I have kids. In the interest of disclosing my biases, I have to admit that first. My reading of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, is invariably a symptom of the fact that I am—in a pejorative Daum discovers in her Internet searches of the topic—a “breeder.” One who wanted children and had them early. One who enjoys those humans and is happy in their company. I’m conflicted about the essays Daum has assembled in Selfish. On one hand, there’s much to respect about the bold, thorough confessions in its pages. On the other, parts of it protest too much. It drifts at times into a kind of secondhand review of something none of the authors have experienced, which is as troubling as my own review the childfree lifestyle would be. It becomes a bit like the justification one hears for not seeing a particular kind of movie. Oh, I wouldn’t like that movie. I know it. My best friend saw it and he hated it. That kind of thing.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, and letting my biases take control. There’s much to enjoy about these essays, in particular how Daum, author of last year’s The Unspeakable, assembles pieces that address a taboo. Whether we’re childfree or have children, it’s clear that it’s not something we successfully discuss out loud. Selfish sings when it does what any good nonfiction manages to do: illuminate a unique human experience. There’s no attempt to convert, here, but the topic is oppositional by its very nature. My quibbles with some of these writers’ words apply to what parents write of their own children, too. There’s a reason we have the word ineffable. Some things just don’t work on the page—or they work so rarely that most of us clunk around through our ninety or so years using whatever clichés Hallmark and experience provide. So: This is not where I tell you in great detail how much becoming a mother changed me, or how life is clearly divisible by the lines of before and after. It’s also not where I tell you that I decided to become a mother because I knew it would all work out. I didn’t, and I don’t. I’m sure we’re both interested in avoiding any kind of Chicken Soup optimism. It doesn’t mean anything. But some of these writers are hamstrung by the same problem. How do you articulate what you do not want, especially if you’ve never tried it? Some in Selfish succeed more than others.
This is why Daum’s collection is at its best when it’s being the most transparent and unapologetic. The editor begins on a strong note, one that echoes the sentiments of her essay “Difference Maker.” Daum opens the book with a nod to the fact that there are “as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent.” She says, “we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.” Daum’s work has clearly been to assemble a wide variety of experiences, and she respects them each for their unique perspective.
The position presented in Selfish is one of both choice and a sum of the other decisions in the authors’ lives. Many write of childlessness as a conscious decision arising out of a difficult childhood or a troubled relationship with their parents. Some do this defensively, while others acknowledge a difficult past that they wish didn’t play into their decisions. Courtney Hodell’s “Babes in the Woods” confesses a common sentiment of the collection: the fact that the authors didn’t feel a kind of automatic affection for babies or children. “Not everyone falls in love with a newborn. This is an auntie’s secret,” Hodell says. Tim Kreider says, “I for one have never felt any reciprocal envy of their anxious and harried existence—noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shriek, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought.” This presupposes one must love other people’s children in order to be a decent parent to one’s own. Or that there’s only value in parenting if we feel great affection for babies as a category of beings. Is it not possible to feel joy, pride, or even awe about the human race, but on an individual basis, find it kind of meh? I ask this because my bleeding affection for my children is wholly separate from the kind of disgust I feel for the child who sits behind me at the Little League game and spills his ICEE into my shoes. To imply that a lack of positive feeling toward the children of other people has some kind of link to one’s success or viability as a parent is, I think, short-sighted. Or it demands a kind of perfection in parenting that’s unattainable. Hodell finds a fulfilling love in her niece, however. She says,
The only recourse was to love this little scrap of a human, and in the first really adult way I would love anyone. Without expectations of returned affection. Without wounded vanity. With foreknowledge of impending boredom of exasperation, of anger that I could not allow myself to nurse. In the understanding that I would sometimes be ridiculous in her eyes.
Many of the writers in Selfish, Shallow find both purpose and a reason to love other small beings; a unifying idea of the collection is that we need to make these kinds of connections in order to ensure our immortality.
Several writers speak to the statistical decline in birth rate, and the fact that a declination in population is both a predictable part of a nation’s development and something that weighed heavy on their choice not to procreate. Several fixate on the terrible images of parenting they observe in others. “The dominant emotion toward children, from mothers and fathers both,” says Sigrid Nunez, “seemed to be anger.” Several essays speak to not feeling a connection to the great nebulous category of upper-middle class parents. For me, that’s flawed thinking about parenting, which has been in my experience less about the outside world than it is about days and nights inside my own home. It also implies that there’s one way to parent, and it includes a kind of blind attachment to or agreement with other parents. If these essays show anything, it is that there are no easy definitions on the childfree side. It seems problematic, then, to also suppose that all parents are soccer moms, or that all parents happily dote on spoiled, entitled brats. There are logical fallacies in those images of parents and children. I support the notion that we’re better off if we don’t generalize about anyone else’s decision-making.
But there are beautiful revelations here. Many of the women speak to the fact that our reproductive rights have become—bafflingly, still—discussion fodder for ill-informed lawmakers and pretty much anyone who wishes to have a say. As Danielle Henderson says,
As a woman who chooses to be childless, I generally have just one problem: other adults. Living in a culture where women 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, so anyone who is curious about my lack of spawn feels the right to march right on over and ask me about it.
If one message carries though these pages, it is that the decision to reproduce—or not—is deeply personal and private. The strength of many of these essays is in how they speak against the prying, questioning comments made by others.
Two of the most honest and effective essays in the collection are Pam Houston’s “The Trouble with Having It All” and Geoff Dyer’s charmingly annoyed “Over and Out.” Houston writes from a place of earnestness that accounts for her own feelings of wanting freedom and a knowledge of what kind of sacrifice from past generations it took to allow her those choices. “Try this on,” Houston writes:
What if I didn’t want to have babies because I loved my job too much to compromise it, or because serious travel makes me feel in relation to the world in an utterly essential way? What if I’ve always liked the looks of my own life much better than those of the ones I saw around me? What if, given the option, I would prefer to accept an assignment to go trekking for a month in the kingdom of Bhutan than spend that same month folding onesies? What if I simply like dogs a whole lot better than I like babies? What if I have become sure that personal freedom is the thing I hold most dear?
What makes Houston’s piece different from many of the others is complete ownership of her philosophy. Other essays in the collection falter as they begin to apologize. Many of them echo a similar tone—I like some kids I’ve met—which begins to feel (after reading it multiple times) like a thought the authors included so they wouldn’t be accused of being child-haters. Houston’s “Having It All” is about her own life: what she wants, where she has been, and where she wants to be. It’s honest without being apologetic, and in its earnest and even-handed discussion of the author’s goals contrasted with a younger generation of women, we see how the messages we teach our young girls—specifically those platitudes about how to define success for women—are what’s problematic. Much of Selfish is about how we define our own humanity, independent of our children.
Dyer’s essay takes a uniquely sarcastic tone that mirrors back the negative language used to describe the childfree: “I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose,” says Dyer, tongue firmly in cheek, and though his trademark crankiness imbues everything he has to say, he gets very close to the heart of choice of a life that’s just not inclusive of or meant for children. Which is okay. His essay benefits from being so strikingly singular in the collection; his voice and humor are refreshing, yet he gets at the same thing several of the other authors do: It takes a lot of sacrifice to raise a child, and it changes a person. Dyer’s essay proves that humor almost always makes difficult topics easier to swallow.
In Tim Kreider’s excellent and angry “The End of the Line,” he pretty much sums up the problem with writing about such a difficult topic:
All the best arguments that parents and the childless muster about which of their lives is the more rational, satisfying, and/or morally superior are about as interesting to me as the ongoing debate about Which Are Better: Cats or Dogs. Our most important decisions in life are all profoundly irrational ones, made subconsciously for reasons we seldom own up to, which is why the worse ideas… are the most impossible to talk anyone out of. It’s pointless to refute all the rhapsodic slop about how kids make your life meaningful, since it’s all pretty obviously rationalization…
It is rationalization, and this is why Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed doesn’t seek to settle the issue of children vs. childfree. But it will make you think. It will make you sit up in your chair. As a parent it provoked a strong reaction in me—a mirror to the same defensiveness I perceived in so many of the essays. But that is a good thing. Daum’s assemblage of these essays does what it’s intended to do: inspire us to think about why we live the way we live. While some of the writers struggle to get their most honest feelings on the page, many of them succeed. Each of these writers illuminates an experience. Daum has assembled a provocative collection that will inspire a lot of conversation. That seems to be what it was conceived to do, and in that regard it is a success.