was 35 when I had my kid was a great parent.”
Robin Maxfield, host of Sunday night’s “HAHA MAMA Mother’s Day Show” at Nick’s Comedy Stop, says that women feel freer than they once did to talk openly onstage about screaming teenagers and the aggravation that goes along with being a mother — experiences that strike a chord with the audience. “They’re much more vocal about saying, ‘This sucks,’ ” says Maxfield, 48, “whereas my generation tried to suck it up and pretend we could do it and suffered silently. This is where the mothering humor is really riding that wave.”
But there’s another, simultaneous cultural wave. The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that one in five women ended her childbearing years with no children, twice the number recorded in the 1970s. Kirkman, a Needham native, is part of that trend. In her book, published in April by Simon & Schuster, she writes about being confronted in a club bathroom after a show. A few jokes onstage about how she doesn’t want kids and isn’t fit for motherhood led a fan to imply she was selfish. It wasn’t an isolated occurrence.
“What ends up happening,” Kirkman says in an interview, “[is] you go to a cocktail party, you go to a wedding, and people say, ‘Do you have kids?’ And you say, ‘Oh, no.’ And they say, ‘Oh, do you want them?’ And you say, ‘Oh, no, they’re not for me.’ And then they keep asking you questions about it. And I end up crying in a bathroom or being told that I’m selfish or being preachy.”
Part of the reason she wrote her book as a memoir was to explain her position. “I just wanted people to get a picture of what a lady who doesn’t want kids looks like from the start of her life,” she says. “To humanize her. I think a lot of people assume that we’re psycho or abused, that we’re cold people. I didn’t think that many people thought that until I started talking about it.”
Like Kirkman, actress, comedian, and writer Henriette Mantel never felt a strong urge to reproduce, and she knew she wasn’t alone. She decided to organize a book of essays written by funny friends, many of them comedians, about not having children. The result is the compilation “No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood,” published in April by Seal Press.
“I think there’s a few through lines that came up from reading these essays 50,000 times, and one is that women just didn’t have that craving thing,” says Mantel. “I think some of my friends get blinded by this estrogen-craving-baby thing. I don’t know what it is. It’s like if they don’t have a baby, they’re going to jump off a cliff.”
“In the comedian world, there’s lots of women who don’t have kids. It’s not considered weird,” says former Boston comic Betsy Salkind, who wrote one of the darker essays in “No Kidding,” embracing the Swiftian premise that, given man’s inhumanity to man, it’s irresponsible to bring another human into this world. There are economic and ecological concerns, she argues. “One of the things I find fascinating is that people generally think that the decision is just this personal decision,” she says, “and they don’t make it in the context of the entire world, in terms of how this is going to affect people as a whole or the planet as a whole. I think it’s not just a personal decision. There are lots of consequences.”
There’s a long tradition — stretching at least from Bill Cosby to Jim Gaffigan, whose new book is called “Dad Is Fat” — of male comedians doing material about their children without necessarily being thought of as “dad comics.” Andrea Henry, who lives in Norton and was part of the Women in Comedy Festival moms show, is shooting for something similar.
“It’s the kind of thing where, ideally, I’d like to be known as Andrea Henry, the very funny comic,’” she says. “ ‘She’s a mom, too, but that’s not her main and only thing she’s doing.’ ”
But mom comedy has become good business: Witness the Nickelodeon channel’s stand-up show, “NickMom Night Out,” devoted to parenting humor and now in its second season. “Our philosophy is, if we can’t laugh about how sublimely ridiculous the parenting experience is, we’ll go nuts,” says Bronwen O’Keefe, senior vice president at NickMom. “And I think that there’s a sudden surge of parents expressing that and being way more vocal than they ever have. I think it really probably got started in a big way with mommy bloggers, who were all of a sudden proliferating [on] the Web with their honest stories, and it turned out that those stories were, a lot of them, very, very funny.”
Stand-up comedy requires strange hours and often doesn’t pay too well, especially while a comic is struggling toward headliner status. But Henry, mother of a 6-year-old, doesn’t see that as an obstacle. She and her husband both have day jobs; she’s a counselor at a local college and he’s a math professor. It might be different, she says, if she were a road comic spending weeks at a time away from home. But Henry can do her work on weekends and evenings, while her husband or family friends take on child-care duty.
Henry is able to travel for things that might lead to a break, and says that if she wanted to go on the road, she and her husband could figure that out. But she would rather do spot work and be able to see her daughter. “It could be an option for me if I wanted it to be,” she says. “It’s just not where I am right now. And I think I’d feel the same way if I were a dad or if I had a job that required a lot of travel. I’d have that same mind-set, that that’s not what I want to be doing right now.”
And, for a comedian, motherhood means material. Baade says having a child has helped to refine her comic identity, and made her a better writer, too. “The direction of your writing gets more personal,” she says, “because you can’t write about your kids without being personal.”Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at