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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen…
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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not…

by Meghan Daum

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I am pretty vocal about the fact that I won’t be having children. I’ve written about it in the past (http://askmusings.com/2013/03/no-kids-for-me-why-is-that-seen-as-a-bad-thing/), and I’m currently writing a book aimed at folks like myself. My husband and I found each other online in part because we both said ‘no’ to the ‘want kids’ question on OK Cupid. So when I saw this book reviewed in a few different places I figured I would pick it up.

It’s a collection of essays by writers, so it is necessarily a bit limited in that regard. It primarily features women, although there are contributions by men. I’m not sure of the racial demographics of the writers; none of the stories (if I’m recalling correctly) take on whether they think they’ve encountered more (or less) push-back because of their ethnicity.

The book provides for some chuckles, and elicited a few head nods from me. I could related to some folks, but not fully. I mean, I wasn’t one of the writers, so I can’t expect to have my exact feelings related back to me in essay form, but I was a bit disappointed because most of the essays still seemed a bit apologetic about not wanting children, and really interested in making the concession that people who choose not to have children are a bit off, wrong, or even, yes, selfish. I found that disappointing, because I was hoping for something different.

One essay in particular really rubbed me the wrong way. Lionel Shriver, who wrote “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (a book I hope to read some day) wrote a weirdly misogynistic and frankly delusional essay that almost had me giving up on the book (hers is the fifth essay in). Obviously she can only speak for herself in this most personal of essays, but she presumes to speak for me, and that is obnoxious. She says things like “In contrast to our predecessors, we seldom ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask ourselves if we are happy.” I’m not sure what version of reality she exists in, but I would argue they are both equal, or even completely oppositely weighted. Lots of people are making sacrifices because they understand that the way we’ve been living isn’t doing anyone any favors.

She also seems to call out those who complain about the fact that people ‘like her’ aren’t having children (e.g. well-educated, white, affluent) for what they are (not-so-subtle racism), but then seems to agree, with such disturbing lines as “we don’t consider the importance of raising another generation of our own people, however we might choose to define them.” That reads dangerously close to expressing distress over not enough white folks in the world, and that’s super creepy.

In addition to that weird (hopefully unintentional?) racism, she also makes an argument that absolutely infuriated me. She suggests that by not having children, we are ignoring our duty to the future, because we are denying the world the creation of people who might solve the world’s problems. Essentially, it’s similar to that anti-choice argument of ‘what if you’re aborting the next Einstein?’ Aside from the fact that maybe my kid would grow up to be a serial killer, so by not reproducing I could be saving the world from that pain, this claim essentially ignores the fact that maybe WE can solve the world’s problems. She seems to making a point that women exist to create the people who change the world, as opposed to changing the world ourselves. I am not okay with that at all. I firmly believe that I have the opportunity to change the world (probably in very small ways, but ways that matter); I don’t think the only way I can do that is to give birth to a child who will then change the world. She falls into the trap that so many of us are trying to claw our way out of: the idea that my worth exists only in the children I create, not in the other things I create as well.

So yeah, that essay aside, the book is probably worth a read. I just wish it were better, and more original that the sheepishness so many of us who choose not to have children feel compelled to express to those who do want children. I wish there were more writers who owned their choice as completely valid and not one needing justification. But that isn’t in here as much as I’d hoped.
( )
  ASKelmore | Jul 9, 2017 |
"Try this on. 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 babies? What If I have become sure that personal freedom is the thing I hold most dear?"

There are essays in this collection that gave me chills, splintered my heart, and even made me rather angry. I think the best writing invokes a myriad of strong feelings and I no doubt felt impacted by the ideas and experiences shared here. While there are similarities and parallels between some of the stories, most are also marked by their uniqueness, which makes it difficult to summarize this collection. Women and men who struggled with their decision, and those who didn't, Daum's collection gives voice to a steadily rising minority who have chosen to forgo children. These essays are thought provoking, funny, heartbreaking, and sometimes just plain weird. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a diverse, intellectual dialogue on the cultural pressure (particularly for women) to parent and one which I immensely appreciated. ( )
  GennaC | May 9, 2017 |
An eye-opening look on the decision to not have kids. I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with the authors of these essays. But overall, it was a refreshing take on the lives of those who have decided to have children for whatever reason. ( )
  pennylane78 | Aug 4, 2016 |
10 stars: an exceptionally good book

My friend and author M.G. Lord contributed an essay to this collection. I read it as the topic hit close to home, but what I walked away with was the sense that the reasons that people don’t have children are as varied (one might argue more so) than the reasons that people do have children. The collection has 16 essays, 13 by women and 3 by men. I got so much out of this and have already gifted two copies, as well as reread the book myself. I would highly recommend this to anyone who doesn’t have children for *any* reason, including never finding the right time/ partner combination--- but I’d also recommend it to parents, to perhaps understand a bit more the nuance of a childfree life.

Quotes below (I could easily quote the entire book…)

“Is there any other situation in life where people feel so free to tell you what to do, short of checking you in to rehab? “-Courtney Hodell

[Discussing the history of motherhood as profession]. “The new line was that such arrangements were handed down by nature. As family historians tell us, this [industrial revolution] is also when the romance of the child begins-ironically it was only when children’s actual economic value declined,because they were no longer necessary additions the household labor force, that they became the priceless little treasures we know them today. Once they started costing more to raise than they contributed to the household economy, there had to be some justification for having them, which is when the story that having children was a big emotionally fulfilling thing first began to take hold. It also took a decline in infant mortality rates for mothers to start regarding their offspring with much affection. When infant deaths were high (30% before 1800) maternal attachment ran understandably low. Giving a newborn child the same name as a dead sibling was a common practice; in other words , children were barely regarded as distinct individuals. “ –Laura Kipnis

“I know there are unparalleled joys in having children-the deep love for another creature; the connection to a greater human purpose. But then there are the day to day realities. Let’s face it: children’s intellectual capacities and conversational acumen are not their best features. Boredom and intellectual atrophy are the normal conditions of daily life for the child-raising classes… Not to mention that child raising is not what you’d call a socially valued activity in our time despite the endless sanctimony about how important it is.”—Laura Kipnis

“Women with the most education are the ones having the fewest children, though even basic literacy has a negative effect on birthrates in the developing world—the higher the literacy rate, the lower the birthrate. In other words, when women acquire critical skills and start weighing their options, they soon wise up to the fact that they’re not getting enough recompense for their labors.”—Laura Kipnis

“It’s also my little ‘fuck you’ to a society that sentimentalizes children except when it comes to allocating enough resources to raising them, and that would include elevating the 22% of children currently living in poverty to a decent standard of living.” –Laura Kipnis

“The therapy helped clarify for me that I truly couldn’t stay in this marriage and I truly didn’t want kids…. If I had had children with my ex-husband, I would have had to choose between staying in a marriage that was unsatisfying and lonely and leaving and breaking up my family and sharing custody with my ex-husband, negotiating everyone’s schedules for many years. Instead of being autonomous and traveling light… I would have missed out on so much. I picture my life without children as a hole dug in sand and then filled with water. Into every void rushes something. Nature abhors a vacuum. Into the available space and time and energy my kid-free life rushed a thousand other things. .. My days are so busy and full and yet so calm and uninterrupted and self-directed.” –Kate Christensen

“Had I had children, I would have written no books… I certainly wouldn’t have gone off to Africa. I’d rather pine for children than die saying to myself ‘I could have been a contender.’ I *was * a contender.”—Lionel Shriver

“A friend who grew up with an alcoholic father said that despite her father’s disease and the toll it took on the family, children were wanted and cherished in their home…. I always assumed at some vague, distant point, I’d become a fit and willing parent. With years of therapy, I did outgrow my resentment toward and impatience with kids, and I got a handle on that driving need for parental attention and love; I accepted, with some sorrow, that it was too late to get that particular package—your chance for it comes only once in life.“-Michelle Huneven

“I would say that originally I was childless due to damage. But ultimately, I did come to the place of choosing. .. I have no regrets. I have been grateful for the freedom not to have children. It is a relatively new freedom, unknown to most women throughout history. 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. Here, I stand in contrast to my mother, who took up marriage and family by default, because the job for which she’d actually been trained, concert pianist, did not exist for women.” – Michelle Huneven

“I spent the majority of my formative years healing from what felt to me like bad parenting, which made me realize that sometimes your willingness to be a parent isn’t enough. Sometimes love runs out. 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. I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself instead.” –Danielle Henderson

“I harbor no deep biological urge, no longing, no worry over who will visit me or wipe my ass when I’m elderly. If the biological clock were an actual organ, mine would be as useless as an appendix. Since I’ve always known I didn’t want children, I never agonized over whether or not to have them as though it were a major life decision. Children were just never going to fit in my life.” –Danielle Henderson

“Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am the 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—then we would all be obliged and foolish not to pursue that purpose. – Geoff Dyer

“Parents may look back with envy on the irresponsible, self indulgent lives of the childless, but I for one never felt any reciprocal envy of their anxious and harried existence …Raising children is one of many life experiences I’m happy to die without having had, like giving birth, going to war, spending a night in jail, or seeing Forrest Gump. “-Tim Kreider ( )
  PokPok | Jul 2, 2016 |
I really enjoyed the writing and opinions in this book. Written by 12 women and 4 men, these essays are thought-provoking and well thought out by individuals who know themselves, what they want, and what they *don't* want.

I love that the #1 common thread throughout was the desire to have more time for reading and writing. You are preaching to the choir on that one! And let's not forget another important benefit of being child-free: time to sleep.

Contributors come from various backgrounds: intact homes, broken homes, single-parent homes, heterosexual, homosexual, black, white, Jewish, you name it.

What I found most thought-provoking was the complete annihilation of the myth that those who choose a child-free life are somehow "just being selfish"...in fact, people actually HAVE children for myriad selfish reasons, whether to meet the expectations of family, society at large, spousal pressure, or what have you. Also, this pressure is not the same across the board for all racial and economic groups; perhaps this is no secret, but it's certainly not discussed openly.

Unfortunately, I had to return this book to the library, but it's definitely worth a purchase. I've only read a handful of the contributing authors--Pam Houston of "Cowboys Are My Weakness" fame comes to mind--but if I'd had time, I'm sure I would've enjoyed all 16 essays. Editor Meghan Daum is no slouch, either. Her story is contributed in the Introduction.

Highly recommended and a must-read for anyone grappling with the decision whether to have children, those who are sick of the pressure from others to have children, and anyone who thinks of her (or him) self as a feminist. ( )
  WordMaven | Oct 4, 2015 |
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I'm pretty sure that having it all might *not* be. I think maybe having it all is chopping yourself up into too many little pieces, taking care of everybody's needs except your own.
What if I have become sure that personal freedom is the thing I hold most dear?
People want to be prevented, restricted. The hamster not only loves his cage, he'd be lost without it. That's why children are so convenient: you have children because you're struggling to get by as an artist—which is actually what being an artist means—or failing to get on with your career. Then you can persuade yourself that your children prevented you from having this career that had never looked like working out.
Meanwhile, another world went on around us. People in that world bought life insurance, health insurance, houses, summer property to be passed on to children, grandchildren. They weren't exactly in the here and now. They were busy turning to some future, but what is the future when you are always feeding it money? Doesn't it get tiring to give so much away to a world that you'll never get to touch and see?
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