Three Great Perspectives from Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed by Meghan Daum

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.”

Disclosure: If you make a purchase through the link above, I will make a tiny commission.


23 thoughts on “Three Great Perspectives from Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed by Meghan Daum

  1. Coming from the perspective of having two young children and being home with them all the time, the statements you included in your review are spot on. These women seem to understand what having children would mean for their lives (so many people just don’t really get this until it happens to them, me included) and decided that’s not what they wanted. And, more power to them for being brave about their choices. Believe me, there are lots of days when I would trade almost anything for “calm and uninterrupted and self-directed” days. Having kids, especially when they’re young, is REALLY hard. Can you tell I’m totally in the weeds right now?! Ha! But, I hear there is a light at the end of the tunnel coming in a few years 🙂 Great review!

    • I think there just needs to be more open, honest dialogue about what having children (or not having children) really means. It seems like there is often defensiveness as people try to justify their life choices, and it makes it harder for people to make informed decisions about their own lives.

  2. I think this book sounds so, so interesting. I have no earthly idea why we pressure people to have children (or to have more children if they already have some!). In what other facet of life do we pressure people like that? “Oh yeah, you should totally buy this fixer-upper even though you have no desire to learn how to fix a house. You’ll miss out if you don’t!” “You should definitely go to law school, even though you know you don’t want to be a lawyer. It’s just the next logical step after a B.A.”

    Choosing not to have kids is not selfish. It’s about knowing yourself and that is something we could all use a little more of!

    • And it’s not like the pressure or judgement stops once you have a kid! “Why aren’t you parenting THIS way?” or “He needs a sister!”

      One of the essays actually uses your lawyer analogy to argue agains the idea that women should give birth because it’s what their bodies are designed to do. Her mind would probably make her a great lawyer, but no one would dream of telling her that that means she should go to law school. Merely being able to do something doesn’t mean you should do it.

  3. I’ve been waiting for your review on this book. I think it is a fascinating topic that I have some stronger opinions on. There is such a societal expectation for women to have children. I always anticipated that I would have children, but at some point I realized it wasn’t meant to be for me. I went through a grieving process over that, and yet people (even after I share that) still feel the need to tell me that I can still have children! Did you not hear me say that I’ve come to terms with the fact that it is not meant for me? I’m glad to see a book that tries to portray this decision as being far from selfish!

    • I’ve always been pretty sure I don’t want kids but kept my mind open that “someday I’ll change my mind.” But as I get older, I just get more and more sure about it. I’m still in my mid-20s, but I love what Danielle Henderson says about not wanting children feeling “innate.”

      Ugh, I don’t understand why people do that. If only they listened more to what you’re actually saying without trying to read secret regret into it!

  4. I like that you’ve shared the common themes that were running through this one. I found that while I really loved having the book be centered on writers in order to have the essays sound so good, I also wished for some different perspectives as well. Still, some of the quotes were spot on and there’s an essay I’ll be keeping with me for a long, long time.

    • I can see your point, but I was glad that they didn’t all talk about how they chose to abstain from parenthood so they could dedicate themselves to writing. And although some of them did mention that factor, I think women who choose to pursue a career rather than children will be able to relate.

  5. I don’t get what people don’t get. Raising kids is hard work. And, how we raise them is a big deal that will affect lots of people over many years. That is not a decision to be taken lightly. So anyone who does not want to have kids has my full support. And, it is not selfish, it’s smart. Having kids when you are not capable of looking after them is selfish.
    For another thing, children deserve to be wanted. I could go on, but I won’t. (Partly, because my children need me now, so I don’t have time.) 🙂
    This sounds like a book I would like to read.

  6. I definitely want to read this. I’ve never felt a desire to have children, and sure that may change in my 30s, but I’m fairly certain I will never want them.

  7. Great review! I liked these quotes as well. I highlighted so many things in this book I had trouble picking just a few! I also liked that there were male perspectives as well — although no one seems to mind as much when it’s a guy that doesn’t want children. My husband was actually told that some day I would hate him for our (OUR) decision not to have children. I do wish people with kids and people without kids could really talk honestly about this subject.

    • Yes! It was nice that there were a few men (one of them gay) represented.

      I actually heard a stat recently that men are more likely to say they want children than women are — which I think says something about the amount of work required/expected of fathers vs. mothers.

      It’s so absurd, though, that people have an easier time believing that a man doesn’t want children than that a woman doesn’t want to be a parent. I’m so sorry people have said that to you/your husband! That must be so frustrating.

  8. My oh my how I relate to Kate Christensen’s quotation, and the last bit of Pam Houston’s.

    I think the other commenters covered most of the things I would say otherwise. I’ll definitely be checking this one out!

    • I was listening to a podcast recently (Book Riot maybe?) on which the hosts made a really interesting parallel to the first line of Anna Karenina, about how all happy families are the same, but all unhappy families are different in their unhappiness. Having kids is kind of like that, too; most people who choose to have kids do so for the same reasons, but there are a multitude of reasons for choosing not to have kids. This book does a great job of exploring some of those reasons!

  9. I resent being called selfish for not wanting/having kids or being told that I am missing out. I have never wanted my own kids, though I toyed with the idea of a future with adoption when I was in college. But then I got chronically ill. The least selfish thing I could do is not have children. They would be neglected because there are days I literally cannot get out of the bed without help. If my body could handle being a parent, I would still be teaching. I have had relatives tell me that I should be giving my mother grandchildren. Yes, I am sure my mother would love more grandchildren but not at the detriment of my health (and the child’s for that matter.) I am not sure if I was healthy I would have kids, so yeah, this pretty much wiped out any notion of that altogether. I think it is far more selfish for people to have children and not want them – and leave them to neglect or abuse – than to skip this “rite of passage” altogether. Isn’t the world over-populated with unwanted children enough already?

    • How horrible and insensitive of those people! What if you desperately wanted to be a mother but knew your illness would make it difficult for you to be the kind of mother you think a child deserves to have? Choosing not to have children would be incredibly selfless. It also seems odd to call you selfish for denying your mother grandchildren; if anything is selfish, I think it would be demanding that you make a huge life commitment so that she can play a certain role. (I’m glad it seems like your mother isn’t the one putting that pressure on you, at least.)

  10. I can’t wait to read this book! My original comment echoed what a lot of other people said, so instead I’ll point out that apparently book bloggers don’t want kids 😉 I wonder if there’s a correlation? (I’m kidding, I’m kidding)

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