Book Review: Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed. Sixteen writers on the decision to not have kids

Book Review: Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed. 16 writers on the decision to not have kids

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Genre: Non-Fiction, Psychology, Women’s Writing, Feminism, Family, Relationships.

Publisher: Picador

Review in one word: Provocative

This book is designed to be confronting, provocative, emotional and stirring in all of the ways that many people don’t like to discuss in polite conversation. That’s because it tackles one of the most (ridiculously) controversial taboo topics that many people don’t want to discuss at dinner parties or in inane work chats. Why some people decide to not have children.

FYI: there are oceans and universes between those who really want to have children but can’t and those who choose not have children (but they could if they wanted to). This book focuses on the latter – being childfree by choice.

The myriad reasons why people decide to not have kids are rendered in a raw, real and extremely personal way. The deep-seated reasons, criticism, judgement, isolation and invisibility that some people feel when they don’t have children is explored. This is an uncomfortable but necessary book.

If you are, like me, choosing to not have children for your own personal reasons….reading other people’s revelations about the issue in this book can be powerful and cathartic.

“Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the terror his father made him feel. ‘Every single day of my entire childhood’. About his own children he says ‘I have tried to achieve only one aim: that they shouldn’t be afraid of their father.’

“There was something else too. As a child, I never felt safe. Every single day of my entire childhood. I lived in fear that something bad was going to happen to me. I live like that still. And so the big question: How could a person who lived like that ever make a child feel safe?”

‘The Most Important Thing’, Sigrid Nunez’s story.
An 1800 year old portrait of a mother and her two children painted on gilded glass, found in Alexandra, Roman Egypt

Mothers who are able to successful combine work and family are all around me, yet the compatibility of a career and kids remains a concept I understand intellectually, but seem emotionally unable to accept. And so when I tell people, usually female friends that at the age of 41, I ‘don’t know if I want to have children’ or I still feel that I am not ready. What I am really saying is that I don’t believe I can do the things I want to do in life and be a parent to kids, nor am I willing to find out.

‘Mommy Fearest’, Anna Holmes’ story.
Having children: some women have thought about it since they were children themselves. Others are ambivalent and uncertain, some are sure they they don’t want to. And the most sad of all and deserving of our love and care …the women who really want to…but can’t.

I admire women who look at the rigours of parenting and decide that they’re just not cut out for it, or just don’t want to try and I wish we had more conversations about childlessness that didn’t force us to approach them from such a defensive place. I’m also sensitive to the fact that there are plenty of women who want children but are unable to have them naturally. It seems hostile and uncaring to have a conversation about motherhood that is rooted in selfishness when so many women are unable to walk down that road.

‘Save Yourself’, by Danielle Henderson

The lack of desire to have children is innate. It exists outside 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 honour that desire, to find a way to be whole again on my own terms even if it means facing judgement, scorn or pity from mainstream society, is a victory. Every day I try and be my own parent – the parent I never had. Children are nice, but I decided to save myself instead.

‘Save Yourself’, by Danielle Henderson

One criticism I have of this book is that it isn’t gendered enough. The stories are from both female and male writers who for many different reasons decided to remain without children.

However, including men’s stories in here disguises the fact that choosing to remain childless is a gendered social experience and the burden of social blame, misunderstanding, and judgement largely falls on women but not men if they don’t want kids.

Men just become loveable rogues or bachelors. Whereas women become somehow faulty human beings or even more cruelly – “failures as women” for deciding that they don’t want children.

A woman’s experience of choosing to not have kids is vastly different from a man’s. This is due to both biology and societal expectations. She needs to make this important decision in a short window of time and rearrange everything else in her life around this decision. Whereas a man needn’t hurry with the decision and can (theoretically) father children whenever he wants to whomever he wants and also doesn’t need to technically be around to raise them (although it is obviously better if he is). A man doesn’t need to rearrange his career goals or any other parts of his life to make way for children being his main responsibility.

The labour that men put in is very little compared to a woman’s labour (literally in carrying the child and the birth) and the ongoing, grotty, manual hard graft they put into child-rearing, cleaning up messes and spilt bodily fluids constantly.

So really – it seemed very silly to me to even include men’s stories in this book. Despite the push to make men “equals in child-rearing”, in reality…it doesn’t look that way, at least with women friends I know.

This book is thought-provoking, cathartic and interesting to read. There are definitely a lot of stories in here that are far removed from my own reality, but reading some of the insights in this book I suddenly felt less alone in my decision to not have children.

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

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