Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision to Not Have Kids
By Meghan Daum
Picador, 288 pages
Back in the olden days, having children was simple. Well, let’s amend that: The actual birthing, rearing, and proper raising of children has never been simple, as the thousands of years of family-centric drama, heartache, love, and hair-on-fire feuds that fill the annals of human history make clear. Rather, it was the choice to have children that used to be simple, largely because, in the vast majority of cases, that choice did not exist. Kids simply happened.
Today, thanks to modern medicine, young women have all the choices in the world, meaning they can agonize over said choices for a good 30 years or so—and through a mix of conscious decisions, poor planning, and the accidents of fate, more and more women are calling the whole thing off. In 2010, according to the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of American women were childless, meaning they had passed their childbearing years without taking the plunge. In the 1970s, that number was a mere 10 percent. The nation’s fertility rate, meanwhile, recently fell to all-time lows.
It is fair, at least from a demographic perspective, to consider this an ominous sign. Others take it as a marker of imminent cultural doom. In February, Pope Francis called the drop in childbirth a sign of a “greedy generation.” The “choice to not have children,” he argued, is “selfish,” short-sighted, and intrinsically wrong.
Meghan Daum, a novelist, columnist, and editor of the new essay collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, begs to differ. The child-free life, she argues, can be an honorable and virtuous choice. “There’s more than one way to be a responsible, productive—and even happy—adult in the world,” she writes, and “it’s about time the taboo of choosing a life other than parenthood was publicly challenged by people who’ve thought beyond the Porsche in the driveway or the Manolos in the closet.”
Let us now pause for an important public-service announcement: If you don’t want to have children, that’s absolutely fine. You might have very good reasons for your decision; conversely, you might not be the best candidate for keeping track of prone-to-wander children in this distracting and dangerous global carnival filled with shady sideshow acts. On topics like these, minding one’s own beeswax is usually advised. That is, unless a whole bucket of crazy gets thrown into the public debate. This is the ethos of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, which does few public-relations favors for the child-free lifestyle—and along the way, it highlights serious weak points in our culture.
“There are just as many ways of being a nonparent as there are of being a parent,” Daum writes in the introduction. “You can be cool about it or you can be a jerk about it.” Unfortunately, almost all the contributors to Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed—with the notable exception of the English novelist Geoff Dyer, whose genuinely funny and self-aware essay correctly labels regret in life as “the jackpot you are guaranteed to win”—come off as jerks.
The contributors are professional writers, and many of them assume this means they are entitled to be moody, crankily eccentric, or even borderline insane. Being a “creative person,” we are told—please insert your own skeptical cough or two here—apparently excuses a multitude of sins, including regular breakdowns and grown-up tantrums. Being a “creative person” also apparently allows for Costco-sized carts filled with delusions of grandeur and hefty doses of drama. (The proverbial carts of parents, meanwhile, are filled with to-do lists, bulk diapers, and even bulkier cases of wine.)
“Writing had saved my life,” Sigrid Nunez writes in her chapter, “and if I could not write, I would die.” Children, apparently, often make a hash of the world of great art: Young humans, the novelist Lionel Shriver notes, “would have messed up my apartment. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.” Attention, everyone: It is officially time to get off Lionel Shriver’s lawn. But first, should someone inform her that her cultural influence is likely dwarfed by people like, oh, I don’t know, the fertile founder of Chick-fil-A?
Abortions abound in these pages, as cold as cutting off a telemarketer and as casual as blowing one’s nose. In one telling chapter, Anna Holmes, the founder of the feminist website Jezebel.com, blithely describes her three regret-free abortions. Birth control is not mentioned; nor is, say, learning from experience. Holmes marvels at the “amusing” fact that, at the age of 35, she could have been a parent to three now-defunct human beings. It gets better: She then concludes that she is not cut out for motherhood because—wait for it, folks—she would simply be too good at it. She would be too dedicated, too consumed, too loving.
Who thinks these things? Who then writes them down for people to see?
At times, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed reminded me of a dour co-worker’s explanation of why her family never got a dog when she was a child: “There just wasn’t enough love to go around.” Witness contributor Michelle Huneven, who writes this: “I didn’t want to feel such love for someone else. I still wanted to be the object of that tidal wave.” Read Danielle Henderson’s chapter and weep: “I decided to take the love that I’d have for a child and give it to myself instead.” It’s like the fixed-pie economic fallacy, often bemoaned by Milton Friedman, but applied to the human soul.
That’s depressing, I know—but at least you didn’t have to read the whole book, which also expounds on the utter meaninglessness of life on earth. “Human beings,” Tim Krieder writes in his rather bleak chapter, “are basically big complicated Rube Goldberg contraptions constructed by genes to copy themselves, and only as an unintended side effect build mosques, make screwball comedies, and launch interplanetary probes.” (Sheesh. Where’s that Costco wine?) Parenthood, he argues, is simply a decades-long distraction technique used to shield us from this unfortunate fact. For her part, Shriver notes that it’s terribly outdated to care about the future, the purpose of life, or what happens after death. The new ethos, she writes, is “Be Here Now”—and children, you see, get in the way of that.
Oh, the irony! It could fill the Olympic-sized pools of dozens upon dozens of quiet, adults-only Caribbean resorts! In the entire universe, after all, there is no one better at Being Here Now than a child. If you’ve ever hung out with a four-year-old, you know that it is impossible to waste a four-year-old’s time. You also know that a four-year-old has ways to force you—often using various bodily hijinks, tackles, and a nonstop barrage of questions—to Be Here Now.
All this said, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is not entirely without merit. Perhaps unwittingly, it does reveal the various cultural falsehoods that surround parenting in upper-middle-class life. In one corner, we’re told we can “have it all,” making zero trade-offs for the perfect, “balanced” life; in another, parents are cast on an all-consuming path of fear, walled in by pureed kale, costly day cares with Harvard-like admissions processes, toys potentially filled with toxins, and various forms of magical, pseudoscientific beliefs. (One of my favorites is “kangaroo care,” which instructs parents to bond naked with their infants upon birth, allegedly resulting in both parties being best friends for life.)
Interestingly, many of the book’s contributors seem to have bought into the worst of our culture’s parenting myths hook, line, and sinker, and scared themselves to death. “Those of us who choose not to become parents are kind of like Unitarians or nonnative Californians,” Daum notes in the book’s introduction. “We tend to arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.” In a telling aside, Daum cites her lack of instinctive “baby hunger” as a sign that she is clearly not meant for motherhood. No one seems to have told her that it doesn’t always happen that way. For some, parenthood is a well-considered and studied leap into an unknown great beyond. For many, it involves conquering certain fears. For everyone, it is life-changing in ways no one can anticipate, no matter how much they think they can.
For the first time in human history, for better or worse, parenthood is now a choice. As a culture, we certainly don’t need to judge people who decide that this massive, hugely involving, hugely important job isn’t for them. But the problem here, despite the protests of the authors in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, isn’t simply a rash of judgmental parents. In her review of the book for the Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert highlights the book’s darkest thread: “Not having children isn’t selfish. Not having children is a perfectly rational and reasonable response given that humans are essentially parasites on the face of a perfectly lovely and well-balanced planet, ploughing through its natural resources, eradicating its endangered species, and ruining its most wonderful landscapes. This might sound misanthropic, and it is, but it is also true.”
In other words, the world would be a better place if there were no people on it. In addition to being both shallow and self-absorbed, this view has the added bonus of being completely nihilistic, paired with the odd suggestion that while it is perfectly wonderful and somehow cosmically valuable for the people who wrote this book to exist—and to live out their “creative” and “interesting” and “fun” lives—it would be even more wonderful if humankind ceased to exist once they’ve had their turn. And if that’s the case, really, what’s the point of writing a book at all? They may be “perfectly lovely,” but wild squirrels, roving grizzlies, and sprawling, unchecked kudzu can’t have much use for an immaterial, overwrought document on a long-defunct Kindle.