I began to seriously question whether or not I want to have kids one Wednesday at 9 p.m. while having my hair checked for lice. I was sitting in a black swivel chair, wearing a leopard-print hairdresser cape, as an older woman meticulously worked through my scalp with mint-scented conditioner, baking soda, and a fine-tooth comb.
For the past six months, since completing my MFA, I have been working as a nanny for a five-year-old girl to support my writing habit. The reason babysitters get paid as much as they do is because taking care of kids is hard. While my hours don’t come close to those of an actual parent, this sort of babysitting––working one-on-one with the same child, five days a week, for months––is much different than rolling in on Friday night, making popcorn, throwing on a movie, and then reading for three hours while the kids sleep. Instead, you get the whole range: highs, lows, joys, frustrations, emotional drain, and exposure to lice. Call it Parenting Lite. I’ve spent much time thinking about how, if writing while babysitting is challenging, could I ever be a writer and also an actual parent?
Meghan Daum has edited a collection of essays that addresses this topic: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Everyone is supposed to want to have kids. If people choose not to have kids, they often feel compelled to come up with an excuse: they can’t afford it, they had a messed up childhood, they don’t like kids, or they aren’t able to have children. “When people ask why I don’t have kids,” writes Elliott Holt, “I sometimes say, ‘I’m forty; that ship has sailed.’ Or I say, ‘I’m focused on producing books, not children.’ Or, ‘I can’t afford to have a child on my own.’ That’s all true, it’s just not the full story.”
The sixteen writers in this book dig to unearth the full story behind why each of them has chosen not to have children (“and, to be clear,” writes Daum in her introduction, “this is a book about deciding not to have children; not being able to have them when you want them is another matter entirely”). Too often the childfree are assumed to be obsessed with work, self-involved, and, when they get older, full of regret. However, as Daum writes in her introduction, “there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent.” The range of essays in this collection is astounding. Each writer arrived at the decision to be childfree in her own way. As Daum says, “Those of us who choose not to become parents are kind of like Unitarians or transplanted Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.”
Some realized that they would make better aunts than mothers, because, contrary to popular belief, a woman who does not have children of her own is not necessarily a woman who hates kids. Courtney Hodell, a devoted aunt to her gay brother’s daughter, writes, “I love [children] for their wild experiments with language; for their inability to feign interest in things that do not truly grip them; for their seriousness and total immersion in play.” Rosemary Mahoney adds, “Children can be wicked, unreasonable, insufferable little shits. And yet I love them… because of the way their emotions dance and glow on the surface for all to see. They have neither the guile nor the wile to hide how they feel. Very quickly, you know who they really are.” As the title of her essay proclaims, Holt realized she was better suited to be “Just an Aunt” to her sisters’ children, and Laura Kipnis enjoys winning the favor of her niece and nephews by slipping them hundred-dollar bills with her “picture taped over Franklin’s.” To assume that anyone without children despises them is ridiculous. As Sigrid Nunez writes, “I get flustered when a person says to me, I don’t like children. I was a child, I want to say.”
Several writers take on a more philosophical or political approach. Kipnis, writing a feminist tirade against “historical artifact” masquerading as “biological instinct,” cuts down the argument that women have a “natural” maternal urge: “But what’s with all the sentimentality about nature anyway, and the kowtowing to it, as though adhering to the ‘natural’ had some sort of ethical force? It’s not like nature is such a friend to womankind, not like nature doesn’t just blithely kill women off on a random basis during childbirth or anything… It’s only modern technology’s role in overriding nature––lowering the maternal death rate, inventing decent birth control methods––that’s offered women some modicum of self-determination.” Tim Kreider argues that it is “inarguably saner and more responsible” not to bring children into the world in its present state, considering how costly and awful things are. Geoff Dyer writes, “Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am most hostile… The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose.” Lionel Shriver seems to agree, saying, yes, the Western population is diminishing because individuals are opting out of parenthood, and maybe it’s a tragedy that the most intellectual, educated people are not the ones reproducing, but why do we owe the future anything? We won’t be around to experience it.
Many argue against hypocritical views on parenthood, especially motherhood. Kipnis writes, “child raising is not what you’d call a socially valued activity in our time despite the endless sanctimony about how important it is, which those doing the labor of it can’t help being furious about––quietly furious about being dropped down a few dozen rungs in the social-equity ranks.” I have felt this myself, as a babysitter: “Oh, you got your Masters to… become a… nanny?” as if, because you don’t need an official degree to take care of a child, any idiot can do it. Nunez adds, “Motherhood is one of the most significant as well as one of the most widely shared of all human experiences… Yet who can name a major novel by a canonical writer, male or female, that takes motherhood for its main subject?” She goes on to cite Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, “an international literary hit that contains much minutely detailed description of such things as diaper changing, baby feeding, and dealing with tantrums, that the world has sat up and found this confessional domestic material, now that it is revealed through male eyes, not just worth of interest but sensational.”
The emotional depth of the anthology overwhelmed me. “It took me a long time to figure out how to fill my life with the love my parents didn’t seem able to give me,” writes Danielle Henderson in “Save Yourself,” about the abuse and abandonment she suffered growing up. “I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself instead.”
The contributors talk candidly about abortion and miscarriage. Daum writes, “For a book about not having children, there are a surprising number of real and would-be pregnancies in these stories…” Many of the women in this anthology throw away the distraught-and-conflicted-do-I-or-don’t-I-full-of-later-regret script that comes with abortion––showing the broad range of feelings that come with making such a decision; Pam Houston writes about choosing to terminate her pregnancy because it would interfere with her book tour and be detrimental to her writing career. Mahoney, on the opposite end of the spectrum, went as far as to conceive through a sperm donor, only to lose the baby: “I’d had to come nearly face-to-face with my own child to know that I did not want to be, nor believe I could be, anyone’s mother.” Kate Christensen went out to celebrate her miscarriage––drinking tequila and smoking cigarettes.
Part of the problem with today’s conversations about motherhood is there is not enough room in the public discourse for the many complicated feelings that come with it. Many women love being mothers, some don’t like it as much as they thought they would, others pretend to love it but don’t, and some pretend motherhood is the worst but secretly love it, explains Houston: “And then there are my childless friends, who fit right into corresponding categories: the ones who love childlessness, the ones who regret it, and the ones who pretend to be in the opposite camp from the one they’re in.” Anna Holmes writes, “I believe that there is something else going on here, a societal discomfort not just with women who choose to remain childless but with those who decide to become mothers and dare to confess to feelings of frustration and exasperation over the choices they have made.” From childhood, women are forced to swallow the idea that being pregnant and having a child is the most beautiful, powerful, important thing a woman can do in the world. In reality, having a fetus growing inside you can feel more like a multiplying tumor or a greedy parasite: “At night, I lay awake, trying not to feel trapped, invaded, hijacked by this thing inside me, this rapidly growing person who was simultaneously independent of me, entitled to me, wholly depend on me, and part of me,” writes Christensen. “My body, which all my life had been my own, inhabited solely by me, free to do whatever it wanted, now felt entirely given over to the task of growing this stranger… Sometimes I was excited. Other times, I was freaked out… I’d never be wholly autonomous again. That’s what motherhood was, in a nutshell.”
So much of this anthology is about motherhood––thirteen of the sixteen contributors are women––because society pressures women to have children in a way that men do not experience. In fact, Paul Lisicky, one of the three male contributors, for a long time never thought he even had the option, as a gay man, to become a parent––a completely different experience than that of someone born with a uterus. Kreider writes, “there’s a sort of role model or template for a man who doesn’t want kids––the Confirmed Bachelor… at worst, we’re considered selfish or immature; women who don’t want to have children are regarded as unnatural, traitors to their sex, if not the specifies. Men who don’t want kids get a dismissive eye roll, but the reason to women who don’t want them is more like: What’s wrong with you?” Mahoney found herself having to explain her childlessness in Greece, “for in Greece (I might as easily say ‘for in the entire universe’), a woman who doesn’t want children is anomalous, aberrant and suspect. To choose not to have children is to stretch too far outside the inherited rule that procreation is both a biological and a civic requisite for full and proper membership in the human race.” Even Shriver, the great “Antimom” and author of We Need to Talk About Kevin––a book about the horror of mothering a psychopath––feels guilt over not having children. So often, women are spoken to and speak about when they have children, not if. When, as a child herself, Henderson declared she would never have kids, her grandmother kindly suggested, “You’ll probably change your mind.” How much of “you’ll probably change your mind” is actually “you’ll probably get worn down eventually”? Women perpetuate society’s expectations on each other, saying “you’ll feel differently when you’re older” or “having a baby is the only way for a woman to ever stop being all about herself,” writes Houston, as she argues for women to have the “freedom of choice”. “Is it necessarily a bad thing when a woman gets to be all about herself? Is that not what our feminist foremothers were trying to tell us, that if a woman actually has five minutes to be all about herself she might find a cure for breast cancer, or win an Olympic gold medal, or negotiate peace in Gaza, or become president of the United States?”
Even women who want to have a baby sometimes only want to have one to feel like a normal, socially acceptable woman. Jeanne Safer struggled with conflicted feelings for a long time, and finally realized, “I don’t really want to have a baby; I want to want to have a baby.” Adds M.G. Lord: “Many women who lost their mothers as children go on to flourish as mothers themselves… I wanted to be one of those women.” So many of these writers have struggled with coming to terms with who they want to be, and who they really are.
“Motherhood was like school; it was inescapable,” says Nunez. Breaking that inescapable assumption is what this anthology is about. “I have been grateful for the freedom not to have children––it is a relatively new freedom, unknown to most women throughout history,” writes Michelle Huneven. “At times, I feel like a pioneer, a woman who has had access to countless new opportunities, including the chance to craft a life best suited to her own skills and temperament.” This anthology is also about changing the way we talk about parenthood. “Living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else and where a woman’s personal choices are often considered matters of public discussion means everyone thinks they have the right to discuss my body and my choices,” writes Henderson. “As bothered as I am by having to defend my decision, I’m more incensed that people think they have the right to ask.”
In the end, the thing I find most remarkable about Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is the self-awareness of these writers. “It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption,” proclaims Daum. So many people fall into parenthood simply because they think they’re supposed to. It takes a lot of soul-searching to realize that, perhaps, having children is not for you. Safer writes, “I tried to confront every feeling I had, no matter how excruciating. Taking this route to self-fulfillment required that I pay attention to what I really felt, as opposed to what I was supposed to feel, or wished I did… advocating for the person you truly are as opposed to the one you think you’re supposed to be.” Through self-reflection, many of these writers realized they would not be the best parents. “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,” writes Nunez. “But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die… 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.” Besides, Kreider argues, there is something special about rejecting that biological course of action: “All living things on this planet have a simple two-part mission: to (1) survive long enough to (2) self-replicate. It is a complex animal indeed, arguable one too highly evolved for its own good, that consciously declines to fulfill one of its few basic biological imperatives. The only act more perverse and unnatural than purposefully not reproducing is suicide… you could argue that choosing not to have children, like suicide, is uniquely human.”
To be human is to be complicated, messy, and imperfect. No matter what kind of a person you are, or how you live your life, you will feel regret. “Since I already regret every other thing I have ever done or failed to do, I don’t see why [my decision not to have children] should be exempt,” declares Kreider. Dyer enthusiastically proclaims, “[Regret] will happen whether you have no kids, one kid, or a dozen. When it comes to regret, everyone’s a winner!”
For too long the worlds of parents and non-parents have been divided, with each group throwing judgmental side-eye in the direction of the other. Henderson writes, “As a woman who chooses to be childless, I generally have just one problem: other adults.” Kreider adds, “People on both sides of the reproductive divide tend to be self-congratulatory about choices that are, let’s be honest, completely beyond their conscious control, like people who’ve inherited wealth thinking they deserve it.” No one should feel ashamed by the choices they make for their life, and no one should judge others for the choices they make. This is a conversation we should be able to have without defensiveness or embarrassment, and I am thrilled that Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is attempting to make that conversation happen. As Daum says, “It’s about time.”
As for me, the jury is still out on the future of my reproductive organs. The fear of missing out on the experience of having a child is powerful. Nunez quotes a one-sentence Lydia Davis story that encapsulates that emotion perfectly: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.” I remember a conversation I had in high school, with my then-boyfriend, where I said, rather casually, that I didn’t know if I wanted to have kids one day. He was shocked: “How could you want to miss out on one of the greatest life experiences?” But to have an experience––to have a child––just for your own sake, regardless of whether or not you think you would make a good parent––isn’t that the most selfish thing of all?
– E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. holds an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs a series of interviews with women writers of nonfiction on Fiction Advocate. You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.