Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed edited by Meghan Daum

selfishI always appreciate hearing the views of other people who’ve decided not to have children. This is a collection of sixteen essays by writers about that choice, including one from Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin. What’s nice about this book is the variety of views and experiences. The authors are mostly women, but there’s a few men. Some of them have been pregnant, or wanted to get pregnant, while others knew from the beginning that children were not for them. In the end, all of them have decided their lives are rewarding without having had children.

Editor Meghan Daum introduces this book by saying that, just like the saying about happy and unhappy families, the reasons people have children are usually the same, but the reasons people don’t have children can be completely different. People think if you don’t want children, you must be selfish. Or you hate children. Or you were abused as a child and you’re still broken. But for most of us, that isn’t true. And in fact, the numbers choosing not to have children are growing, especially among those with more education.

But I’m not sure acceptance of the idea is growing. People who have children and don’t have children are in such different camps; one of the authors notes that they can understand our lives but we can’t understand theirs.

Daum points out that writers are a unique group, and their reasons for not having children (in particular, having space and time to write) may be very different from the reasons for non-writers. But since their stories vary so much, I wasn’t bothered by the idea that they all come from one profession.

I will say that reading their essays, I longed to be a writer much more than I longed to have children. I’ve always wanted to write the kind of essay these writers have, about why I don’t want children, because I think voices on this issue are so lacking.

Many of the writers commented on the Time article that came out last year about couples living the “childfree” life. I actually remember being in an airport and seeing the cover of that magazine. That is how startling it is to actually hear people talking about choosing not to have children. But the writers were mostly critical of the article, because it portrays the “childfree” as happy couples who take tropical vacations and don’t have a care in the world. In other words, selfish and irresponsible.

We get to go to bed every night together, alone, and wake up together, alone. 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. (“A Thousand Other Things” by Kate Christensen)

Am I selfish? I’ve thought about that question a lot. Yes – in that I can’t imagine devoting my entire life to children. I need my alone time, I need time to read and think. So maybe I’m selfish. But people have children because they want them. That’s selfish too. One reason I don’t want children is that I don’t want to screw up a child. I also don’t think the world needs more children.  That doesn’t make me a  saint, since I never wanted a child to begin with. But it doesn’t make me selfish, either.

And, like a lot of child-free people, I help children. I donate to good causes, I’m there for my nieces and nephews, and I work in the field of education. But why I feel the need to tell you that, I don’t know.

Here’s where I tell you that I love children, and where you look at me skeptically. But I do. I love them for their wild experiments with language; for their inability to feign interest in things that do not truly grip them; for their seriousness and total immersion in play. But when you talk of not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the questionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence. (“Babes in the Woods” by Courtney Hodell)

One thing that struck me about the essays in this book was the difference in tone between the male and the female writers. Women say the kinds of things I just did – we justify, we explain, we even apologize. We like children. We help children. We gnaw at the issue, and some of us go back and forth on whether we should or shouldn’t have them. The men in this book don’t do that. They just don’t want them. One of my favorite essays is by Geoff Dwyer and I bookmarked this one to show my husband, because it reminded me of his unapologetic, definitive stance on not having children.  Dwyer comments that if people need to have children to give meaning to their lives, that’s their choice. But why do we assume life should have meaning? He’s perfectly happy as is. Another great essay by Tim Kreider made a similar point:

If having children doesn’t necessarily provide meaning, it’s certainly an effective way to obviate, or at least postpone, the question of meaning throughout the prime years of life. You may wake up at four a.m. panicked about the mortgage payments or want to hang yourself rather than to into work one more day, but too bad, it doesn’t matter; you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because your child is depending upon you. Whereas there’s really nothing stopping me, on any given Tuesday morning, from taking up heroin. (Tim Kreider “The End of the Line”)

It was also very interesting to hear from women who, for various reasons, chose to have an abortion. This is another voice that is lacking.  Even I, pro-choice as I am, sort of gasp internally when someone says they had an abortion. And that’s a sad thing.

I’ve often wondered why it’s so important to see my own choice validated by others. Maybe because we all want to fit in, and not having children (and not wanting them) makes me feel like a mutant most days. I range from feeling guilty to defensive to grateful – every single day. I worry about others judging me or feeling sorry for me. I don’t know why.

But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists outside of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify. But the decision to honor that desire, to find a way to be whole on my own terms even if it means facing the judgment, scorn, and even pity of mainstream society, is a victory. It’s a victory I celebrate every day. (“Save Yourself” by Danielle Henderson)

It’s a relief to be past the age when my friends are all conceiving, or trying to conceive. Past the age of baby showers — I hope! Past the age of questions, I thought – except for the woman in a bar recently who assumed I must be pregnant when I declined to have a glass of wine.

I’m so glad that these sixteen writers shared their stories. I don’t think I’ve ever highlighted a book as much as I did this one. It made me think about my own life and my own reasons for not having children. But never with regret.

Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from NetGalley and Picador in exchange for an honest review. This book will be published March 31, 2015.

  10 comments for “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed edited by Meghan Daum

  1. March 9, 2015 at 7:13 am

    I never really wanted to have kids, until one day i did. I totally get where people who don’t want kids are coming from. I don’t think they are selfish, i just think they have a different path.

    • March 13, 2015 at 8:33 pm

      Thanks for the comment Tanya! It’s great that you can see both sides. I was worried when I got married that one day I would change my mind, and then my marriage would be on the line. But I’m actually happier with the decision as I get older. Like you say, a different path.

    • April 1, 2015 at 1:48 pm

      Just don’t turn into the person that tells other childfree people that they will change their mind, just like you did. I have one of those people in my life, it’s probably the most annoy bingo I get.

  2. March 9, 2015 at 8:29 pm

    I’d like to read this book. I’m at a crossroads when it comes to children and I think it is important that people talk about why they don’t want kids. It’s a bit of a taboo…

    I’ve experienced from my family the ‘oh you’ll change’ and ‘don’t worry’. Kind of like when you’re told you will like wine when you grow up, as if it is some symbol of adulthood. (I’m almost 30 and I still don’t like the stuff.)

    I wonder how many people regret having children, who do not talk about it? I have met a few actually. They still love their children, but they feel guilt and regret. Maybe that actually makes them better parents, the ability to see their shortcomings.

    I think a lot of people have kids because it is what everyone else is doing, because it is expected, not because they have an actual desire to have them. I wonder perhaps if people find it hard to separate what they want and what society wants?

    People should rather ask themselves ‘should I have children’ rather than ‘do I want children’.

    • March 13, 2015 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I think some people change their minds but most don’t – the great thing about this book is that many of the writers did go back and forth on the decision. But in the end they say, whatever you do or don’t do, you might regret later, but that’s true of everything. I’ve always thought about which I might regret more. And the fear of spending a lifetime regretting having a child makes this an easy decision. On the wine thing, I had to laugh, because I was definitely beer only until my 30s, now it’s all about wine.

  3. March 10, 2015 at 5:20 am

    I don’t apologise, and I don’t care if I’m selfish and irresponsible….my body, autonomy (and bodily autonomy) are far more important and I’m not sorry.

    • March 13, 2015 at 8:35 pm

      Thanks for visiting! I know I should care less what others might think – but easier said than done! Still, I’m not sorry, either.

  4. March 19, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    I have always said I don’t want to have kids, and I only grow more certain of it as time goes by. Thankfully, I’m not married yet, and none of my friends have started having babies, so I haven’t been been judged for it. I can’t wait to read this book!

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