Talking to Meghan Daum About Selfishness, Being Childless by Choice


Today, 19 percent of women end their potential childbearing years without having had any children—making childlessness as common as it is irrationally controversial. We had the chance to talk about the topic with Meghan Daum: author, LA Times columnist, editor of the forthcoming essay collection Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, which is out tomorrow, March 31.

By email, Daum and I discussed everything from why childless-by-choice people are often forced to produce a “why?” for the (sometimes) well-intentioned crowd who demand an explanation for their decision to not procreate; the hubbub around egg freezing; what drives people to remain child-free; and why the phrase “child-free” itself needs to be retired.

What was your decision-making process in picking your writers and their essays?

Finding and choosing the writers was a delicate process. It’s one thing to figure out who doesn’t have children, and quite another to ascertain whether or not this is by choice. So I spent a lot of time crafting very carefully-worded emails to all kinds of writers asking if a subject like this was something that might be relevant to them or appeal to them.

As for my actual criteria, the biggest priority was that the essays get past the kind of glib one-liners and flippant rhetoric you too often see around this issue. “I’d rather sleep late than have kids!” or, “I’d rather have my Manolo Blahniks!” or words like “brats” and “breeders,” jokes about double strollers blocking the sidewalks. There’s sometimes entertainment value in that, but more often it feels disingenuous, counterproductive and insulting.

I wanted people who were going to approach the topic in the thoughtful, nuanced way the subject deserves—but also be funny, entertaining, provocative, all the things essayists should be.

Did you have an ideal reader in mind while curating and editing this?

When I began the project, some people would say to me, “Oh, this is such a niche topic,” or “You’re going after a very specific audience.” And I kept saying, “No, this is a topic for everyone!” I feel strongly that this is a book that will interest parents just as much as non-parents. Not just because, on some voyeuristic level, parents might wonder about childlessness by choice (though most honest parents will tell you that there are days when they understand that choice quite a bit) but because this is ultimately a book about life decisions. It’s a book that actually pays tribute to parents, because at its root it’s saying, “Hey, this is a difficult and important job that should only be undertaken by those who really want to do it.”

As a childless-by-choice woman and a writer, I read through each essay expecting one writer’s story to be “mine”—but that wasn’t the case. Instead, I found bits and pieces in each story that I could relate to. Was there a particular writer or essay that you felt you could relate to most?

Obviously some essays were more reflective of my own experience than others. I was so thrilled to get Jeanne Safer to contribute, because her book Beyond Motherhood was really important to me when I first read it about ten years ago. I like the way she talks about how there can be a mourning period that comes along with this decision, even if it’s the absolute right decision. She talks about how she didn’t want to have a baby as much as she wanted to want to have a baby. That’s something I went through for a period of time.

A lot of the writers seemed to be facing the judgment that they were skirting responsibility of some sort—even though they all have very full lives and fulfilling, if not overwhelming, careers. Where do you think that perception comes from? Do you think our society just vilifies those who seem to skirt responsibility in general, whether by not having children or choosing a career that allows them to work pretty much anywhere they want (like writers and other creative types)?

We live in a culture where busyness is revered and often equated with importance. Tim Kreider, who wrote the last essay in Selfish, has a well known essay about this, The Busy Trap, that appeared in the New York Times a few years ago. And, for various reasons, parenting these days has become an exercise in time management and, in some cases, letting people know how incredibly busy and overwhelmed you are.

There’s good reason for that: Parents are busy and overwhelmed. Sometimes they bring it on themselves by over-scheduling their kids to the point where they essentially become concierges. But it’s also a fact that most parents have to work full time and it’s really damn hard to do that in addition to raising kids responsibly.

Still, I’ve noticed that, often, non-parents feel like they have no right to complain about being busy or tired or stressed because, after all, there’s this huge thing we’re not doing. When I decided once and for all that having a child was not something I was going to do (I’d essentially known this all my life, but there was a period where I waffled a bit) I went through a phase where I felt like I had to be some kind of extra-achiever—on a professional level, a personal level, a moral level and even a housekeeping level (what a joke) because surely I had all this extra time that my friends with kids didn’t have (i.e. I had no right to have a messy house because, hey, I didn’t have kids!)

There was some good that came from this. I got involved with volunteer work in the foster care system as a court advocate and that was really interesting and rewarding (and, for the first year, deliriously time consuming.) But in some ways it was also a hamster wheel that no one was forcing me to be on but me.

Why do you think, in 2015, childless-by-choice people are expected to have a “why”—a people-pleasing elevator pitch of sorts, which several writers brought up in their pieces: a practiced reason, to disperse when people ask?

Frankly, the “why” mandate kind of irks me. I’m not someone who gets off on being coy and confrontational in social settings, so I’m probably not the one who’s going to answer the “Why don’t you have kids?” question with “Why did you have kids?” But I think that’s a fair answer if you’re inclined to give it.

What bums me out is when people who never wanted kids end up saying things like, “Well, I tried but I couldn’t have them.” Yes, that shuts down the questioning and everyone’s entitled to answer as they wish, but I’d much rather hear people say “It just wasn’t for me.” We need to reach the point where that answer is acceptable and non-shocking. Clearly we’re not there yet. Also, I’ll say that I’m not personally a big fan of the word “childfree.” I fully support other people’s right to use it and I readily admit it’s much less cumbersome than “childless by choice” – it makes a much better hashtag and I’ll probably use it when I have to—but I wish we could come up with a different word.

Do you think the concept of being childless-by-choice in 2015 is any easier than it was in the ’70s or ’80s, when the birthrate (at least in the United States) started its decline? I feel like it’s easy to point to one of those charts today and say, “There, see, I’m not alone,” whereas some of the older writers might not have been able to.

Yes, people who are now in their 50s and 60s (and beyond) who made this choice did so in a very different context than people who are now in their 40s and younger. But I think those different contexts made decision both easier and harder. Second-wave feminism embraced women’s childlessness in a less complicated way than today’s feminism does. Gloria Steinem, who’s now in her 80s, has always talked unapologetically about how she was never interested in having children. But feminist leaders today are beholden to the “having it all” idea, which is an incredible tyranny. I would point out that Helen Gurley Brown is the one who coined the phrase “having it all,” and she did not have or want kids. It was not about children. Her “all” did not include children. It was about love, success, sex, and money. Not exactly easily attainable goals, but she wasn’t operating under the Sheryl Sandberg model.

I thought it was interesting—and surprising—that several of the writers mentioned that, at one point, they wanted kids. What compelled you to include experiences that seem to pivot, even if fleetingly?

It was essential to me to make room in the book for ambiguity and ambivalence. Again, one of the problems with this discussion has been the either/or nature of it. If you’ve chosen not to have kids, you’re supposed to champion and celebrate that choice every moment of every day. But life doesn’t work that way. Do parents champion and celebrate the choice to have kids every moment of every day? Not any that I know—though, of course there, too, is a stigma about expressing moments of doubt or even regret.

It’s just as intellectually dishonest for the childless-by-choice person to insist that he or she never had one single moment of doubt as it is for parents to say they cherish every moment with their children and never for one second envy the lives of childless people. Life just isn’t that simple. Now, some people will hear that statement and say, “That’s not true. I’ve never regretted my decision!” But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about making room for all kinds of feelings within that decision. And that’s what I wanted the essays in this book to do.

It seemed, to me, that a lot of the decisions about remaining childless-by-choice were philosophical and spiritual—sometimes, economic—but there were also several instances where physical factors were the reason: the pain of childbirth; genetic predisposition to mental illness; other forms of physical “weakness” that the author didn’t want to pass down to their hypothetical offspring.

I am also protective of my physical shell—I’ve suffered from endometriosis, eating disorders, and bouts of depression—and those are just a few of the reasons why I don’t want children, but I’m often told the desire to not devote my body to another human being isn’t just selfish—it’s vain. I don’t feel like I should have to defend that position, even if there is an element of vanity in there. Do you think childless-by-choice people feel compelled to offer crowd-pleasing reasons—even if some of their own reasons might easily be, frankly, vain?

I’m never comfortable with “privileging” some reasons over others (I’m also not comfortable using “privilege” as a verb, but I guess I just did.) I think any honest reason is a legitimate one—and that includes issues around body image or vanity. Besides, there are women who, for all kinds of reasons, don’t want to be pregnant or have biological children but do want to adopt.

Like I said earlier, the “reasons” that irritate me are the ones that are throwaway lines—I’d rather have a Porsche, etc. I find it hard to believe that anyone who was genuinely torn between having a child and having a Porsche went ahead and got the Porsche. If such a person exists I’d like to meet her or him. Actually, no, I wouldn’t.

There was discussion, in Geoff Dyer’s essay, about children serving parents’ life purpose—but that the writer’s career is his purpose. People can change over time; children grow up—and people can also change jobs. Isn’t purpose a fleeting notion, no matter whether it’s relative to parenthood or career?

Well, Geoff is actually debunking the notion of life having a purpose. He writes, “I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose.” He also questions the validity of having an entire book on this subject from the point of view of writers. That’s something I thought a lot about, too, since writers and creative people in general are, rightly or wrongly, often perceived (by themselves as well as others) as not like the rest of us. But of course the majority of people in the world want to become parents and do just that, and that is also true of writers. So I think the “higher purpose” idea is a bit of a canard in this context. For my part, I feel extraordinarily lucky that I have a career that provides so much visceral satisfaction and allows me to communicate with people in a particular way. But I don’t think that has all that much to do with the reasons I don’t want children. If I were a mail carrier or a lawyer or a dolphin trainer I’m pretty sure I still wouldn’t want children. I’m just not wired for it. And I think a lot of the contributors in the book would say something similar.

It’s ironic that so many parents and want-to-be-parents have opinions about childless-by-choice people—and yet if a childless-by-choice person so much as elicits an opinion about children, it’s seen as extremely rude. Do you think there will ever be a happy meeting point between the two sides?

We must get away from the idea that parents and non-parents are adversaries. I think this notion is in many ways a media creation—nothing generates clicks like incendiary articles along the lines of “I didn’t know real love until I became a parent”—but unfortunately this kind of logic has seeped into the public consciousness and became part of the conventional wisdom.

I’ve written about childlessness by choice periodically over the years, always emphasizing the point that choosing not to have kids is actually a way of showing respect for parenting (at least good parenting) and is ultimately good for kids because it creates a society in which kids are truly wanted. And I can’t tell you how many otherwise smart, thoughtful, educated people have said to me, “You know, I never thought about it that way until you put it in those terms. I always just assumed people who didn’t want kids were selfish.” That message is so ingrained in the culture that even people who question lots of other things often never think to question it.

This book is coming at a time when it seems that fertility and parenthood have been placed on a very high pedestal. Is that a coincidence?

I think that shift is happening for a lot of different reasons and on a lot of different levels. For starters, women are delaying childbearing until quite literally the 11th hour and that results in fertility problems that demand technological interventions that make the stakes very high and would drive anyone mad.

We’ve also got a culture where social media, particularly Facebook, has made the nuclear family unit into a form of public relations. Jennifer Senior, who wrote the terrific book about contemporary middle and upper middle class parenting, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, has cited the work of the psychologist Jerome Kagan. Kagan’s theory is that, starting in the 1980s or so, people started using parenting as a way of expressing their moral and civic virtue. As participation in churches or civic organizations decreased, we began to see a rise in a kind of showmanship around parenting. I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s a way for people to say, “This is who we are, this is what we believe in” and even, of course, “This is how we’re superior to others.” Seems like a lot of pressure to put on kids.

And now Apple, Facebook and other very public companies are offering egg freezing as part of their employee compensation packages. Do you have any thoughts about that?

In theory, I’m all for egg freezing. Anything that allows women (and men) to have more control of their professional and personal timelines sounds good to me. What bothers me is that it’s still a privilege of those who can afford it. It’s incredibly expensive, not to mention hard on your body in a way that can really disrupt your life for awhile. So unless you have the cash or work for one of the few companies whose benefits cover it, it’s not going to be an option. In all the excitement around it, people seem to have forgotten that it’s a big expensive deal.

Finally, if there’s one thing you’d want your readers to take away from Selfish, what would it be?

That this is not a discussion about choosing not to do something as much as a discussion about all the different ways there are to be a responsible, caring adult in the world. “It takes a village” is a cliché by now, but I have to say it’s also true. It’s actually good for kids to grow up in a world where not every adult is someone’s parent. It’s good for parents to live in communities where not every person is wrapped up in raising his or her own kids.

So this book—and this whole conversation—is for everyone. It’s for people who’ve already made this choice, for people who are on the fence, and for people who have kids. I’d go so far as to say it would make a great Mother’s Day gift. Then again, flowers are good, too.

Author headshot and book image provided by Picador Press.

Karyn Polewaczyk is a writer and regular Jezebel contributor who lives in Boston.

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