By Kate Bolick
Today 19 percent of American women reach their mid-40s without ever having a child — a figure that has nearly doubled in four decades, a truly staggering statistic. The sheer velocity of its emergence suggests a unity of intent, as if an army of Gen Xers came of age razing day care centers and burning diapers, and continues to march steadily into the future, attracting new recruits by the minute.
I suspect even these ostensible trailblazers wish it were that straightforward. A 2012 Centers for Disease Control report shows that among women in the 40-44 age bracket — the final reckoning, according to such surveys — 22 percent were “childless by choice,” compared with 35 percent who felt they didn’t have any say in the matter. Far from being a unified front, this growing demographic tilts toward women who had a wish about how their lives would turn out that didn’t come true.
The mystery of whether this wish is a personal urge, a biological imperative or the unconscious internalization of an inescapable cultural expectation haunts “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids,” an anthology of personal essays edited by Meghan Daum. Scientists can remind us that we’re unique among living beings in our capacity to deliberately abstain from reproduction; family historians can report in chilling detail the ways in which the mother-child bond is a fairly recent social construct — no matter. Our societal conviction that women are mothers foremost, people second, is so pervasive that the possibility of debunking it can seem its own kind of wish. (See Laura Kipnis’s spirited contribution, “Maternal Instincts,” for a refresher on what is and is not “natural.”)
Arguably, this unprecedented rise has bred new emotional states: a morass of resentment, insecurity, longing and disappointment for those who don’t find the right man in time to mate (the terms “childless by circumstance” and “social infertility” have been coined to describe this group); an ungovernable tangle of anxiety, confusion and exhaustion for those who combat infertility issues with costly and invasive assisted reproductive technologies; and a pervasive fog of self-recrimination and angst for those who simply don’t know what they want. Anthologies aren’t famous for changing attitudes en masse, but at the very least this one gives voice to the complexities of assuming and enjoying a “child-free” life.
Daum, an essayist, novelist and columnist at The Los Angeles Times, comes to the topic honestly. In her most recent collection, “The Unspeakable,” she explores her conflicted relationship to the idea of becoming a mother, and how she sought to resolve it by mentoring foster children. Statistically speaking, she began adulthood in the crowded “temporarily childless” category — those who think they’ll have a kid someday — and wound up “voluntarily childless.” As she writes in the introduction here: “Those of us who choose not to become parents are kind of like Unitarians or nonnative Californians. We tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.”
ot surprisingly, nine of the writers who heeded her call also began adulthood in the “temporarily childless” category, several of them enduring failed pregnancies, miscarriages or abortions before finally realizing that childlessness suited them best. Seven were “voluntarily childless” from the start, but as Lionel Shriver discovered after her novel “about motherhood gone dreadfully wrong” became a best seller, positioning her in the public eye as the poster girl for “maternal ambivalence,” even the most comfortably childless woman can find herself reconsidering her choices, if only briefly. That all three of the male contributors have had a much easier time of it seems about right; the essayist and cartoonist Tim Kreider writes about his lifelong indifference, “Men who don’t want kids get a dismissive eye roll, but the reaction to women who don’t want them is more like: What’s wrong with you?”
Daum was wise to include men in what is overwhelmingly treated as a female-only conversation. In order for each of us to regard parenting as the individual choice that it is, we need a better understanding of why people do and do not choose to procreate. Until then, our decision-making faculties will remain junked up with misinformation and mythology, miring some people in a bewildering and deeply uncomfortable ambivalence, and — most grimly — ensorcelling those who should absolutely not be parents into creating progeny they go on to neglect, abuse, even kill. Men, raised on plastic guns and video games to believe that baby dolls are girls-only, are (or can be) well positioned to regard the whole enterprise from a remove. Geoff Dyer’s breezy, brainy insouciance shows what it looks like to have a relationship to the topic that is completely unburdened by guilt or self-doubt (and makes for delightful reading, too). At one point he wonders if his “deep-rooted class antagonism” accounts for his aversion to fatherhood; he doesn’t want to become the sort to “make calls to friends at The Guardian or Faber & Faber about a possible internship” after his child “had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge.” As an ambivalently childless woman who’s still in the “totally confused” portion of the spectrum, I found myself covetous of his posture and tone.
The 16 essays are cleverly arranged, creating a satisfying intellectual and emotional arc. The book opens with an appeal to the heart, by Courtney Hodell (who is, full disclosure, my friend) — a chronicle of how it felt to watch her gay brother break their mutual vow of childlessness — and concludes with Tim Kreider’s rousing defense of the child-free as “an experiment unprecedented in human history. . . . A kind of existential vanguard, forced by our own choices to face the naked question of existence with fewer illusions, or at least fewer consolations, than the rest of humanity, forced to prove ourselves anew every day that extinction does not negate meaning.” Along the way, the reader is treated to nearly every reason one might choose to forgo having children: Pam Houston loving her freedom too much to ever let it go; Elliott Holt’s suspicion that her history of depression would make her an unfit parent; Anna Holmes’s allergy to “the creeping commodification of childhood in the form of must-have status symbols” (among other reasons).
Granting Dyer’s point that no matter how many children you do or don’t have, “when it comes to regret, everyone’s a winner,” the book ultimately does the great service of attending to that most powerful anxiety, the fear of future regret. Sigrid Nunez’s wise and philosophical stance inspired this reader to explode in a flurry of ballpoint-pen stars: “Not too much time passes in the course of my days without my remembering that I have missed one of life’s most significant experiences,” she writes. “But let me say this: The idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.”
Luck, wishes, timing, conjecture — the barrage of nebulous variables constituting adulthood are formidable. In the 1980s, the process of deciding not to have children led the psychoanalyst Jeanne Safer to a stance she calls the “affirmative no” — “the refusal to pursue a course of action that, on serious reflection, you discover is not right for you,” she writes. “Having enough — and having the right stuff for us — is all we can get, and all we need. For me, what I hoped in 1989 that I could achieve has come to fruition: My womb has always been empty, but my life is full.”
SELFISH, SHALLOW, AND SELF-ABSORBED
Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
Edited by Meghan Daum
282 pp. Picador. $26.