The childless do not envy the life of parents, according to Tim Kreider. Parents’ existence is “noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought.” That sentence appears in Meghan Daum’s essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, and I had to laugh when I read it. I laughed, because I read this book while nursing my infant son, discussed the arguments with fellow mothers, and wrote this review during naps and after bedtime. Despite being a young mother, I am one of the target audiences for the book.
Childless people—or to use the parlance of our times, the childfree—have a bad reputation, especially in the minds of parents. Society questions their childlessness; some openly ask, “why don’t you have kids?” while others silently judge them. Non-parents are branded—as the title suggests—as selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed: they don’t want kids because they want fancy cars and clothes. Daum and her fellow authors contend, however, that the decision to be childless is not only respectable but praiseworthy. “It’s about time the taboo of choosing a life other than parenthood was publicly challenged by people who thought beyond the Porsche in the driveway or the Manolos in the closet. It’s time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness,” Daum writes in the introduction.
The purpose of the book is to explain why the 16 contributors personally decided not to have children. Collectively, the essays are meant to defend the childless way of life as praiseworthy. Taken one by one, their decisions not to have children are understandable. But their personal narratives, while vivid, do not form a persuasive case in favor of the childfree life. Indeed, three themes emerge that suggest that these authors have a warped view of parenting and children and therefore don’t fully understand what they’re missing.
These personal narratives, while vivid, do not form a persuasive case in favor of the childfree life.
First, many of the writers draw on childhood memories to explain their decision to remain childless. Several describe sad, even traumatic, childhoods. On the mild side, some contributors’ parents were not thrilled about becoming parents and therefore gave their children (the authors of this book) the impression that having kids distracts from other, more interesting things. Anna Holmes explains, “my sister and I did not need to hear our mother acknowledge how much parenting—much of it single parenting—limited her life; we saw it everyday. We understood that by devoting her life to us, she was, in some ways, giving up herself.”
More significantly, as children, several authors experienced parental divorce, physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, and even the death of a parent. Michelle Huneven explains that her childhood “deeply instilled a sense that behind the closed doors of a family home, all respect disappeared; disapproval, anger, and other emotions ran unchecked, and a domestic form of war prevailed, with war’s oscillations between overt violence and tense calm.”
Of course, several authors admit that one can overcome a bad childhood to become a good parent. Yet it is not clear that the authors themselves truly separate their decision to remain childless from their childhood trauma. Danielle Henderson describes her mother abandoning her and subsequently being raised by grandparents. She insists that her desire not to have children is separate from her traumatic childhood, arguing that she “could have had the best mother in the world and still relegated childbearing and raising to the list of things I’ll never do.” True enough. But Henderson admits that her childhood adds a “layer of uncertainty to the whole endeavor.” Similarly, Pam Houston writes “these days it is widely assumed that a woman who doesn’t want to have children is reacting—perhaps overreacting—to damage that was done to her in her childhood.” Yet she cannot “refute this claim with any certainty, because the usual trifecta of abuse (alcohol, sexual, physical) did indeed define my own.”
Mahoney, Holmes, and the others seem to simultaneously over- and underestimate the hardships of raising children.
Second, for many writers, the costs of entering parenthood are unusually high. For some writers, the cost is financial: becoming a parent would entail undergoing complicated, expensive assisted reproductive procedures, or else pursuing adoption, which can also be pricey. For most writers, though, the decision to have children is especially daunting because it is divorced from marriage. Most of the sixteen authors are single or cohabiting (with no suggestion of planning to wed). In several cases, having a child would be a decision to become a single mother. In her thirties, Laura Kipnis once mentioned to her boyfriend an interest in having children. He responded that, in Kipnis’s words, “he’d be happy to try to get me pregnant if I wanted, though he didn’t want to be involved in raising a child.”
This equation of parenting with single parenting is interesting because these authors are highly educated. According to the report “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” 12 percent of first births to college-educated women are out of wedlock. By contrast, 58 percent of first births to women with a high school diploma or some college are out of wedlock. That most college-educated women delay childbearing until after marriage suggests that this demographic generally still considers the two milestones linked (even if the contributors to Selfish do not).
Third, these writers equate parenting with helicoptering. Rosemary Mahoney writes that if she had a child she “would not be able to let my child leave the house without a helmet on his head until he was thirty years old. I would have to follow him around everywhere he went, safeguarding him from everything that could cause him harm or suffering.” Anna Holmes discusses parenting as though it’s a job rather than a relationship (to paraphrase Joseph Epstein): She fears that parenthood “would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my own need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena. Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.” Mahoney, Holmes, and the others seem to simultaneously over- and underestimate the hardships of raising children.
Parents facilitate the physical, emotional, intellectual, and moral development of their children. How that care manifests itself is different for infants, toddlers, eight-year-olds, and teenagers. At the risk of stating the obvious, children eventually master motor skills and no longer need parents to clothe them or shovel food into their mouths. They seek to exercise their independence, make moral decisions, and use their judgment. In short, children grow up to become fully functioning adults. The writers of Selfish don’t seem to realize that they’re not merely foregoing the sleep deprivation of the infant stage and the chaos of toddlers; they are missing out on decades of relationships with their adult children.
The authors of Selfish crave not merely acceptance of their choices but praise.
These childless authors tout the benefits of independence, peace, and solitude. The greatest virtue of childlessness, they argue, is freedom. They can travel around the world, eat whatever they choose, work for 12 hours straight without interruption. Sigrid Nunez takes this argument further: writing novels required “long stretches of uninterrupted solitude. Many times, just having a man in my life seemed like one person to many.”
If these writers want readers—and parents especially—to accept their decisions, very well. Parents were once childless, sleeping until noon, working uninterrupted, and fulfilling whatever whim emerged. They can imagine a perpetually childfree existence. However, these childless writers largely fail to acknowledge that parents understand the pros and cons of childlessness—perhaps better than the writers themselves. By contrast, the writers have not demonstrated a similar understanding of parenthood or childrearing.
If one lacks good examples of loving mothers and fathers, then it’s easy to feel unprepared for children or fearful of mimicking the poor parenting one experienced. If becoming a parent would be a solo endeavor or require expensive and risky assisted reproductive procedures, it’s understandable to blanch at the prospect. If helicoptering is just another word for parenting and children are perpetually helpless, then, yes, parenthood sounds impossible.
The writers miss that parenthood has distinct stages with unique joys, challenges, and sacrifices. And no one—parent or not—can fully assess the success of the whole endeavor until it’s over. Of course, it is possible to live a praiseworthy life that is childfree. Many men and women have sacrificed their fertility for higher callings. But this is not what Selfish is arguing. The authors reject the praise accorded to parents for simply having children and want to be similarly celebrated for not having children; they crave not merely acceptance of their choices but praise. Selfish helps a reader to understand the decision to remain childless, but it fails to show childlessness is intrinsically laudable.
Julia Shaw is a writer and graduate student in political theory.