Wednesday 24 January 2018

Childless by choice

A new anthology in which 16 American authors write about their decision not to have children offers a timely accompaniment to an under-examined phenomenon

Meghan Daum
Meghan Daum
Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed

Mary McGill

Over the last 30 years, fertility rates in the Western world have been in decline. Close to home, a 2014 OECD report revealed that Ireland now has the third-highest rate of childlessness in the developed world. While the pain felt by those who long for children but can't have them is a subject often explored, those who opt to forgo parenthood of their own volition - a silent, growing minority - are rarely heard from.

In this context, the stir caused by the essay anthology Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids upon its publication in America last month is unsurprising. Edited by acclaimed author and Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum, the book's appearance corresponds with growing cultural awareness and debate around the issue of childlessness, specifically in relation to those who are childless by choice, a stance which in many respects remains taboo.

In her introduction, Daum evokes Leo Tolstoy's famous observation about the nature of happy families, writing: "People who want children are all alike. People who don't want children don't want them in their own ways." This a perfect summation of the depth and variety of the essays that follow, all of which are supplied by successful American authors, each of whom, irrespective of their rationale or perspective, have clearly given the subject much thought.

This critical thinking, combined with the diversity of experience on display, challenges any notion that those childless by choice are a self-serving, kid-loathing, adulthood-avoiding homogeneous mass.

In creating the collection, Daum strives to shift the conversation away from stand-offs between those who have children or want to, and those who choose not to procreate, towards a more nuanced, accepting middle-ground. In doing so, Daum and her cohorts debunk some of the most pervasive myths surrounding childlessness by choice. Yes, it is possible to enjoy children, even adore them, but not want to raise one. And no, not wanting to become a parent does not a monster make.

As childlessness is still predominantly treated as a women's issue, Daum's inclusion of male voices - three in total - is most welcome. Nevertheless, reading through the contributions from female authors it is clear that femininity and maternity remain fiercely intertwined. This enduring conflation is all the more fascinating when one considers, as Laura Kipnis's 'Maternal Instincts' so compellingly outlines, that the much exalted "maternal bond" is less of a biological function and more "a culturally specific development, not a fact of nature".

Kipnis's description of modern motherhood as a "competitive sport" also resonates deeply in a society possessed by the exhausting concept of "having it all", while refusing to enshrine the basic structural supports families need, like decent childcare and flexible working arrangements.

While the urge to reproduce is applauded as natural, the lack of such an urge is still treated as strange, even abhorrent. As far as science can tell, humans are the only species on the planet that can choose not to reproduce. Refusing to do so leaves the individual vulnerable to all kinds of judgement and lashings of well-meaning but ultimately unwelcome advice, causing Courtney Hodell to rightly ponder in her essay, 'Babes in the Woods': "Is there any other situation in life where people feel so free to tell you what you want to do, short of checking you into rehab?"

Although living in a baby-mad culture that insists they justify their position at every juncture, the authors in Daum's collection offer no singular or simple explanation for their childlessness. Nor do they apologise. Some came close to parenthood, to the point of actually becoming pregnant. Others knew with certainty since childhood that children were not part of the plan. As Danielle Henderson memorably asserts: "If the biological clock were an actual organ, mine would be as useless as an appendix."

The heteronormative assumption that because an individual has the requisite biological parts, they automatically meet the criteria to parent is seriously challenged. What emerges is the simple fact that, regardless of their biological capabilities, some people are just not parental material. The fallout from insisting they should be can have devastating, long-term consequences.

Having seen the frustrations and unhappiness borne by their own parents, particularly mothers, it is unsurprising that some of the authors in this collection cite unhappy childhood experiences as part of the reason for their choosing childlessness. However, they also stress the complexity of their decision.

Ill health (both mental and physical), the financial precariousness of the writing life, the collapse of relationships, ambivalence and outright aversion all feature as factors, as do issues of self-acceptance and hard-won awareness of one's own limitations. A happy childhood is no guarantee of a desire to procreate, either.

Nevertheless, despite all these perfectly valid, well-thought-out reasons, in the face of pervasive social conditioning, it continues to take huge reserves of mental and emotional strength to say parenthood isn't for you. As Jeanne Safer writes in 'Beyond Motherhood': "I don't really want to have a baby. I want to want to have a baby." Sometimes the temptation to give in, to 'try it out', is almost overwhelming.

In many respects, Daum's collection is as much about living an honest life, a life that is true to oneself, as it is about children. As Lionel Shriver, the one-time poster girl for maternal ambivalence observes: "The question is whether kids will make us happy."

Whatever our circumstance, life forces us to leave roads untaken. In truth, no one can have it all. With parenthood, as with all the big questions, it's not a matter of one decision being better or worse than another, but of making the best decision for you.

Daring to swim against the cultural current, Daum's collection makes a compelling, thoughtful case for the validity and fulfilment of life without parenthood, a point beautifully articulated by Danielle Henderson, who writes: "My womb has always been empty, but my life is full."

These essays offer a timely and necessary accompaniment to an under-examined social phenomenon. However, while very engaging and insightful, Daum's collection springs from a specific demographic: successful, middle-class American writers. That is not to say that the essays here are all the same, far from it, but to highlight the particular cultural milieu they inhabit. A great deal more remains to be written and said on the subject from voices across the social spectrum.

Far from being selfish, shallow or self-absorbed, these essays provide a humane and honest starting point for this long overdue discussion. For anyone childless by choice or hovering in the land of the ambivalent, this book is a must-read.


Selfish, Shallow and Self-absorbed

Meghan Daum

Picador, hbk, 336pages, €26.99

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