In Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, Meghan Daum collects essays from sixteen childless (or childfree, depending on how you spin it) writers on the decision not to have kids.
The vast array of perspectives represented in this book is wonderful. Some contributors have always known they didn’t want kids, others struggled for years to decide, and some made it through their childbearing years without actively deciding either way. And their reasons for declining parenthood are just as varied: loving children but not wanting to parent them, valuing the freedom of being childless, growing up in abusive families, finding meaning in other places (or disdaining the idea that a life needs to have meaning, anyway), not finding the right partner to raise a child with, and fear that mental illness will make for a bad parent. The contributors are from diverse backgrounds. Thirteen of them are women, three are men, and one is gay. But each of them two things in common: They chose not to have children, and they lead fulfilling lives.
Although the number of people who are childless by choice is growing, there is still a stigma around not having kids. The desire to forgo parenthood is often seen as unnatural, and people who don’t reproduce are viewed as emotionally stunted hedonists who will regret their decision. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed opens up a dialog by inviting readers into the lives of people who chose not to have children, who write eloquently about the wide range of reasons a person might choose not to have kids — and some of them might be surprising.
I think this is a book everyone should read. Childless-by-choice readers will nod their heads in agreement as they read, while also learning about experiences and attitudes very different from their own. People struggling to decide whether they want to have kids will find reassurance and, perhaps, clarity. People who have kids or know they want them someday will gain empathy and understanding of those who have made a different life choice.
But I have said enough. I’d like to let some of the contributors speak for themselves:
“A Thousand Other Things” by Kate Christensen
“I picture my life without children as a hole dug in sand and then filled with water. Into every void rushes something. Nature abhors a vacuum. Into the available space and time and energy of my kid-free life rushed a thousand other things… My days are so busy and full and yet so calm and uninterrupted and self-directed, I can’t imagine how kids would fit in. Kids talk so much. The require their parents’ undivided attention on demand. They are expensive. They require oceans of energy and attention. And so forth. No matter how much you love your kids, they’re always there, and you are entirely responsible for them, and this goes on for many, many years. Meanwhile, I’m an introvert and so is Brendan. Children exhaust us, even the ones we love most. Our solitude is the most valuable thing we have, and we cherish it above most other things and work hard to maintain it.”
“Save Yourself” by Danielle Henderson
“Those who hear my story might be tempted to assume that my desire to be childless is rooted in loss — the loss of my mother’s protection and loyalty, the loss of faith in family, the loss of childhood itself. But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists out of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify. But the decision to honor that desire, to find a way to be whole on my own terms even if it means facing judgment, scorn, and even pity of mainstream society, is a victory. It’s a victory I celebrate every day.”
“The Trouble With Having It All” by Pam Houston
“It seems honorable that another woman would value motherhood over all my priorities. But I do not believe that I am selfish and she is not. There are women who choose motherhood for selfish reasons. There are mothers who act selfishly even if they chose motherhood in a burst of altruistic love. Selfishness and generosity are not relegated to particular life choices, and if generosity is a worthy life goal — and I believe it is — perhaps our task is to choose the path that for us creates its best opportunity. It is quite possible that I would be a less generous teacher, a less supportive partner, a less available friend if I had children of my own to take care of. Love is not a pie, the saying goes, but it is also true that there are only so many hours in a day.”
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