Self­ish, Shal­low, and Self-Ab­sorbed: Six­teen Writ­ers on the De­ci­sion Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum, Pi­cador/Macmil­lan, 288 pages

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Grace La­batt

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.

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