Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum, Picador/Macmillan, 288 pages
As Meghan Daum describes in her introduction to Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, and as this anthology’s title wryly informs us, individuals who choose not to have children are often relegated to the role of spokesperson for the narcissistic — the shiny, happy faces of the self-indulgent-and-loving-it.
Maybe some people do choose material extravagance over diapers, but this collection of 16 essays — by 13 women and three men — proves beyond a doubt that the decision not to have children is a deeply personal one. Some of these consistently excellent writers had bleak childhoods. Others were frightened of their own potential to be bad parents. For some, the so-called maternal (or paternal) instinct never kicked in. Still others went unsuccessfully through the steps of conception, only to realize that they didn’t really want children.
The essays have widely divergent tones — from rallying (Pam Houston’s “The Trouble With Having It All”) to ruminative (Michelle Huneven’s “Amateurs”) to hilarious (Geoff Dyer’s “Over and Out”). The stories that come up touch upon such inflammatory topics as adoptions, abortions, and “antimoms.” Although Daum observes that the common theme of the book “is that there is no common theme,” a few notions are introduced early on and are revisited throughout, lingering long after Tim Kreider’s words close the volume.
One persistent issue is that of the ethical questions surrounding future responsibility. Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin — a novel that doesn’t exactly depict the joys of motherhood — discusses the implications of the be-here-now mentality: “We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths. ... As we age — oh, so reluctantly! — we are apt to look back on our pasts and question not did I serve my family, God, and country, but did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon?” Fun trumps righteousness. The collective effect of forgoing parenthood is, Shriver says, “deadly.”
Shriver’s is among the most provocative essays in the book, and the statistics she and some of the other essayists cite are equally thought-provoking. In order for the population of a developed country to be maintained, each woman in that population must have an average of 2.1 children during her lifetime. In America in 2013, Shriver explains, the average was 1.9 children, and in parts of Europe, the number is much lower (1.3 in Spain, 1.4 in Italy). Are the citizens of every nation responsible for keeping the numbers up?
Beyond patriotic concerns, are people responsible for conforming to biology-based expectations — or, rather, to our understanding of what biology demands? “Natural” and “biological” are revisited time and again throughout the essays, often accompanied by careful scrutiny of what those words really mean. “We are unnatural,” Kreider declares, “as unnatural as clothing or medicine or agriculture or art,” while Laura Kipnis writes that “brutal, painful, and capricious” is nature’s way, though she later notes that “when it comes to maternity, somehow everyone’s a raging biological determinist.” Kipnis argues that much of what we consider natural in parenting is actually cultural or ideological. Dyer turns the issue upside down, asking, “Where does it come from, this unnatural desire (to have children)?” Dyer’s essay is a delight to read: His response to the question of whether he and his wife have kids is too good to spoil here.
Dyer brings up a concept that permeates — directly or otherwise, humorously or fatalistically — the entire volume: purpose. Because life without kids means eventual obsolescence, what’s the point of going on? Dyer, it should be noted, does not ask that question. “Of all the arguments for having children,” he writes, “the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am most hostile. ... The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose!”
Reading Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed can result in a messy mix of reactions: heartache, laughter, exasperation, admiration. Its value lies not just in the high quality of each essayist’s writing, but in its rare — and very welcome — discussion of a topic that often seems to be swept under the rug. The decision not to have children is far from one made by humankind’s rogues, iconoclasts, and egotists. It is a decision made by many, often after several decades’ worth of contemplation.
And it is essentially a modern choice, made with greater frequency in America by women in their childbearing years — at least since the U.S. Census Bureau began tracking these numbers in 1976. For that reason, and because it is a decision that affects our environments, economies, social structures, freedoms, and futures, the choice to be childless demands the kind of meticulous consideration it is afforded in this collection. It may have been a taboo topic at one point. Now it’s a crucial one.