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To breed or not to breed (redux)

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Selfish, Shallow, and Self-AbsorbedA new book is out called Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It seems to be getting a lot of buzz (and selling pretty well).

I have not read it, so can’t comment on its contents. As one of this selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed tribe, however, it did surprise me a bit that my choice remains of such interest. Or still be so hard to understand.

Mind, I had my own phase of reading a number of books on this subject—looking for kindred spirits, I guess. Some years ago I wrote a review of three of them. I got quite a bit of feedback on it, which was very unusual for content on a personal website. Thought I might repost the reviews now. It’s only very lightly edited from how it appeared then.


Despite the declining birth rate, it’s still considered odd for a heterosexual couple to not have children. The default is to have children (preferably two, one of each sex), and if you don’t, you’re expected to explain why. But if you’re going to go just on logic, there isn’t much reason to have children. We no longer need them to help on the farm, and there’s no guarantee they’ll take care of us when we’re old. Better to build up good RRSP savings.

No, the decision to have children is all about emotions, no logic. People want them. And when they have them, they love them, and can’t imagine life without them.

I guess. I wouldn’t know, would I? But I can say that my reasons for not going there are also mostly emotional. I just don’t want children. I can’t really say why I don’t; I just don’t. Never have. Have never heard the biological clock ticking; have never looked at children with an aching wish they were my own. Apparently this is unusual, especially for women.

This is why I tend to be drawn to artistic artifacts that reflect how I feel (or don’t feel, I suppose). Such as the following three books, all of which I’ve read (or listened to) in the past year. Warning that some of my comments may spoil the two fiction books.

We Need to Talk about Kevin coverLionel Shriver (a woman) wrote the fictional We Need to Talk about Kevin as her way of working through the question of whether she should have children. The book is told in the voice of a woman, Eva K., who never wanted children, but acquiesed because she knew her beloved husband would never be happy without them.

To say that the child, Kevin, does not turn out well is an understatement: After a difficult childhood, he becomes a high school mass murderer. The question is, how much of that violence and anger was genetic (nature), and how much is due to Eva’s admitted reluctance to becoming a mother (nurture)? With the whole story told for her point of view, looking back with the knowledge of how her son has turned out, Eva is not a completely reliable narrator. For example, she sees willfulness even in the newborn Kevin, who seems to be inconsolable with her but quiet and happy as soon as her husband comes home.

Shriver is a skillful writer and, despite the darkness of the novel, I found it a compelling read. I couldn’t help but feel enormous sympathy for the narrator as she dealt with her husband’s fervent desire for a child, his over-protectiveness during her pregnancy, her reluctance to push during childbirth, her disappointment at how their lives changed to accommodate the child. Apparently much of this material has also struck a chord with women who weren’t reluctant mothers but still struggle with these issues. (Motherhood is hard. Or so I’ve heard.)

Of course, the novel takes it to an extreme. Taking an abnormally long time to be toilet trained or wantonly destroying prized possessions may not be that unusual, but school murder and somehow contributing to your sister losing an eye to corrosive chemicals—well, those are pretty rare events.

The sister. Yes, an interesting turn Shriver’s novel takes is that Eva decides that another child is needed. Her husband, noting the difficult relationship she has with Kevin, is completely against this. Eva tricks him into impregnation. The second child couldn’t be a greater contrast to Kevin, and Eva finds she has no difficulty loving her.

Her relationship with her husband, however, gets strained beyond repair. He, of course, accepts his daughter, but can’t get beyond Eva coldness toward her son. They agree to separate after the school year, but the murder intervenes.

Eva addresses all of the writing is to her husband; the whole novel is in the form of letters he never responds to. (We find out why near the end of the book.) While she claims to love him always and unconditionally, and greatly mourns his loss, I felt strangely unsympathetic toward him. Eva really felt that she saw Kevin as he really was, while Kevin just put on a happy act for his father. Seeing the whole story through her eyes, it was hard for me not to feel some contempt for this apparently wilful blindness, and to not quite get why Eva loved her husband so much. Whether that aspect is a failure of writing or just my personal issues, I’m not sure.

(Postscript: After writing the novel, Ms. Shriver shows to remain childless.)

Baby Proof coverMuch lighter and different in approach is Baby Proof by Emily Griffin, a mother of two. Griffin wanted to explore the conflict between a couple who didn’t agree on whether to have children, and she wanted the woman to be the reluctant one. It’s another first-person novel, though not in the form of letters this time.

The main character, Claudia, has always felt that she didn’t want children. She had resigned herself to the fact that this might mean she would never have a husband, either, until she met Ben, who shares her views. They wed, and all is well for the first couple of years, until Ben changes his mind and tries to change hers. Their arguments grow increasingly heated until they decide that divorce is the only answer. But neither ends up being that happy in divorce, either.

In this novel, the deck really seemed to be stacked against Claudia, who didn’t seem to have anyone in her life who understood her point of view. Ben changed his mind about kids then kept demanding reasons why she wouldn’t have any, just so he could shoot them down. Claudia runs to her friend Jess, who would have a family herself if only she could find Mr. Right, only to be once again pressed to come up with reasons for not having children. Then there is her one sister who is desperately undergoing fertility treatments, and her other sister with the two great kids.

Honestly. For a novel about being childfree, it felt oppressively child-full.

The resolution was also somewhat unsatisfying. Where Kevin ended on a small yet plausible ray of hope (believe it or not), Baby Proof has Claudia deciding that Ben is her soul mate, and that if she must have a baby to keep him, so be it. Meantime, unbeknowst to her, Ben is also resolving that she is more important to him than a child. In the end, they are back together, and she’s still on birth control, but she’s wavering about it.

Child Free and Loving It! coverPerhaps Claudia needed to read some of the testimonials in Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It! In this non-fiction collection, the married but childfree by choice Defago examines the issues around the question of whether to have children: over-population, the environment, work, life as a couple, obnoxious parents. I didn’t find much of this information all that startling or new (though some might). But what I did find particularly interesting were the personal testimonials.

Under cover of anonymity, she got comments from people content with their decision to have or not to have children, but also those who had them but regretted it. In some cases, they’d had their doubts before, but went ahead to please their partners. In other cases, they hadn’t given the matter that much thought, then been overwhelmed by the reality. These people tended to emphasize that while they loved their children, they still felt their lives would have been better without them. And this wasn’t just from new (stressed) parents, but also from those with older children and teenagers and some looking back from a very welcome empty nest.

These sorts of sentiments are very rarely expressed, but important to hear, I think. While it may be sad to regret not having children, how much sadder to regret having them!

3 thoughts on “To breed or not to breed (redux)

  1. I am childfree and loving it. Like you, I never felt the desire to be a parent, so I refrained (an option I highly recommend). I must say that the judgmental attitudes seem to hit women much harder.

    • Definitely more judgmental attitudes toward women! It’s considered pretty normal for men to be reluctant to become parents. But not so for women…

      • Yes, if we do not fit into the gender “norms” by showing a desire to be moms, there is disapproval. It is a way of keeping women in their place. I was once told (by a man) that I could never be fulfilled as a woman if I did not bear children. How he presumed to know what fulfils a woman is a mystery to me.

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