Oh, but I'm Not Judging You...
I Can Barely Take Care of Myself:
Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids
By Jen Kirkman
Simon & Schuster, 224 pages
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:
A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life
By Rod Dreher
Grand Central Publishing, 288 pages
Twenty-first century Americans certainly spend a formidable amount of time squabbling over the exact components of a morally and politically acceptable life. Anyone who has bushwhacked her way through the treacherous milieu of upper-middle-class motherhood, for instance, is familiar with a fearsome specimen known as the “sanctimommy,” whose favorite line—“Oh, but I’m not judging her”—most assuredly informs you that she is doing exactly that, often while simultaneously hand-churning her own organic, locally grown, BPA-free baby food.
Over the past year, the great American lifestyle debate has increasingly flared over the issue of “work-life balance”—a topic that also, perhaps not coincidentally, seems to preoccupy women in the country’s upper-income brackets. Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” kicked off a media frenzy and dozens of derivative responses last summer. Months later, Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg volleyed back with Lean In, her bestselling, go-get-’em-girl, take-no-prisoners-at-the-office “sort-of feminist manifesto.” Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, in April the Washington Post tiptoed in, hemming and hawing, with its own take on the debate: “Why Women Should Embrace a ‘Good Enough’ Life.” There will be more to come. Forever.
This persistent agonizing over the good life and its proper ingredients leads us to two new and notably different books on the topic: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids, by the comedian Jen Kirkman, and The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life, by paleoconservative blogger and columnist Rod Dreher.
Kirkman, a successful stand-up comic and television personality, devotes her memoir to defending her carefree, seat-of-the-pants way of life; her ever-evolving and sometimes flailing relationships; and, most prominently, her decision not to have children. Dreher uses his book to chronicle his fluctuating relationship with his small-town family, his sister’s brutal battle with terminal lung cancer, and his recent return to the tight-knit Louisiana hometown he once thought he despised.
Kirkman and Dreher live in different metaphorical universes. Her life is messy, boozy, slapdash, surface-skimming, and filled with phobias and neuroses, while Dreher, a devoutly religious man, is “abstract, analytical, and contemplative” in the extreme. But both, intriguingly, are dogged by the judgments of others.
Kirkman’s book tackles the issue of coping with judgment head-on, detailing the various (and, admittedly, often obnoxious) responses to her decision to remain “child-free by choice.” Friends condescend. Brand-new acquaintances blithely ask if she’s barren. Total strangers, often in hairspray-soaked comedy-club bathrooms, politely inform her that she’s selfish. Others simply “act like my not having kids spells the end of the human race.”
For Dreher, the problem of judgment is far more anguished; he finds himself in the awkward position of “the only guy in town who could tick off a saint.” The saint in question is his dying sister, a woman much beloved by friends and neighbors in the tiny Louisiana town in which they were raised and where she remained. “Ruthie’s tenacious simplicity caused her to make unfair judgments of those she considered privileged or sophisticated,” Dreher writes—and he, who left his home and family to launch a journalism career and a big-city life, was at the top of Ruthie’s disapproval list.
Dreher eventually makes peace with Ruthie’s memory, and, inspired by the values he sees in his hometown—family, community, and personal relationships—he relocates his family from Philadelphia to St. Francisville. His book is a chronicle of change—a change he never sought, since it came at the cost of his sister’s life. Kirkman, meanwhile, closes her defense of the child-free life with a breezy, oblivious, and somewhat scattershot list of her goals for old age: She wishes to be “broke, single, and fabulous,” an independent lone ranger who is “spontaneous and unafraid to be alone,” and yet, somewhat incongruously, to also share a residence with a bunch of zany old ladies, thick as thieves, in an updated, real-life version of the 1980s sitcom The Golden Girls.
“It’s hard for me to commit to something today,” Kirkman writes, “just because it might serve me well in the future.” For old-fashioned types, such willingness to delay gratification is a pretty good definition of maturity; for Kirkman, it’s the antithesis of the meaning of life. At the dawn of her short-lived marriage—which, it should be noted, was launched with personally written vows that had “two mentions of Bob Fosse and zero mentions of children”—she and her soon-to-be ex-husband discussed their goals and agreed “that what was most important was the freedom to do what we wanted, whenever we wanted…things that require the freedom of not having a family to provide for.”
“What we wanted, whenever we wanted”: Kirkman, it turns out, is criticized for all the wrong things—and that for which she is not judged says a great deal about modern American culture. Based on ample evidence in her book (“It’s pretty easy to be fulfilled at age thirty-eight,” she writes, “just by the knowledge that you’re no longer an overmedicated or stressed-out little neurotic”), Kirkman should probably be applauded, and maybe even given a medal, for not having children. Instead, she is judged harshly by her peers. On the other hand, her view of life and relationships, which veers close to casual nihilism, fails to raise an eyebrow, let alone an expression of disapproval. Such is the odd breed of modern American moralism, which misses the cultural forest (our nation’s quietly accepted norm of self-centered living) for the symbolic trees (having children).
“Somebody is always going to be disappointed with your life choice,” Kirkman writes, “and my rule of thumb is that as long as I’m not the one who is disappointed, I can live with that.”
Dreher comes to a different conclusion. “There has to be balance,” he writes. “Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.”
Both books, in the end, flirt with questions deeply embedded in the great American debate: Are we obligated to anyone beyond ourselves? And if so, how? Kirkman’s book may be a bit of a hot mess, but it also offers something quite powerful: a clear, albeit unintentional, portrait of modern American secularism. It’s a worldview born of flashing lights, Internet noise, constant distraction, and an impressive lack of curiosity about what lies behind life’s final door. Dreher’s book, with its focus on deeper meaning, offers an alternative view. It’s quiet. It’s complicated. And, perhaps vexingly for some, it doesn’t offer all the answers. This is because, unlike the bulk of our nation’s fiery lifestyle fisticuffs, it’s a genuine search for truth. Sanctimommies—as well as the “child-free by choice”—should take note.