“It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.”
By Maria Popova
“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions,” Italo Calvino wrote in his magnificent letter on reproductive rights, “but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.” Thirty-five years earlier, in 1940, Anaïs Nin made the same point with even greater precision and prescience when she wrote in her diary: “Motherhood is a vocation like any other. It should be freely chosen, not imposed upon woman.” And yet here we are decades later, with millennia of human civilization under our belt — aspirin to Austen, Guggenheim to Google, bicycle to Bach — still subscribing to the same primitive biological imperative that a life unprocreated is a life wasted; still succumbing to the tyrannical cultural message that opting out of parenthood is a failure of ambition or magnanimity or social duty, or simply the symptom of a profound character flaw. Being childless by choice — like being alone, like living alone — is still considered by unspoken consensus the errant choice.
A potent and sorely needed antidote to this toxic myth comes in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (public library), edited by the brilliant Meghan Daum — a writer of rare aptitude for articulating the unspeakable. The contributions — sometimes witty, sometimes wistful, always wise — come from such celebrated authors as Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez, whose reasons for going not having children range from the personal trauma of difficult childhoods to political convictions about everything from reproductive rights to overpopulation and income inequality to the increasingly hard-to-meet requirement of undivided attention that is the hallmark of great parenting.
With an eye to Tolstoy’s famous line from the opening of Anna Karenina — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” — Daum writes in the introduction:
Of course, [Tolstoy’s] maxim isn’t exactly true, since happy families come in all varieties, and unhappy families can be miserable in mind-numbingly predictable ways. And since most people eventually wind up becoming parents, whether by choice, circumstance, or some combination thereof, my version isn’t necessarily an airtight theory either. Still, in thinking about this subject steadily over the last several years, I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative.
Those of us who choose not to become parents are a bit like Unitarians or nonnative Californians; we tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths. Contrary to a lot of cultural assumptions, people who opt out of parenthood … are not a monolithic group. We are neither hedonists nor ascetics. We bear no worse psychological scars from our own upbringings than most people who have kids. We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people’s children, which in turn enriches our own lives.
Daum considers the many ways in which one can come to stand in one’s truth as a nonparent — an act, essentially, of standing at the crossroads of Should and Must, in the eye of a sociocultural hurricane, with the absolute stillness of deep self-knowledge — Daum writes:
For some, the necessary self-knowledge came after years of indecision. For others, the lack of desire to have or raise children felt hardwired from birth, almost like sexual orientation or gender identity. A few actively pursued parenthood before realizing they were chasing a dream that they’d mistaken for their own but that actually belonged to someone else — a partner, a family member, the culture at large.
And yet despite the wide array of paths to the willfully childless life, the cultural narrative about this choice remains strikingly myopic. In a sentiment that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s admonition that polarities invariably impoverish the nuances of life, Daum points to the primary purpose of the anthology:
I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against nonparents and assumes that the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income. I wanted to show that there are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent. You can do it lazily and self-servingly or you can do it generously and imaginatively. You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.
It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.
This begs the necessary question of gender balance — in the larger cultural conversation as well as in the particularity of this volume — which Daum addresses with no-nonsense elegance:
There are notably more women than men here — a thirteen to three ratio, to be exact. That ratio felt to me more or less proportionate to the degree to which men devote serious thought to parenthood (at least before it happens) compared to women, who are goaded into thinking about it practically from birth. Still, I thought it was essential that the collection include male voices. Too often, this subject is framed as a women’s issue. But men who are disinclined toward fatherhood must contend with their own set of prejudices; for instance, assumptions that they can’t commit to a partner, that they wish to prolong adolescence indefinitely, or that they’ll be intractably (and gratefully) domesticated as soon as the right partner reels them in.
But for all its diversity of perspectives on and paths to nonparenthood, the anthology is underpinned by one obvious self-selection bias — all sixteen contributors are writers, and as Martin Amis memorably observed, “the first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.” What’s more, in addition to a greater need for solitude and higher tolerance for financial uncertainty, artists and writers have in common one other key differentiator from the general population: We tend to measure legacy in memetics rather than genetics — in the ideas rather than the infants we seed into society. (In one extreme, writers who do choose to procreate end up designating their children like they do their works — with a byline: Take F. Scott Fitzgerald and his daughter, Scottie.)
To be sure, Daum counters this disclaimer by pointing out that if the choice were as simple as “writing versus children,” writers “wouldn’t have much to say on the subject” — and they have a great deal to say, with a great deal of dimension.
In one of the funniest essays, Geoff Dyer brings all of his wonderful, curmudgeonly, self-deprecating Englishness to the subject and writes:
In a park, looking at smiling mothers and fathers strolling along with their adorable toddlers, I react like the pope confronted with a couple of gay men walking hand in hand: Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)?
By a wicked paradox, an absolute lack of interest in children attracts the opprobrium normally reserved for pedophiles. Man, you should have seen what happened a couple of years ago when a friend and I were playing tennis in Highbury Fields, London, next to the children’s area where kids were cavorting around under the happily watchful eyes of their mums. It’s quite a large area, but it is, needless to say, not big enough. A number of children kept coming over to the tennis courts, rattling on the gate, and trying to get in. The watching middle-class mums did nothing to restrain them. Eventually my friend yelled, “Go AWAY!” Whereupon the watching mums did do something. A mob of them descended on us as though my friend had exposed himself. Suddenly we were in the midst of a maternal zombie film. It was the nearest I’ve ever come to getting lynched — they were after my friend rather than me and though, strictly speaking, I was his opponent, I was a tacit accomplice — and a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s.
Summoning Virginia Woolf in her own most curmudgeonly Englishness — “A child is the very devil,” she wrote in a letter, “calling out, as I believe, all the worst and least explicable passions of the parents.” — Dyer adds:
Certainly at that moment, the threatened love these mums felt for their children seemed ferocious and vile, either a kind of insanity or, at the very least, a form of deeply antisocial behavior. I stress this because it’s often claimed that having kids makes people more conscious of the kind of world they’re creating or leaving for their offspring. That would be why, in London, a city with excellent public transportation, parents have to make sure they have cars. Many of these cars come speeding along my street on their way to the extremely expensive private school on the corner. You can see, from the looks on these mums’ faces as they drop off their kids at this little nest of privilege, that the larger world — as represented by me, some loser on his bike — doesn’t exist, is no more than an impediment to finding a parking space. Parenthood, far from enlarging one’s worldview, results in an appalling form of myopia. Hence André Gide’s verdict on families, “those misers of love.”
Dyer turns a skeptical eye toward the most common case for having children:
Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life “meaning” is the one to which I am most hostile — apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose. It would be a lot less fun if it did have a purpose — then we would all be obliged (and foolish not) to pursue that purpose.
Okay, if you can’t handle the emptiness of life, fine: have kids, fill the void. But some of us are quite happy in the void, thank you, and have no desire to have it filled.
It’s worth pausing here to circle back to Tolstoy and point out that although he filled his existential void with fourteen children, he quickly found them to be insufficient filler and spiraled into his now-legendary search for meaning. But Dyer is equally skeptical of turning to “the writing life” for such existential filler as he is of the pro-procreation dogma:
Any exultation of the writing life is as abhorrent to me as the exultation of family life. Writing just passes the time and, like any kind of work, brings in money. If you want to make sure I never read a line you’ve written, tell me about the sacrifices you’ve made in order to get those lines written… Sacrifice is part of the parent’s vocabulary.
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.
Unmasking this charade of “sacrifice,” Dyer pounces at the jugular of the anti-childlessness tyrant:
Does this mean, as parents might claim, that I’m just too selfish? Now, there’s a red herring if ever there was one. Not having children is seen as supremely selfish, as though the people having children were selflessly sacrificing themselves in a valiant attempt to ensure the survival of our endangered species and fill up this vast and underpopulated island of ours. People raise kids because they want to, but they always emphasize how hard it is.
Jezebel founder and epistolary heartbreak-hunter Anna Holmes addresses another facet of the Me-First myth, considering the choice not to have children as an act of self-caring — of knowing intimately the singular, un-peer-pressured needs of one’s inner life and honoring them — rather than one of selfishness:
Herein lies the rub: as it stands now, 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’m afraid of my own competence.
Some might call my trepidation at the idea of motherhood “selfishness” — I would call it “agency” — but those people are probably either (1) dudes or (2) self-satisfied professional parents, and I’m not sure I care enough about their opinions that I wouldn’t just agree with them and shrug my shoulders in shared chagrin. [My choice] has nothing to do with a distaste for kids, who, along with animals, I like and identify with more than I do with most adults.) But the fact is, it is never far from my mind that the means of reproduction — and its costs — are beasts of burden borne, historically, by the fairer sex.
As I enter my forties, I find that I am only now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no. (No, I cannot perform that job; no, I cannot meet you for coffee ; no, I cannot be in a relationship in which I feel starved for emotional and physical connection.) … The irony is that if and when I reach the point where I feel able to give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create, I will probably not be of childbearing age. Them’s the breaks.
In one of the most somber, sobering, and intense essays in the volume, Sigrid Nunez explores the complex variables that go into that choice — the wanting, the not-wanting, the wanting-to-want — through the lens of her own life as well as those of yesteryear’s prominent childless women writers.
Nunez is among those of us unafraid to acknowledge that one’s childhood shapes one’s disposition to being a parent in adulthood. She reflects on her mother — a woman who was decidedly unmaternal and to whom “a child, any child, was a brat”:
The circumstances of her own youth (the war, the too-early pregnancy, the immigration to America with a husband who was in all ways an unsuitable match and whom she considered beneath her) ensured that she would always see herself as unlucky, as someone who had been cheated. Whatever good might come her way from having had a family (and that good would not come before the children were grown), it was the bad that marked her, that made her life what it was.
Nunez grew up in a community of families made up of people like her mother — “people whose lives were harder than most, people with low-paying jobs or dependent on welfare, people with limited education, foreign accents, poor English, bad teeth, dark skin — people who were all too aware of being at the bottom of the ladder” — and experienced the direct results of that anguishing awareness:
Their inevitable frustrations were, inevitably, taken out at home. Husbands beat wives; parents beat children; big children beat little children.
“Don’t let’s think about the pets,” she adds parenthentically, and those of us who grew up in such homes instantly know what she means. Worse yet, this acting-out of frustrations wasn’t confined to the home — it was condoned by the community:
The dominant emotion toward children, from mothers and fathers both, seemed to be anger. It was part of the chaos of that place and time: you never knew when some grown-up was going to fly off the handle. Children were forever being screamed at, sworn at, slapped around, or worse… The berating or whipping of a child in public, often before a smirking crowd, was nothing rare. And the suffering of anyone subjected to that particular humiliation was so obvious and so dreadful that it was hard to believe the parent inflicting it could possibly also love that child.
Much of what Nunez endured calls to mind Kafka’s relationship with his abusive father — most of all, perhaps, the way in which children who grow up in such environments come to mistake such parenting for the norm; when our pain is consistently invalidated and dismissed, we come to believe that there is something wrong with us for experiencing that pain, rather than with our parents for inflicting it. Nunez considers the complexities of the issue and the psychological aftershocks, which never quite leave us:
At some point, of course, I came to understand that not all children had been unwanted, and that, like people everywhere, most of the parents I knew, the mothers in particular, had counted having a family among their life’s sweetest dreams. The problem for many of them arose from being unable to prevent having more children than they’d wanted, or from having them come along at times when they couldn’t help being more burden — Another mouth to feed! Where’s he gonna sleep? — than blessing. And I began to understand how a person could love his or her children and at the same time deeply resent them… But I have known many whose lives were formed — or deformed, perhaps I should say — by having been made to feel guilty for all the trouble they caused by coming into the world.
Once, when I was six or seven, walking with my mother down a certain mean Brooklyn street, we passed a group of surly-looking boys gathered on a stoop. As my mother quickened her steps, dragging me along, one of the boys threw something at me: the wooden stick from an ice-cream pop he’d just finished eating . I tugged my mother’s hand. “Mommy, that boy hit me!” Marching on, staring grimly ahead, she addressed me in a voice that was like a slap: “And what do you think I can do about it?” At which a certain knowledge sank into my bones, and with that knowledge a fear that would never wholly leave me.
As a child, I never felt safe. Every single day of my entire childhood I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe? The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that there was nothing harder to accomplish in life than being a good parent. The store of patience and wisdom and kindness that seemed to be required was truly daunting; I wasn’t sure that I myself possessed even the minimum to prevent catastrophe.
As a counterpoint to her early and enduring doubt as to what kind of parent she’d make, Nunez grew up with absolute clarity and certainty about being a writer. This she discusses in a way that makes clear the anthology’s greatest feat: its testament to what we intuitively understand but refuse to accept — that many of those willingly childless were themselves the children of unwilling (and thus unloving, unpresent, unskilled) parents; that parenting is a tradeoff with creative and intellectual achievement. Nunez writes:
Although in my youthful, naive way I gravely underestimated how difficult such a life would be, I stuck to it, and I was steadfast in not letting other things distract me. 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… Doris Lessing declared herself “not the best person” to raise the two young children she left behind when she moved from southern Africa to London to pursue her career. Why? “There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children.”
To be fair, this is perhaps a matter more selectively anecdotal than representative of empirical evidence — one imagines, for instance, Zadie Smith reading this as she cradles her second baby and raises an intelligent and unbored eyebrow.
Still, Nunez points to Sylvia Plath as a woman who had wanted it all with blazing ambition — the immortality of a creative genius, but also the feminine ideal of the family — only to crash and burn in the grip of deadly mental illness. (The direction of causality is left wanting: Did the desire to have it all, without resigning to the fact of any tradeoff, precipitate Plath’s mental illness, or was the desire itself a symptom of her mental illness? I err on the side of the latter, and Nunez seems to suggest the former.) Nunez returns to her own reality:
That there could be something in the world that a woman could want more than children has been viewed as unacceptable. Things may be marginally different now, but, even if there is something she wants more than children, that is no reason for a woman to remain childless. Any normal woman, it is understood, wants — and should want — both.
A graduate student of mine tells me, with some heat, “I do plan to have kids one day, but I certainly hope they won’t be the most important thing in my life!”
Am I wrong to think that perhaps, if this is how she feels and continues to feel, she ought at least to consider not having kids?
I can hear her respond, with equal heat, “But that’s not fair. You wouldn’t say that to a man.”
In any case, she will learn soon enough that her honesty isn’t likely to be met with understanding. When Michelle Obama (to name just one prominent, accomplished woman) announces, “I’m a mother first,” she is of course saying what most people want to hear. (It is inconceivable that any woman running for public office today could get away with explaining that although she loves her children dearly, for her, being a leader comes first. President Obama has often been heard to say, meaningfully, “I am a father.” No one leans in expecting to hear first.)
Nunez illustrates the social judgment to which a woman’s priorities are inevitably subjected with Nobel-winning writer Alice Munro’s uncompromisingly candid Paris Review interview:
“I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing. Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, ‘This was a hard-hearted young woman.’” Munro confesses to not having been there for her small children and knowing that they suffered for it. “When my oldest daughter was about two, she’d come to where I was sitting at the typewriter, and I would bat her away with one hand and type with the other.… This was bad because it made her the adversary to what was most important to me.”
Back to the important thing. What was most important to me. Make no mistake, this was a writer first.
Here’s my question: Is there any way for a woman in the young Munro’s position to escape being judged — by herself, by the world — as hard-hearted?
It’s worth wondering, perhaps, how Nunez’s question may have been shaped by her relationship with the son of one of the greatest writers of all time — Susan Sontag — who seems to have raised her child with an attitude similar to Munro’s. It’s hard to imagine that being in intimate proximity to this complex dynamic of love and resentment, and witness its enduring aftershocks, wouldn’t color one’s view of the parenthood-versus-writing tradeoff, to say nothing of seeding the baseline assumption that it is a tradeoff only the nuances — not the existence — of which are to be debated.
But for Nunez, the choice was ultimately not so much about sparing herself the resentment toward a child that distracts from her literary career as about sparing a child the lifelong trauma of being resented as a distraction — a decision based on compassionate realism rather than selfish idealism. It is, essentially, a question of deciding for oneself — as Munro did — what “the most important thing” is:
Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over. “Children detect things like that,” acknowledged Munro.
To forgo motherhood was the right thing to do. But whether it was a choice I made or one that was made for me is perhaps another question.
But let me say this: the idea of having it all has always been foreign to me. I grew up believing that if you worked incredibly hard and were incredibly lucky, you might get to have one dream in life come true. Going for everything was a dangerous, distracting fantasy. I believe I have been incredibly lucky.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a nuanced and necessary read in its totality. Complement it with some thoughts on another socially frowned-upon personal choice — that of being alone — then revisit Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our own imperfect younger selves.