As I dove into a new series of essays commissioned and edited by Meghan Daum, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, I figured there was no way I could relate to the 13 women and three men who contributed.
By the time I put down the book, however, I’d come to realize that the 17 of us (well, most of us anyway) have quite a lot in common. In her introduction, Daum asserts that those who’ve decided not to have children “tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.” I’d submit that the same holds true for many of us who’ve had kids—at least the “meandering” part.
Indeed, a strong sense of ambivalence permeates this volume—something to which, as a parent, I can very much relate. The fear that motherhood can swallow you whole looms large, no matter which side of the reproductive divide you come out on.
It is impossible to read Kate Christensen’s piece, “A Thousand Other Things,” and not be struck by her tortured tone. On one page, she expresses a “baby lust: deep, primal, a shockingly animal yearning I’d never experienced before . . . like being on some weird and powerful new drug.” On another, after briefly becoming pregnant before losing the baby, she writes: “I was flooded with relief, mad with it. I felt some sadness, a twinge of loss, but primarily, I was exultant and grateful . . . I understood that I’d been saved from losing myself.”
Some people, of course, seem to beautifully manage raising their kids and holding a big job at the same time; I have many friends who do this. But even they admit that trade-offs are unavoidable, especially over many years.
As a writer—a vocation that demands long hours of uninterrupted solitude—I have sometimes thought to myself that I’d be more accomplished had I chosen to be childless. In “The Most Important Thing,” Sigrid Nunez recalls having the same realization, which in her case upended the seeming inevitability of becoming a mother. “No young woman aspiring to literary career could ignore the fact that the women writers of the highest achievement, women like Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Virginia Wolf, did not have children,” she observes.
The rest of Nunez’s essay is devoted to great women writers who gave birth to unwanted children, who left their children behind or who, like Sylvia Plath, were famously anguished at not being able to have both a meaningful career and kids.
“I don’t believe I can do the things I want to do in my life and also be a parent,” Anna Holmes writes in her essay, “Mommy Fearest.” And in what is perhaps my favorite moment of self-awareness, in a book full of them, she goes on to explain why: “I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for—or ability to achieve—success in any other arena. Basically, I am afraid of my own competence.”
By definition, this is a book whose writers have rejected the notion of having it all—a concept that I, too, have struggled with mightily as a parent. My kids have given me infinite joy. But if I’m honest, they’ve limited me in some ways, as well. For the writers in Daum’s collection, the mirror opposite is true: They have, for the most part, found tremendous satisfaction by foregoing kids. Yet some of them have had at least twinges of disappointment in not seeing a different piece of themselves fulfilled.
“The problem is that there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything—no mother, no nonmother, no man,” Jeanne Safer remarks. “The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it is possible to live without regrets.”
As a parent, this was in the end the most comforting takeaway from Daum’s book. In a society that loves to pit one group against the other, making caricatures of everyone, it is easy to imagine that those who’ve made choices different from your own have done so without the slightest hint of self-doubt or second-guessing. Yet this simply isn’t true.
Even while declaring, “It’s not just that I have never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them,” Geoff Dyer acknowledges that complete contentedness is as elusive for those without kids as it is for those of us with them. “When it comes to regret,” he writes, “everyone’s a winner!”
In “Beyond Beyond Motherhood,” Safer describes weeping in 1989, when in her early 40s she wrote an article about deciding not to have children—an article that would later grow into her first book, Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children. She recounts weeping again when she saw it in print, and weeping yet again when she reread it 25 years later while writing this essay. “I shed a few tears of recognition and empathy with my younger self,” she says. “But along with that memory came a retrospective sense of pride and gratitude at what I did and how I did it: I realize now that this choice made my life possible.”
In much the same way, my choice to have kids has made my life possible.
With these essays, Daum has called for a kind of truce between elevating one life choice over another. What is important is knowing yourself and following your own path—and recognizing that no path is perfect. As Anna Holmes wisely puts it in her essay about the things we don’t get to have, “Them’s the breaks.”
Randye Hoder writes about the intersection of family, politics and culture. You can follow her on Twitter @ranhoder.
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