Who would you have been?

Jessica Olin

  • Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum
    Picador, 282 pp, £17.99, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 250 05293 3

Many of the contributors to Meghan Daum’s new anthology once thought they’d have children. For some, it seemed ‘an interesting future possibility’, like ‘joining the Peace Corps’. Rosemary Mahoney ‘used to imagine what my children would look like, and those pleasant imaginings made me love them so much that when I finally snapped to I would actually miss their faces’. For others, the desire comes as a gut-punch, visceral and overwhelming. Kate Christensen describes the ‘baby lust’ in her mid-thirties:

deep, primal, a shockingly animal yearning I’d never experienced before … like being on some weird and powerful new drug. I could feel my baby in my arms: a girl, I imagined. I could see myself becoming a mother. I longed for the tectonic shifts motherhood would bring. I fantasised about nursing her, rocking her to sleep, leaping out of bed in the night when she cried. I craved that sense of importance and completion, the passionate focus on something outside myself. All my life, I had assumed I’d have kids, and now it was time: I was ready.

On her third date with her future husband she watches him hold a friend’s baby: ‘I thought then, I could marry this man. By which I meant I could have children with this man.’ Writing in the New Yorker about her own childlessness, Daum acknowledges the power of the biological imperative: ‘I’ve always believed that it is not possible to fall in love with someone without picturing what it might be like to combine your genetic goods. It’s almost an aspect of courtship, this vision of what your nose might look like smashed up against your loved one’s eyes.’

Mahoney endures the ‘tedious logistics’ of the artificial insemination process to conceive as a single 41-year-old: ‘Boy, did you beat all the odds,’ says her doctor. She is initially ‘delighted, beside myself with happiness’; the next day she’s ‘horrified’, thinks: ‘This is a big mistake.’ She miscarries at 13 weeks – ‘It seemed to me no less tragic and colossal than a universe coming to an end’ – but when her doctor asks if she wants to try again, ‘I said no with complete conviction.’ Given the statistics, her response seems not so much a change of heart as a prophylactic against further heartbreak. Christensen’s husband ‘didn’t remotely share my excitement … But I wasn’t deterred. Frankly, it felt like my decision to make, unilaterally, as the wife. Didn’t wives always tell their husbands when it was time? … And didn’t husbands give in, reluctantly, then fall madly in love with their children and rise to the role of fathering and never regret a thing?’ Of course she knows the answer is no. By the time he’s ready, she’s forty, and no longer happy in the marriage, ‘in part because of his earlier refusal to have children with me, which had broken my heart irreparably’. A miscarriage leaves her flooded with relief … exultant and grateful’.

M.G. Lord believes she can ‘white-knuckle’ her partner’s ‘unilateral’ decision to adopt a baby, somewhat unrealistically picturing herself ‘not so much as a co-parent but as a benign auntie’ who will take care of her lover (not the infant). When the adoption falls through, she adopts a dachshund-beagle mix: ‘To my shame, I hoped that dog would satisfy Helen’s desire to nurture.’ After her own miscarriage, Daum spends ‘three months of dizzying cognitive dissonance’ trying to get pregnant again before conceding that she does not, in fact, want to have a baby: ‘To this day, there is nothing I’ve ever been sorrier about than my inability to make my husband a father.’ She harbours ‘a secret fantasy that one day my husband will get a call from a person claiming to be his son or his daughter … the product of some brief fling or one-night stand during the Clinton Administration’. This deus ex machina would be of a manageable age – ‘Ideally … in his or her late teens or early twenties’ – and would ‘breeze in and out of our lives like a sort of extreme niece or nephew’. (If realised, this fantasy may have caused her husband some ‘cognitive dissonance’ of his own – regret at having missed out on years of conventional fatherhood and on the joy of having a child with the woman he’s married to and actually loves.) Daum agonises; her husband proves a model of self-sacrifice; the marriage survives, even thrives.

Others have abortions: multiple, matter-of-fact. Daum remarks on the ‘surprising’ number of pregnancies in these essays but it is fairly difficult to get through one’s fertile years as a healthy, practising heterosexual woman without conceiving at least once. Phrases like ‘the second to last time I got pregnant’ may, she thinks, ‘enrage certain readers’. (There is no essay about giving up a baby for adoption, although that is certainly another way of choosing ‘not to have kids’.) Anna Holmes’s first pregnancy, at 19, results from ‘the sort of constant, frenzied and, yes, unprotected sex that many of those in the midst of early adulthood know not to engage in but engage in anyway’. Full disclosure: ‘I would become pregnant twice more, once when I was 24, and again when I was 27.’ Michelle Huneven has no partner (chalk one up to ‘regrettable … break-up sex’), no money, a part-time job, and an apartment in which she isn’t allowed children. Laura Kipnis ticks all the boxes (stable relationship, financially comfortable) but has just received a three-year fellowship, and her jazz-musician boyfriend is on the road half the year. It takes her ‘about ten seconds’ to make the decision. Pam Houston conceives, despite using a diaphragm and spermicidal jelly, exactly nine months before her first book’s publication date. Holmes reflects: ‘I didn’t regret the next abortion, or the next one, although I did marvel, in later years, at the fact that had I taken these pregnancies to term, I would, at 35 years of age, be a mother to, respectively, a 16-year-old, a ten-year-old, and an eight-year-old. I found the idea amusing – and utterly, completely terrifying.’ Not because she thinks she would be a bad mother; quite the opposite: ‘I suspect that my commitment to and delight in parenting would be so formidable that it would take precedence over anything and everything else in my life; that my mastery of motherhood would eclipse my need for – or ability to achieve – success in any other area. Basically, I’m afraid of my own competence.’

Although Daum is sure that ‘there is no common theme,’ the sentence ‘I love kids’ recurs repeatedly. Many of these writers believe they would have been capable, even exceptional mothers. Those who admit that they might be less than ideal parents – resentful, impatient, repeating the mistakes of their own upbringing, even to the point of neglect or abuse (and there are memories of both in this collection) – are distinctly in the minority. Instead, they become ‘devoted,’ ‘doting,’ ‘besotted’ aunts; creative-writing teachers and mentors; Big Sisters and court-appointed advocates; therapists and friends. Courtney Hodell revels in children’s ‘wild experiments with language … their inability to feign interest in things that do not truly grip them … their seriousness and total immersion in play’. Sigrid Nunez would ‘rather spend an afternoon hanging out with someone’s kids than with many adults I know’. Danielle Henderson boasts, ‘I always engage children on their level,’ which, if true, is quite an achievement. Pam Houston is proud of her relationship with her stepdaughter but also recognises its limitations:

I am able to show her a different type of life from the one her mother chose. In this house, I am the primary breadwinner and as such make most of the decisions; I fly 100,000 miles a year, sometimes to places she has never heard of. I took her to her first rock concert. I read her her first Salinger; I taught her to ride a horse. On the other hand, I fly more than 100,000 miles a year, sometimes to places she has never heard of. I missed her eighth birthday celebration because I was stuck in O’Hare airport, and I am almost never the one who holds her hair back when she gets sick.

Kipnis pokes fun at her own attempts to influence her ‘beloved’ niece and nephews:

Let no one say that I didn’t do my best to imbue them with my values (social rebellion, critical thinking), and subtly shape them in my image, a project that continues to this day – at holidays I like to slip them hundred-dollar bills with my picture taped over Franklin’s. ‘Who’s your favourite grown-up?’ I wheedle, when their parents are out of earshot.

Nunez over-identifies: ‘I get flustered when a person says to me, “I don’t like children.” I was a child, I want to say.’

With few exceptions (notably, gleefully, Geoff Dyer) these writers don’t object to children per se, but to the narrowing of perspective – what Dyer calls ‘an appalling form of myopia’ – and the swallowing up of one’s own identity that often seem to accompany them. This topic generates the book’s sharpest and funniest passages. Tim Kreider precisely renders parents’ ‘anxious and harried existence – noisy and toy-strewn, pee-stained and shrieky, without two consecutive moments to read a book or have an adult conversation or formulate a coherent thought’. Huneven bristles at the constant interruptions: ‘Anything a baby did – chortle, fart, emit a piercing scream – trumped whatever we adults were talking about.’ Courtney Hodell, who worries in therapy that her own lack of desire for children is ‘pathological’, is nevertheless ‘aghast at the short-fibred thoughts of my friends whose small children beseeched or bellowed as their stories were begun again and again and never finished’. She’s ‘staggered by the transformation’ of these women, how they ‘give themselves over so completely … the caring and the worry was never, ever, ever going to stop, not until death’. And she doubts her own capacity for self-abnegation: ‘Perhaps I was a kind of human geode: sparkly and hollow.’

Parenting requires a public face; engagement with one’s community; fluency in multi-tasking. Writing demands focus and long stretches of solitude. The two job descriptions could not be more different; how many of us are equally suited to both? Kipnis cops to a ‘profound dread of being conscripted into the community of other mothers … I’ve never been good at small talk, or female conventionality.’ As Nunez points out, childcare still falls under the umbrella of ‘woman’s work (known for damn good reason as never done)’ and even mothers who work full time are expected to do the lion’s share of it. Most male artists do not face this conflict. She reminds us that historically, ‘the women writers of highest achievement’ – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf – did not have children. Sylvia Plath did, and look how that turned out. And for all ‘the endless sanctimony about how important it is’, Kipnis writes, child-raising ‘is not … a socially valued activity’ – an inconvenient truth reflected in the books girls read growing up. ‘Who can name a major novel by a canonical writer, male or female, that takes motherhood for its main subject?’ Nunez asks. ‘If you were a girl who loved above all to read and write and who could not imagine an adulthood in which these activities did not hold a central place, you probably knew even before puberty that you were headed for conflict.’ Some of these girls never imagine becoming mothers; they may face this conflict later – or not at all.

Another contributor, Lionel Shriver, became notorious as the ‘anti-mom’ after publishing We Need to Talk about Kevin (2003), her novel about a woman who loathes being pregnant, never bonds with her son, and becomes a pariah after he carries out a Columbine-style attack at his school. This bestseller (did it touch a nerve?) was made into a movie starring gender-bending alien goddess Tilda Swinton as the scapegoat mother whose icy cool only partially masks her despair. Not content merely to address her own childlessness, Shriver interviewed three other women for her essay here, a rambling, politically incorrect philosophical inquiry which blames the decline of (white) Western fertility on baby boomers’ ‘Be Here Now mentality’ and asks whether Islamic fundamentalists aren’t right to judge us as ‘decadent, degenerate and debauched’. All this serves as distraction while she buries the lead: children ‘are untidy; they 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.’

Choosing whether or not, and when, to have children is a privilege enjoyed by women who have access to information; to birth control and healthcare; to abortions; or, at the other end of the spectrum, to astronomically expensive fertility treatments. (And by men who can afford to pay clinic and surrogate fees.) It’s also a fairly recent development. As Kipnis points out, it’s ‘only modern technology’s role in overriding nature … that’s offered women some modicum of self-determination’. Nunez is grateful for the sea changes of the 1960s: reliable birth control, legal abortion, the women’s movement. Houston remembers the comparative simplicity of an ‘earlier feminism’ and details the relentless war on reproductive rights in the US. She worries that it might be less acceptable for today’s young women (many of whom aren’t even clear what Roe v. Wade achieved) to forgo motherhood. In the book’s most overtly political essay, Kipnis rails against ‘a society that sentimentalises children except when it comes to allocating enough resources to raising them’: if we ‘simply got inventive about it’ there would be ‘all sorts of ways to organise society and sexuality that don’t create false choices’ so that being a mother and being a writer (or, for that matter, a fully realised person) aren’t mutually exclusive. These do exist – if we merely look, say, to Norway. Or Finland. Or to the French crèche system. If the American arrangement were more humane, several of these writers might have taken the plunge.

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As Stan learned recently on Mad Men, women like Peggy who seem to ‘hate kids’ often have a more complex history with motherhood than is immediately apparent. Unfortunately this doesn’t stop the judgments and speculation. Childless readers will recognise the intrusive questions and unsolicited advice: ‘“I’d get on with it, if you’re going to do it,” said the gynaecologist, blunt as a speculum.’ Houston, who is often told she is ‘in some kind of denial’, skewers the strangers who tell her ‘that I would make a great mother, even if they had known me for five minutes. For all they knew … I could have been fucking the dog.’ Danielle Henderson is ‘incensed’ when people ask her why she doesn’t have children ‘as casually as they ask: “What brought you to Seattle?” I’m expected to answer it in an equally casual manner, which I am unable and unwilling to do.’ (Was I asked to write this review as a way of getting me to answer a similar question? I wonder. Or was it assigned as some kind of extreme therapeutic exercise?) Then there are the (shocking, laughable) platitudes: ‘“Children have a way of healing you.” That sounds like a spectacularly shitty premise to me, and way too much pressure to put on a child.’ A male friend of Nunez’s, ‘childless but confident, once assured me: “You just give them lots and lots of love,”’ as if a child were a plant that needed sunshine and water. Hodell, who did ‘give it a go’ but too late in the game, resents ‘having to … open a hatch over my heart because a near stranger asked an impertinent question’. (The judgments do go both ways: not having children doesn’t stop anyone from looking at flailing parents and thinking, ‘I would do a better job,’ which is easy to say when you can’t be proved wrong.)

Kreider confirms that men who don’t want children do in fact have it easier, garnering only a ‘dismissive eye roll’, whereas their female counterparts are considered ‘traitors to their sex, if not the species’. While Christensen claims she ‘can’t miss what I never had’, Kreider realises that it’s impossible to know whether he’d be happier with kids: ‘Parents still remember what it was like to be us, but we can’t imagine what it’s like to be them; their experience encompasses ours.’ He suspects, however, that he would be a crazy-in-love dad: ‘doting and indulgent, pathetically mushy’. Unlike the others, he also admits that he would be ‘inconsistent and moody, alternately smothering and neglectful, plus I will never, ever be able to afford riding lessons or braces, let alone college.’ Paul Lisicky grew up gay in the ‘not-so-distant-past’ of Aids and never considered fatherhood a possibility: ‘What do you have when you don’t have a future?’ When a couple he knows consider using a surrogate, ‘I was as disoriented as if they were talking about fusing a goat with a hen.’ The younger generation’s confidence that they can choose to have a child (or not) strikes him as an ‘incredible luxury’:

As soon as I entertain the question, a door opens, and I’m too flooded to think. How many other choices have I not considered because it seemed that they weren’t mine to make? What have I accommodated and settled for simply because I came into adulthood in a dark, alarming time? It is easier than you think to be indifferent to what you’ve been told you can’t have.

He’d ‘probably’ do it now, if he became involved with someone who wanted to be a parent: ‘I’m not saying that lightly, though I might be saying it with the same level of commitment with which I’d say: “Of course I’d move to Tokyo.”’

‘Decision’ may be the wrong word. Whether or not one becomes a parent, by whatever means, is determined as much by chance, timing and body chemistry as by design. And it’s wishful thinking to take full responsibility for a choice that is at most 50 per cent yours: it does still take two, at a minimum, and in cases of surrogacy or adoption, up to four – not to mention the proverbial village it takes to raise a child. Yet we create narratives about our messy, chaotic, incomprehensible lives (especially when writing about them) in order to understand them. We rationalise almost every aspect of existence; why should this be any different? We crave coherence. We shape circumstantial evidence into plausible cause and effect; we remember only what suits us. Actions taken (or not taken) out of fear, loneliness, lust, exhaustion, optimism or despair are recast as logical, informed choices. We pretend that things happen ‘for a reason’, or for the best. Like George W., we insist that we are ‘the decider’, because it’s harder to admit we were unlucky or unloved.

The 16 contributors to Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed are at home with ambivalence. In thoughtful, nuanced essays they parse the past and think about unrealised possibilities. Some mourn the limits of biology: Anna Holmes knows that by the time she’s figured out how to ‘give my all to another human being and still keep some semblance of the self I’ve worked so hard to create’, she probably won’t be of childbearing age: ‘Them’s the breaks.’ ‘The big joke after all that brinksmanship in my twenties,’ Hodell notes, ‘was that it isn’t so easy to get pregnant.’ She lives in a happy, if fragile, present with her younger boyfriend: ‘It’s a little odd to be dealing at his age with the question of whether he will have his own children or not. For as long as he chooses to be here with me, it will be the latter. I want him to stay but it is, as they say, a big ask.’ Paul Lisicky daydreams about his Child-Who-Never-Was:

Who would you have been? Would you have had big ears like me, big nose, big head? Would you have had my long feet? Would you have been a loner one day and a social person the next, the guy who loved the party so much that he’d be the last to say goodnight? Would you have loved animals? What about music? The sea – would you have wanted to be near it, in it, and evaluated every place in terms of how many miles it was from the water? Would you have carried my essence forward in ways I couldn’t have known? Would you have taught me how to ski or to care about football or to make a devil’s food cake from scratch?