Feministing Reads: Meghan Daum’s Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed

To bear or not to bear children: that’s the question asked of us even when we’re not asking it of ourselves. Nearly all of the writers in the anthology Shallow, Selfish, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (Picador) tell stories of being insistently, publicly, impudently asked to justify their choice not to reproduce. These writers express the imperative as feminists to demand an end to this question—and all of the attendant societal pressures and expectations that come with it.

Essayist and longstanding Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum edited the collection “to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.” In this goal she’s succeeded: all sixteen writers, who arrive at their decision from different experiences, put to lie the ridiculous stereotype that the lives of the childless are somehow less mature, meaningful, or full of difficulties than those with children.

What binds their stories together is their resistance to the overwhelming bias that procreation is a woman’s civic, even biological, duty. To talk about not wanting kids it seems they must first address why everyone else wants them to. The novelist Pam Houston points out that while she is repeatedly reminded of her choice to not have children, no stranger or friend has told her that she must realize the potential of her LSAT scores, become a lawyer, and “pay off some unspecified debt to the world.” “It seems unreasonable, not to mention sexist,” she continues, “to suggest that because all women have the biological capacity to have children, they all should; and that those who don’t are either in denial or psychologically damaged.” Courtney Hodell, a writer and book editor, recalls receiving the unsolicited advice of her gynecologist, colleagues, and strangers. “Is there any other sort of situation in life,” she asks, “where people feel so free to tell you what to do, short of checking you into rehab?”

16writersThat all sixteen writers devote a considerable amount of time to rebutting the familiar arguments, assumptions and accusations lodged against the childless says much about the strength of the stigma, and its shame. Nearly all of the authors say that they feel the need to tell friends and strangers that they like, love, or do not hate children. Some even express their preference hanging out with children to seeing many adults that they know. In this requisite recitation, the writers highlight the pressure to publicly avow childhood after making the choice to personally disavow parenthood, a symptom of our society’s discomfort with these choices.

At their more encouraging moments, what emerges from these essays is a celebration of our freedom of choice. Sigrid Nunez writes that “if nothing else had made [her] a feminist, the “fate of women” like her mother “forced by society to give their lives to something they neither wanted nor were in any way suited for” would have been enough. Instead, these women settle for “agency,” as the writer Anna Holmes puts it.

But the varied paths taken to this agency and freedom suggest that not having children is as uneven and contradictory as any other life decision, including the choice to have children. A couple of the writers in the anthology explain that at some point in their lives they were about to have, or desperately wanted to have, kids. Others have always been resolute in their choice since a young age, but felt pressured by partners later in life to think otherwise. For some, children represent an excessive financial burden; for others, they appear as a persistent distraction from the many meaningful activities that can also fill a life: writing, talking to close friends, and spending time with a partner. Anna Holmes writes that she’s afraid of her own competence: “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.”

Although no two writers arrive at their decision the same way, many express feeling, at some point, similarly to the unnamed protagonist of the Lydia Davis story Sigrid Nunez quotes in her essay. The one-sentence story, called “A Double Negative,” goes like this: “At a certain point in her life, she realizes it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”

This specific strain of regret—a fear of failure, of missing out—is reinforced by expectations for what women should do and be. But of course regret, more generally, will always be the stuff of life. Understanding this decision apart from these expectations and as one choice among many—move to Seattle? Get a dog? Take a second job?—rather than as a refusal or a failure, allows these writers to bury the notion that “having it all” was ever possible in the first place. Because central to the idea of “having it all” is the hope that one can have a life without tough choices or regrets.

By making a decision to not have it all, as the clichés supporters would phrase it, these authors are able to unmask the fantasy that a life stuffed full of everything would even be desirable. The writer Danielle Henderson puts it beautifully, explaining “You will have one thing or another depending on what choice you make. Or you will have both things in limited amounts, and that might turn out to be perfect, just exactly the life you want.” Maybe, suggests Pam Houston, “having it all is chopping yourself into too many little pieces, taking care of everybody’s need except your own.” Psychoanalyst and writer Jeanne Safer puts it bluntly, “Nobody has it all.”


Ava Kofman is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn. She is a guest contributor to Feministing.

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