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Making One of Life’s Big Choices

Bennett Baumer May 18

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

It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhood
By Frida Berrigan
O/R Books, 2014


Parenthood is often spoken of in terms of happiness and fulfillment, and it can be. My wife and I planned to have two children and delightfully consummated the plan. Now those two children are one and two years old, and our world, like that of other parents with young children, is consumed by the kids’ wants, needs and social calls.

But not everyone is on the baby train. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a collection of 16 essays from writers who want no part in toddlers and their trucks, never mind the spit-up and diapers full of you-know-what that don’t show up in the curated albums on your Facebook feed. The deeply personal essays in the collection document economic precarity, troubled home lives, career passions and an emerging social trend: a greater percentage of women — almost 20 percent today, as opposed to 10 percent four decades ago — surpass their fertile years and do not procreate.

It’s hard to make that choice, and even harder to justify it to the baby-crazed mainstream. As Courtney Hodell writes, “[W]hen you talk of not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive. …It is hard to come across as anything other than brittle, rigid, controlling, against life itself.”

Married writer Geoff Dyer pens the most humorous essay. “Okay, if you can’t handle the emptiness of life, fine: have kids, fill the void.” Dyer would rather fill his days with naps and tennis, and I admit to being envious. But clearly the emotional toll of not having children falls more squarely on women than on men, and ambivalence and anxiety permeate the essays. Writer Pam Houston’s story, “The Trouble with Having It All” hits all the notes. Houston became pregnant at age 29 and her book publisher subtly suggested that it would be best if she was available for the publicity tour and not laid up pregnant. “I was so naïve about the pressures of the publishing industry I might have believed that if having the baby hurt this book’s sales, I’d be given the chance to write and promote another,” she writes. “Had this all happened before Roe v. Wade, every single thing about my life right now would be different.”

On the other hand, Frida Berrigan’s It Runs in the Family, part memoir and part reflections on motherhood, is an earnest and sincere endorsement of raising kids, and being able to do it in a peacenik left-wing home at that. Berrigan is the daughter of legendary anti-war activists Daniel Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, and her childhood was marked both by her parents’ prison stints and the warm envelope of the intentional and nonviolent Catholic community they cultivated.

Berrigan and her husband raise three children on her husband’s modest income. Her book addresses soccer mom issues such as video games and makes salient points about childbirth, but make no mistake — Berrigan’s radical lifestyle is no suburban soccer mom’s delight. Berrigan brandishes her leftist creds and dumpster dives, protests and is proudly out of the cultural mainstream (her cell phone is from 2003). Her leftist parenting paradigm includes values of equality, peace and respect, as well as the requisite political marches — though since becoming a parent, she isn’t out getting arrested like her parents used to.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed and It Runs in the Family provide insight into a growing nexus of countercultural family models. Berrigan, for example, pushes back against status-seeking and materialist parenting, embodied most poignantly in what she calls the “kids birthday party industrial complex”; writers in Meghan Daum’s anthology, meanwhile, interrogate the child itself as a status symbol and reject it. And a plethora of other family paradigms — same-sex families with or without children, non-romantic parenting partnerships, community parenting and more — are increasingly making their way into public view. Taken together, these redefine what family is supposed to mean — and challenge us, in the face of all our modern pressures, to create the kind of family we actually want.


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