Deciding not to have children

How to read a collection of essays on the “childless by choice” called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed? You could take the title as an accurate indicator of what’s inside, your assumption reinforced by the book’s subtitle: “Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.” It’s bad enough getting unsolicited, aggrieved explanations for a life-defining decision without getting them from a bunch of people who provide their unsolicited thoughts for a living.

Of course, that’s the anticipatory response editor Meghan Daum meant to provoke in selecting those words for the cover in the first place. I can’t speak for every mother and father, but there comes a point in the slog of child-rearing when a parent looks enviously (murderously?) on those who’ve opted out of procreation and issues – silently, or not so – just that verdict. Most of the contributors here report having been condemned in similar fashion, the opprobrium overt and subtle, coming from family, friends, and strangers, from quarters low, high, and in between. Pope Francis himself, in declaring early this year that “life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies,” said explicitly that choosing not to have children is “selfish,” which in spite of the slightly more nuanced context of his larger remarks won’t endear him to those who feel they have good reasons for not participating in the “valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated planet.”

That line comes courtesy of Geoff Dyer, one of three men represented in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. I dispense with him early because he, along with contributor Tim Kreider, has the relative luxury, I think, of deploying humor in his effort to explain (Kreider: “Whenever someone asks me whether I’d like to hold the baby, I always say ‘No thanks.’ I have been advised this is an impolitic response”). This has the effect of distancing its user from the matter at hand: As men, even men who’ve thought about it carefully, they can afford to joke about it, and they seem to know it. The more sober assessments come from those representing the other half of humanity, whom the question concerns in a significantly more encompassing way.

Which isn’t to say that shallowness and self-absorption are not in evidence. Tendentiousness and contrivance characterize the worst of the pieces, some of which read like the products of narrative-nonfiction workshops. But the best in the collection – those from Lionel Shriver (author of the semi-notorious We Need to Talk About Kevin), Pam Houston, M.G. Lord, and, especially, Jeanne Safer – are careful, considered, and thoughtful. Interestingly, these make some of the lesser ones seem more persuasive than they might have been if read in isolation. It shouldn’t need saying that each contributor has arrived at her decision for a different reason, whether moved by political or cultural forces or discouraged by tragedy, trauma, and fear. But those who’d confer the blanket judgement of “selfishness” might require reminders that particular, perhaps unknowable circumstances could be in play. M. G. Lord, whose mother died when the author was fifteen, grew up sensing the woman hated “toeing the party line: ‘The greatest calling for a woman is to be a Catholic wife and mother’”; Lord in adulthood is told, by a friend no less, “You would have been a great parent if all those tragedies in your childhood hadn’t happened.” The decision not to have children, Safer reminds readers, “is never easy.” The number of women who opt out of maternity may be rising, and, “at least publicly,” women are more honest and less apologetic about it. But, adds Safer, “I don’t imagine human nature has changed dramatically; private anguish persists….”

What a number of authors helpfully emphasize is that never should the decision to start or forgo a family be influenced by such noxious cultural notions as “the perfect life” or “having it all.” Safer writes on her perturbation at the message of the 2013 Time magazine cover story on the “childfree … new female archetype.” The problem, she says, “is that there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything—no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not exist and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy.”

Literature and history are rich with examples of women and men whose feelings about parenthood are, let’s say, conflicted. In that respect, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed isn’t unearthing anything new in terms of human tendencies. But it confronts how such tendencies play out today, including against the myopic version of familyhood as practiced by the privileged and aspirants thereto. For these it doesn’t take a village but a considerable amount of private, public, and natural resources, from income and inherited wealth to energy and tax breaks, which help them pay for bigger homes in better school districts, drive more and bigger cars, and ultimately afford the higher tuitions that will help their progeny repeat the cycle, only perhaps with even better strollers. Remarking on the impact of such a lifestyle, more than one contributor asks: Who are you calling selfish?

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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