What is disarming about the new anthology Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids, edited by writer Meghan Daum, is how novel it feels. It is surprisingly rare to hear adults who have chosen not to have children talk about how and why they came to that decision. What’s especially refreshing about Daum’s anthology is its calm, fair tone, which sets it apart from most society-wide conversations about childlessness. There is no sneering, either at parents or at people who aren’t parents. There is no confusing biological imperatives with moral imperatives.
“The conversation gets framed in this hyperbolic way that doesn’t serve anyone,” said Daum, in a telephone interview. The culture of worshiping parenting above all else, particularly in self-satisfied, upper-middle-class liberal neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Park Slope, represents “a disturbed version of morality in a way. Showing how you raise your kids is showing what your values are, and the family becomes a vessel of expression for taste, ethics, and morality.”
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a challenge to the idea that parenting is the defining experience of any person’s life. In 16 fearlessly honest essays, writers including Lionel Shriver, Geoff Dyer, Anna Holmes, and Sigrid Nunez discuss the constellation of reasons why they didn’t have children. “I think we could be wary of the assumption that parenthood is the only way to be an adult,” says Daum, an LA Times columnist and the essayist behind the collections My Misspent Youth and last year’s The Unspeakable: And Other Topics of Discussion. When it comes to not having children, she says, “people who made this really serious choice and in this really thoughtful way are capable of tossing off these glib excuses. It’s less taboo to say, ‘I’m a shallow person’ than to say that this isn’t for me.”
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is an argument in favor of the latter explanation, but one of the book’s surprises is that, beyond the introduction, Daum doesn’t discuss much of her own life without children. Part of that is because she already addressed the topic in The Unspeakable, whose stunning essay, “Difference Maker” touched on the author’s own choice to not have children. “I did feel that I had said all I needed to say,” she said. “I had written ‘up until this moment’ in ‘Difference Maker.’ It was a weird timing thing that this anthology came out on the heels of The Unspeakable. I had told my story and I put together the book that I wanted to read.”
In her search for contributors, Daum says she “shook the tree” to secure writers who would be a good fit. She had considered an “oral history, Studs Terkel version” of the book, bringing in childless subjects from all walks of life, but ended up settling on an edited collection of essays because writers “interpret the world and look at phenomena in a responsible and perceptive way.” Though most contributors are in their 30s and older, Daum explains, “I did not have an age cutoff. I think that asking a 25-year-old to commit to print her decision is a tall order. I think it’s hard to find that person. I was very much about making this decision as an affirmative choice.”
The resulting essays run the gamut from Shriver’s certainty that she never wanted to have kids (yes, her essay does mention that she wrote the ultimate anti-parenting horror story, We Need to Talk About Kevin) to M.G. Lord’s experience, which involved the heartbreak of adoptions called off at the last minute by her expected children’s birth mothers. “There is room for questioning and there is room for mourning,” Daum said, “and I think it is just as intellectually dishonest for people who’ve chosen not to have kids to say, ‘I don’t have one moment of regret.'”
The larger impression Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed leaves is that there are many ways to be in the world, and that you don’t have to be a parent in order to live a meaningful life or participate in society. “These essays have so many people talking about the ways that they do have relationships with kids, nieces or nephews or kids that they mentor,” Daum says. “You’ve heard the cliché ‘it takes a village.’ But there are so many ways of being a responsible villager.”