There is no shortage of good writing on being a mother. Just recently, writers like Joan Didion (Blue Nights), Rachel Cusk (A Life’s Work) and Ayelet Waldman (Bad Mother) have devoted entire literary memoirs to the subject. Nor is there any lack of bad writing on motherhood. (Type “mommy blogs” into Google.) As Heather Havrilesky wrote in The New York Times last year, the status of mother has been promoted to “an all-encompassing identity with demands and expectations that eclipse everything else in a woman’s life.” It’s no wonder every aspect of childbearing has been parsed to the point of cliché.
But as the new essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, makes clear, deciding not to be a mother makes for just as profound and dramatic a subject as parenthood. “Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions,” writes Daum in her introduction, “people who opt out of parenthood…are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics.…We do not hate children.” In an essay in The New Yorker last year, Daum divulged her own complex feelings toward having kids—describing how, even after marrying a man she considered “outstanding dad material,” her ambivalence never grew into anything more. She didn’t feel particularly sad after a pregnancy, at age 41, ended in a miscarriage. And when she sees women pushing strollers, she feels “no envy at all, only relief.”
The 13 women and three men who contributed to this volume are all content in their childlessness, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. Some are single; some have partners. Some reject the label “childless” in favor of the more cheery-sounding “child-free,” while others, like Tim Kreider, find that term “aggressive.” Some knew from the time they were kids themselves that “parent” was a role they never wanted. At age 7, Danielle Henderson told her grandmother she would never have babies. As a little girl, Courtney Hodell couldn’t understand why other kids wanted to play with dolls. Others came to their decision more gradually, growing to see children as incompatible with other aspects of their lives they prized—career, travel, writing, freedom, personal agency. Sigrid Nunez knew that being a writer was her most important job. Anna Holmes feared that becoming a mother would threaten her own identity, that it would overshadow her “need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena.” Lionel Shriver simply doesn’t think children do much for women’s happiness: “However rewarding at times, raising children can be also hard, trying, and dull, inevitably ensnaring us in those sucker values of self-sacrifice and duty.”
Laura Kipnis attacks the notion of “maternal instinct,” arguing that it’s just another social convention—no more valid than the idea that women belong at home or don’t experience sexual urges. Daum maintains that the childless “bear no worse psychological scars” from their own upbringings than those who go on to become parents—but while it’s impossible to compare the degree of emotional scarring sustained by parents and non-parents, it’s also hard to imagine that growing up thinking “all children were unwanted” had no impact on Sigrid Nunez’s decision not to have kids, or that believing that home was a place where “all respect disappeared” and “a domestic form of war prevailed” might not have deterred Michelle Huneven.
Many of the women go out of their way to develop relationships with kids, as teachers, aunts, mentors and friends. Daum volunteers with foster children. (The collection suffers from one obvious bias: All the contributors are successful writers, and as Daum points out, writers tend to have a high tolerance for solitude and financial instability–conditions not exactly conducive to child-rearing.)
When we talk about childless women, we usually talk about women who can’t get pregnant. In fiction, these women are often portrayed as the objects of pity: Monica on Friends, Charlotte on Sex and the City. Sometimes, they are a cautionary tale. Scientists endlessly debate the age at which a woman’s fertility begins to decline; women are urged to settle down, to shack up with “Mr. Good Enough” or find a husband on campus lest they waste their most fertile years. Sometimes, women are cast as heroes who’ve triumphed over infertility. Recently, The New York Times dedicated a page of the Style section to the story of a couple who persevered through four years of IVF before finally conceiving twins. In such a climate, it can be easy to forget that childbearing is not every woman’s most dearly held goal. But as these sixteen essays prove, it’s not–for reasons that, for these writers, are sometimes selfish or self-absorbed, but never shallow or unconsidered.