Katie Roiphe is the director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University.
Edited by Meghan Daum. Picador. 282 pp. $26
Childlessness may be one of the last vibrant taboos in our culture. Women, especially, who don’t have children are still regarded as somehow incomplete or thwarted, even by liberal and tolerant people. It may be that childless women are viewed, covertly, in some quarters, as selfish or unnatural or unfeminine. But the most common reaction now is pity — the idea that these women are missing out on one of life’s greatest experiences. Writer Courtney Hodell recalls a friend who “held both my hands, her eyes drilling into me, and said that for her, having children was like flicking on the light in a dark room.”
The essayists in a searing new anthology, “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed,” address this widespread pity. Many are defensive or defiant, reacting to friends and strangers who have made them feel that they have failed to live fully.
In one essay, Pam Houston writes: “ ‘When you look into your baby’s eyes,’ my friend Sarah once said to me, ‘that will become your Tibet.’ I have no doubt that looking into one’s own baby’s eyes is many inexpressibly wonderful things, but one thing it is not is Tibet.”
What is surprising about this collection of intensely personal essays is the level of torment that most of these women articulate. I was struck by how many of them tried to have children and couldn’t, for whatever reason. There are second thoughts that shadow them, admissions of longing, honest grappling with possibilities, weighing of advantages. Because the cultural expectation is so profound, the women writers who decide not to have kids or end up not having them have constructed elaborate, fortresslike defenses of their lives and choices.
The 1970s feminist line on childlessness was more blazing, aggressive, confident. One 1970 screed against motherhood by Betty Rollin ended: “It doesn’t make sense any more to pretend that women need babies, when what they really need is themselves. If God were still speaking to us in a voice we could hear, even He would probably say, ‘Be fruitful. Don’t multiply.’ ”
But in this volume the fiery, ideological ’70s condemnations of motherhood are tamed by ambivalence and very hard-won nuance. Laura Kipnis comes closest to the ideological note (“Every time I hear the word natural in conjunction with women and maternity, I want to rip them limb from limb. How’s that for ‘natural’? I’d like to say”), but the essay feels a bit brittle and defensive at times. Even Kipnis does not exactly revel in or celebrate childlessness the way an earlier generation of feminists did.
If you are expecting a blustering, irreverent ode to the pleasures of life without children, you may be a little disappointed in this book. It is, on the whole, too thoughtful, anguished, entangled for that. The stories are of intense, vivid people who have, for the most part, fought their way into a kind of peace with their lives. Kate Christensen writes: “Where are my children? I felt their absence and loss as if they existed somewhere I couldn’t reach, as if they were stuck forever on the other side of a membrane and I could never have access to them. I felt as if they were real.”
Still, the child-burdened should come away from this engaging collection with a rich sense of what they have missed: “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” (Houston); “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” (Kipnis); “Our shared passions thrill and satisfy us, and our abundant freedoms — to daydream; to cook exactly the food we want when we want it; to drink wine and watch a movie without worrying about who’s not yet asleep upstairs; to pick up and go anywhere we want, anytime; to do our work uninterrupted; to shape our own days to our own liking; and to stay connected to each other without feeling fractured — are not things we’d choose to give up for anyone, ever” (Christensen).
In her lovely piece, Hodell writes about being “aghast at the short-fibered thoughts of friends whose small children beseeched or bellowed as their stories were begun again and again and never finished, whereas I got to spoil myself with hours of unspooling daydreams.”
Geoff Dyer’s fantastic essay, “Over and Out,” is the most buoyant and the most thought-provoking. He takes on the self-rationalizations of parents with crushing humor and verve. “You can persuade yourself that your children prevented you from having this career that had never looked like working out. So it goes on: things are always forsaken in the name of an obligation to someone else, never as a failing, a falling short of yourself. Before you know it desire has atrophied to the degree that it can only make itself apparent by passing itself off as an obligation. After a couple of years of parenthood people become incapable of saying what they want to do in terms of what they want to do. Their preferences can only be articulated in terms of a hierarchy of obligations — even though it is by fulfilling these obligations (visiting in-laws, being forced to stay in and baby-sit) that they scale the summit of their desires.”
One could ask what “thought-provoking” means in this context. There are, after all, very few people with children who will rethink their decision to have children, or seriously entertain the idea that they shouldn’t have had them, or wish they could send them back. But it is possible to rethink the subtle, implicit judgments against the childless, the attitudes of pity or condescension or secret belief that they are missing out, the oppressive conversion fantasy itself; one can envy their lightness, their unspooling hours of daydreamy thought, their unfettered relations with other people’s children, their last-minute plane tickets, their wandering midnight conversations with friends after dinner, their weeks of single-minded devotion to work. One can appreciate a truly alternative life, without prejudice.
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