Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids

Edited by Meghan Daum

(Picador, $26, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Meghan Daum knows her way around the persuasive essay. Daum, who lives in Los Angeles, has been an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times for about 10 years and has contributed to The New Yorker, Harper’s, Elle, and Vogue, among others. She also has published four books: The Unspeakable…And Other Subjects of Discussion: the essay collection My Misspent Youth, the novel The Quality of Life Report, and the memoir Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House.

What is this book about?

You have only to look around you, at your relatives, co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances, to realize that there are many people who never should have had kids, or are happy being childless (or certainly would be, if their lives had turned out that way). Nevertheless, it still takes guts in our child-centric society, to come out of the nursery closet and announce to the world that being a parent is so not you. Here, 13 women and three men, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer and Tim Kreider,  do just that, in well-reasoned, heartfelt essays that say the way to have it all, for them anyway, is to NOT have it all. Now that LGBT people and atheists are speaking up and out, there is less and less reason for the committedly child-free to pretend they are unhappy with their state. Daum’s provocative compilation has done a service by giving them a national voice.

Why you’ll like it:

You may love your kids above life itself, but in your heart you know that parenthood is not for everyone (and sadly, the children of those who would have preferred being “childless by choice” would agree). Here are 16 voices explaining why they made that choice, an admission that still takes bravery to make. You may not come away agreeing with them, but you certainly will understand their side of the argument.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Contrary to the title, none of the 16 essays in this absorbing collection reflect particularly selfish or shallow motivations for childlessness. As Daum points out in her introduction, she and the other writers surveyed here “are neither hedonists nor ascetics,” nor “do we hate children.” Some entries are heart-wrenching—especially Elliott Holt’s “Just an Aunt”—while others are downright hilarious. Geoff Dyer announces that he’s “had only two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved).” He pegs the latter goal in part to his reaction to the argument that having children gives life meaning, which rests on an assumption he doesn’t share: “that life needs a meaning or purpose!” In one of the more rigorous and thoughtful essays, Laura Kipnis deftly argues that the so-called maternal instinct is really a “socially organized choice masquerading as a natural one.” Pam Houston questions the familiar social message that encourages women to “have it all” by juggling motherhood and a fulfilling career. Elegantly giving voice to her childlessness, she observes that “love, like selfishness and generosity, is not exclusive to one demographic; it infuses every single thing we do and are.”

“A taboo will linger until someone writes lyrically enough to destroy it. Here, sixteen writers finally say what women are never supposed to but what we all know is true: pregnancy seems terrifying, birth even more so, baby lust passes, and, just as with men, work, creativity, and love affairs can crowd out everything else. Also, who really cares about getting a Mother’s Day card? My three children are of course perfect in every way and yet, the longer I am a mother, the more it’s obvious to me that it’s not for everyone. Any woman who shares that instinct: Ignore your grandmother. Read this instead,” says author and journalist Hanna Rosin.

“To her illustrious list of literary accomplishments, Meghan Daum must now add brilliant anthology editor. In this thoughtful, hilarious, gorgeously written collection of original essays by anything-but-the-usual-suspects, Daum has taken a taboo subject and turned it inside out so that we see the seams, the stitching, and the bloody guts of one of the most personal and complex decisions any of us can ever make. This is a wonderful book,” says Connecticut author Dani Shapiro.

Library Journal says: “Author and columnist  Daum wrote a lengthy piece about choosing not to procreate, which was published in the New Yorker in 2014; she then reached out to 16 of her fellow childless (or child-free) writers. In what occasionally feels like a bi-coastal support group, 13 women and three men discuss their feelings and experiences. The essayists all appear to come from the educated, if not the upper-middle and middle classes. Almost all of the writers go to great lengths to say that they like kids and often enjoy their company more than that of the parents (a hilarious exception is Geoff Dyer’s class-warfare screed against the hyperprivileged kids in his neighborhood). Many of the women discuss proudly their abortions; several mourn their miscarriages. Of note is “Antimom,” Lionel Shriver’s rumination on how the “be-here-now” lifestyle could change the racial makeup of the Western world, Laura Kipnis’s and Anna Holmes’s takedowns of competitive mothering, and Sigrid Nunez’s recounting of never feeling safe as a child. Many themes are repeated, such as the conviction that one cannot have it all—motherhood and a fabulous career. The men’s contributions seem tacked on and perhaps beyond the scope of this volume, and one wonders if this collection would have been better as a TED panel discussion. VERDICT For libraries with feminist collections, for fans of the featured essayists, and for those who are considering a child-free life. The questions and answers presented here are sure to stimulate discussion and debate.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Daum  compiles essays from a group of noted writers—including Kate Christensen, Geoff Dyer and Lionel Shriver—holding forth on the topic of deliberate childlessness. The quality of the writing is uniformly high, but read as a whole, the pieces become repetitive and bleed into one another as the same notes are sounded over and over again. One prevalent theme concerns the oppressive conventional wisdom that holds parenting as life’s most profound and worthy calling and the stigma attached to those who choose to forgo children in the interest of other pursuits. Other recurring motifs include the incomprehension of others regarding the writers’ choices, the artistic sacrifices necessary for conscientious parenting, resentment of the physical demands of pregnancy and childbirth, frustration over prescriptive gender roles and the self-annihilation associated with domestic responsibilities. Thirteen of Daum’s contributors are women, and three are men, but the perspectives and insights offered by all of the authors remain more or less uniform. A few of the essays touch on childhood abuse perpetrated by parents as a deterrent to procreation, but the majority cite a dedication to the writing life—and the profound disruption to that path that having children promises—as a primary motivator in remaining child-free. Regret over the decision to not have children is notably absent from the book; the authors here largely profess a sense of satisfaction and relief about the choices they have made. . . . A courageous defense of childlessness and a necessary corrective to the Cult of Mommy, but Daum’s collection could have benefitted from a more diverse pool of contributors and a fuller consideration of contrary opinions.”

When is it available?

It’s on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills branch.

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