I recently read books that I came to for rather different reasons and yet, set side by side, they seem inordinately correspondent. Both present alternatives to traditional life narratives, a move that is almost always powerful and valuable
My draw to Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, is fairly self-evident to anyone who knows me. I am happily coupled, but I am also deliberately childfree. While I see more and more people “like me” nowadays, I also find our culture’s imperative to procreation tedious at best, oppressive at worst, particularly as imposed upon women. Add to that the insane cultural demands put on mothers to be self-actualized, self-sacrificing, still sexy super-women and the whole endeavor makes me want to retire to a mountain lair for life. So it’s no surprise that I sparked at an entire volume devoted to multiple people’s stories of why they chose to forgo parenthood.
Among the essays in what I will hereafter refer to as SSS there are really no duds. I didn’t enjoy all of the essays equally but none of them lack interest or insight. The volume reveals, in a way that even I found surprising, the myriad paths that people take to chosen childlessness. The volume suffers mildly from being solely focused on writers—who make up a rather motley crew in terms of the general population—and from being largely—although not entirely—white. But it was also interesting and lovely to hear from gay people and straight people, women and a few men, people still within childbearing range and those for whom that ship has long since sailed about why they chose not to have children.
There are some standouts. Elliott Holt’s “Just an Aunt” celebrates the special role of “aunt” and the various ways one can play it. In “Save Yourself” Danielle Henderson eloquently articulates how a traumatizing childhood wiped out any notion within herself to parent. In an essay that’s, if nothing else, thought-provoking, “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” Lionel Shriver makes a claim for the nihilism of childlessness, and on the more personal, softer end of the same spectrum we have Tim Kreider’s “The End of the Line.” But without a doubt my favorite essay was the book’s opener, “Babes in the Woods,” by Courtney Hodell. It builds in artistry and fable to describe Hodell’s special relationship with her brother, a relationship that changes irrevocably once he has a baby and Hodell must now always come in second or third to this essential person in her life.
If you are a person choosing not to have children, I highly recommend this volume for the experience of recognizing a plethora of kindred spirits. That said, if you are a person who cannot fathom why someone might forego parenthood, this volume provides several compelling variations on the theme that will prove illuminating. I’m sure no one will be “convinced” but they may understand at least a little bit better.
I heard Kate Bolick interviewed about her Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own on NPR and found the notion of reclaiming the word “spinster” compelling. That said, because I’m happily coupled, I wasn’t sure if admitting my interest in the book would herald a sinister, secret dissatisfaction or, worse, qualify as some kind of “spinster tourism.”
Bolick’s book is essentially a memoir with forays into the lives of five female authors. Bolick calls these women her “awakeners,” inspirational figures from whom she draws a portrait of how to live a consciously solo life. The list includes poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neice Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, and the dynamic Charlotte Perkins Gilman. As with SSS, Spinster self-consciously tells a counter-story to the dominant narrative women are expected to fulfill. In embracing her “spinster wish,” Bolick embraces a life of solitude lived outside the bounds of familial life.
It may be important to note that for Bolick being a “spinster” does not mean being celibate, and the same holds true for many of her “awakeners.” She thus enjoys human interactions, including sexual and romantic interactions, without ceding her beloved independence.
The book is in many ways most compelling when discussing the five inspiring authors and highlighting overlaps between Bolick’s experience and their’s. Yet by the end I was finding the whole thing a bit tiresome. Perhaps it’s because in the course of writing the book Bolick met a man that she fell in love with and married, a fact that doesn’t really undermine the value of what she says but does, somehow, undermine her authorial credibility. And then there’s her immense privilege, this fantastic life that she gets to lead. Not that there’s anything wrong with her life but I also got tired of spending time around such a well-gazed navel, the opportunity for which comes from Bolick’s affluence.
I recommend Spinster because it is a strangely overdue celebration of solitary womanhood, but I do so with the caveat that Bolick’s world may not be to everyone’s taste. But if you are someone, single or coupled, who has felt inklings (or waves) of your own “spinster wish,” then this book, much like SSS, tells you that you’re not alone. It may even be heartening for those who are single and feel bad about it, to know that perhaps coupledom is not the only path to happiness and self-actualization.
Stories have power. We tell stories to and about ourselves to make sense of our lives. We look to stories to see possibilities in how to be. Both of these books—Spinster and Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed—reject the most common stories and instead provide alternative narratives with which people can imagine and understand themselves.