Edited by Meghan Daum
Picador, March 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
If you think about it, bringing a child into this world is about the most irrational choice someone can make. The weather patterns are changing, glaciers are melting, and ocean levels are rising. So are public shootings, global jihad, and overall idiocy. We’re entering crises with our water and food supply, nuclear annihilation is always a threat, and we’ll soon run out of oil, which is sure to shake things up. These are all perfectly valid and persuasive reasons for not procreating. Ask me why I don’t want to have kids and I’ll probably mention these in my answer. But they’re not really why people choose to not have children. As Tim Kreider writes, “Our most important decisions in life are all profoundly irrational ones, made subconsciously for reasons we seldom own up to.” Even so, author Meghan Daum has asked sixteen writers to explain their decision to be “childfree” in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, a collection of essays that will provoke many, comfort some, and challenge everyone.
Unlike parents, people who are childless by choice encounter prejudice and assumptions regarding their decision, and are often forced into the defensive position of explaining themselves. Men are usually accused of being afraid of commitment, while women are thought to be “unnatural” baby-haters. But most of the contributors in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed actually love children—and they’re not even selfish. Many of the women are devoted aunts, or “allo-mothers,” with a fondness for nurturing. They pride themselves on reading with their nieces and nephews, taking them to movies and concerts, and even changing diapers.
Then again, several of them feel like Doris Lessing, who said “there is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.” This boredom factor comes up often in these essays, as does the fact that children are noisy, demanding, and exhausting. The most common reason these women give for choosing to be childless, however, is that they’ve each always wanted to be a successful writer, a profession that requires vast amounts of solitude. As Sigrid Nunez writes, “No young woman aspiring to a literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, did not have children.”
People who choose not to have children are individuals, and each individual has their own particular reasons for making choices. Instead of choosing to spend “a minimum of eighteen years and an average of $235,00 raising a child,” Pam Houston chose to have a thirty-year career of writing books and traveling to over seventy countries. Michelle Huneven and Danielle Henderson were raised by abusive parents, which left them with no desire to become parents themselves. “If the biological clock were an actual organ,” Henderson writes, “mine would be as useless as an appendix.” Prone to depression, Elliott Holt worried her condition would affect her ability to be a stable mother. Anna Holmes suspects her commitment to parenting would take precedence over everything else in her life, writing, “I’m afraid of my own competence.” Laura Kipnis got pregnant multiple times but “eluded nature’s snare.” Kate Christensen felt the “feverish urge” for children recede and be replaced with “a thousand other things,” like writing seven novels in fourteen years.
Most of the writers admit they want to want to have children, yet simply never felt the desire to procreate. “Everyone seemed to have agreed, on some day of class I missed, that this was obviously the thing to do,” writes Tim Kredier. And that’s pretty much how I feel. I can say I’ve decided to be childfree because I don’t want my children growing up in a world where people are fighting for water and surviving on synthetic vitamin mush, but I actually don’t want to have children simply because I never wanted to have children.
If one thing’s unanimous, it’s that none of the writers in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed have regrets about their decision to be childless. For Geoff Dyer, not having a dog is what he regrets: “And while not having a child is a source of pleasure, not having a dog is a source of constant torment and endless anxiety for my wife and me. We keep wishing that we can arrange our lives in such a way that it was possible to have a dog, but we keep coming up empty-handed, empty-pawed.”
Now that’s sad. Having children clearly isn’t for everyone, but everyone should have a dog.