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Book Review: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

August 14, 2015 Leave a comment


Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (2015), edited by Meghan Daum

A collection of essays from writers explaining their paths to childlessness. Some stayed on the path their whole lives, some tried and failed to conceive and ran out the clock, some found childlessness thrust upon them late in life and accepted it with contentment, or even relief. The essays were all interesting, if a bit navel-gazey, and generally a lot of the same.

There are a lot of repeated justifications on offer. Again and again we read that someone is a writer at his or her core and could not produce if children demanded attention nearby. Maybe, but these 12-hour writing binges of which they speak seem a bit romanticized. And were the toilet to overflow during that time, wouldn’t they still step away to deal with it? I guess that doesn’t happen every day. Many of them are teachers (because so many writers are also teachers–being a writer is not, it turns out, the prescription for a financially stable life) and write about how they feel confident they are touching lives and creating legacies through their profession instead of through reproduction, and I buy that argument.

So many of them, especially the teachers, enthuse about how much they love¬†children, how precious their students and nieces and nephews and friends’ kids are to them. How they prefer the company of children to the company of adults. The women write about having to fight the stigma of being a childless woman–being told they are cold, selfish, etc.–but they contribute to the stigma by protesting so vehemently.

I think only Tim Kreider, in “The End of the Line,” comes right out and says he hates children and everything associated with them. He writes with a lot of dark humor, some of which lands and some of which does not, but I liked his essay overall because he brought some interesting philosophy into it. Some of the more intellectual essays (Kreider’s, Lionel Shriver’s) delve into fear of death, and present not having children as fighting against an innate impulse to breed, although, disappointingly, nobody gets deeply anthropological. It would have made a nice change of pace to have one or two essays really looking at the topic from that perspective. I recently read Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology, a similar collection of essays except they’re all about being fat, and there were a wide range of perspectives in that collection that I appreciated more after reading this.

Other repeated themes are dysfunctional childhoods, and chronic mental or emotional disorders. These writers chose to remain childless, and in some cases, single, to avoid continuing destructive patterns or introducing another person into an unstable environment. Elliott Holt writes how she could not subject a child to her recurring depression, but that having a dog works to get her out of bed in the morning. I could not agree more! The dog represents the perfect level of responsibility for someone prone to depression or narcissism or interiority.

For this category of the childless (childfree, if that’s how you prefer it), nobody puts it better than Danielle Henderson, in “Save Yourself”:

I negotiate the terms of my life every day and work hard to maintain an emotional status quo that I had to create from scratch. That’s hard to do with a child in tow.

An interesting read, though maybe not to be read all at once.