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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedReview - Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed
Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
by Meghan Daum
Picador, 2015
Review by Beth Cholette, Ph.D.
Jul 14th 2015 (Volume 19, Issue 29)

The editor of this compilation, Meghan Daum, opens her Introduction by borrowing from Tolstoy.  She suggests that people who want children are all alike, yet people who don't want them vary greatly.  She goes on to acknowledge that the first half of neither Tolstoy's or her own adages or completely true, but as one reads Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, the diversity in decisions not to have children becomes readily apparent.

Of course, there are common themes.  Several writers mention childhoods involving neglect to outright abuse.  Others discuss the impossibility of the "having it all" fantasy:  author Pam Houston particularly addresses this issue in her essay "The Trouble with Having It All."  Another recurrent thread through these submissions dispels a popular myth about the "childfree by choice" crowd--i.e., that they do not want children because they do not like children.  Courtney Hodell, Laura Kipnis, and Elliott Holt, who penned "Just an Aunt," all dote on their nieces and nephews, but nonetheless, have no desire for their own progeny.

Unfortunately, I also found this collection to reinforce many stereotypes of those who choose to have children.  To this end, I believe that compiling stories only from writers was prejudicial.  For example, many of the authors talk about how they cannot imagine having a career as a writer--including the long hours, the inconsistent salary, the intense concentration required--and also having children.  Furthermore, another frequent topic is having the freedom to do things like travel on a whim.  But these are the views of a very small,homogenous portion of the childfree by choice population; many of us have made decisions not to have children that had nothing to do with career or exotic lifestyles.

I say "us" because yes, I am someone who has made the choice not to have children.  And for the most part, I was disappointed in this collection.  Largely missing is any discussion of the everyday impact that this choice has on those of us who make it.  In "Maternal Instincts," Laura Kipnis suggests that perhaps she may have been "oblivious" to the disapproval that she has heard other childfree women have experienced.  Perhaps she should talk to Danielle Henderson, who in "Save Yourself" maintains that her biggest problem with choosing to be childless has been with other adults.  As she notes, we are "living in a culture where women are assumed to prioritize motherhood above all else."  Still, Henderson is referring to her decision not to have children only--other than sharing this preference with partners, she talks little about how it has affected her life as a whole.  The one essayist who comes closest to describing some of what I've experienced is Michelle Huneven.  In "Amateurs," she laments losing friends to family life.  What she--and the others--fail to fully address is how to navigate an entire society that revolves largely around having children.

One of most-asked questions of those who choose to remain childfree is whether they will regret their decision.  Tim Kreider, one of only three men included here, has this somewhat cynical response: "Since I already regret every other thing I have ever done or failed to do, I don't see why this decision should be exempt" (p.271).  However, I prefer Jeanne Safer's somewhat more tempered view: "The problem is that there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything--no mother, no nonmother, no man...there is no life without regrets...nobody has it all" (p.195).  To this end, I do not believe I am either "selfish," "shallow," or "self-absorbed," and I do not think that I gained much insight from this book.  Daum's anthology is unlikely to change any minds on either side of this issue.


© 2015 Beth Cholette


 Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.



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