First off, a round of applause to Meghan Daum for putting this book together. With competitive child-rearing practically on the verge of becoming an Olympic sport and mom-shaming a favored pastime of the leisured Internet classes, the time was ripe to deflate some of the insufferable pretensions of parenthood. “I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric,” argues Daum in her introductory essay, “which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.”
Daum has enlisted 16 writers, including Sigrid Nunez, Lionel Shriver, and Geoff Dyer, to clarify why they chose not to have children, with reasons ranging from the heartfelt to the satirical to the utterly kooky. For some, children are a case study in biological determinism. Shriver’s points about the “insidious misanthropy” of our contemporary fixation on happiness are wrapped in a crackpot sandwich of “wistful” feelings about a future majority-minority United States and regret over “the extinction of gene lines that in their various ways played a part in the establishment of Western civilization.” M.G. Lord agrees to adopt a child with her partner, then gets cold feet after reading about the damage caused by maternal smoking and alcohol abuse during pregnancy. As a troubling clincher, she relates a secondhand story about a colleague’s adopted brothers, who “ignored” the “cultural resources” of their childhood home and became “members of a homophobic Christian cult.”
The remainder of “Selfish” offers a series of alternately entertaining and heartfelt variations on a theme.
For many, the prospect of parenthood is a reminder of their own childhood, time folding in on itself to superimpose the ghost-child to be atop the real child that once was. Sexual abuse, emotional abandonment, parents with little interest in caring for children — all linger, under the skin, rendering the prospect of parenthood intolerable or distasteful.
For others — remember, this is a book about the childfree life whose contributors are all writers — it is the work of creating that takes the place of creating life. Pam Houston was on the verge of publishing her first book when she got pregnant. Her mother told her, “You have a very special talent, Pam, and if you decide to have that baby, you are going to become perfectly ordinary, exactly like everyone else.” Not having children can preserve not only your artistic freedom, but, according to Kate Christensen, your regular-issue freedom, as well: “[T]o daydream; to cook exactly the food we want when we want it; to drink wine and watch a movie without worrying about who’s not yet asleep upstairs . . . to shape our days to our own liking; and to stay connected to each other without feeling fractured.”
The illusion of “having it all” by having children seems to be replaced here with the illusion of having it all by not having them. Life, as numerous other contributors suggest, with children or without, is about regret: “If I’ve never forgotten the taste,” suggests Geoff Dyer, “that is because under- or overcooked regret is the main dish — the very taste — of adulthood.”
It turns out that answering the question of why you don’t have children requires a response to an even more difficult question: What is the purpose of life? What if raising children does not provide all the meaning we need? What if we need to do more than change diapers in order to find our place in the world? “Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal — and I believe it is — perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity,” argues Houston.
The wickedest entries are by Geoff Dyer and Tim Kreider. (Women generally aren’t offered the privilege of being publicly funny about not wanting children, although the effervescent Laura Kipnis takes it anyway.) Kreider, in fact, dispenses with the talk of innate parental instincts and cuts to the chase: “Raising children is one of many life experiences I’m happy to die without having had, like giving birth, going to war, spending a night in jail, or seeing ‘Forrest Gump.’ ” Having done both, I can vouch for the fact that raising children is far superior to “Forrest Gump,’’ but the artificially limited discourse around parenthood, and the implicit diminishment of those who choose not to procreate, is an idol in urgent need of being smashed. “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed” gives it a good, hard push.
SELFISH, SHALLOW, AND SELF-ABSORBED: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
Edited by Meghan Daum
Picador, 288 pp., $26Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Community.’ ”