Selfish, Shallow, Self-Absorbed: Procreation and the Purpose of Life

selfish shallow self-absorbed - meghan daum
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In her superb 2014 novel The Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill writes of her protagonist’s ambition to be an "art monster" -- someone who devotes herself to making art and to nothing else, certainly not to having or rearing children. This ambition is described in retrospect; when the book begins, the protagonist is already a mother, indulging in one common fantasy/cliché about childless adults: that they devote themselves so obsessively to one particular pursuit (whether it’s making art, making an app, or making partner at a law firm) that they don’t have the time, the energy, or the generosity for parenting. Another common fantasy/cliché about childless adults is that they can’t commit to anything at all, preferring instead to do as they wish at any given moment, which is often nothing.

Though these two fantasy/clichés are obviously incompatible, they are often tied together under any number of hostile adjectives. In other words, childless adults are often treated to one of the most childish activities of all: namecalling. With appropriate and agreeable I’m-rubber-you’re-glue cheekiness, Meghan Daum has chosen three of the names that those with children often call those without for her new anthology of essays by childless writers, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.

In her introduction, Daum, herself one of our greatest essayists, writes that she embarked on editing this collection because she wanted "to find different ways of talking about the choice not to have kids." For this very reason, it is not surprising that these essays spend a lot of time talking about the way we talk about the choice not to have kids.

Because most of us at some point feel the desire to have a child, that desire can appear to be natural and therefore to be some sort of true purpose of being alive. Laura Kipnis’s essay does a nice job kicking the word "natural" around, asking why something is good just because it is natural, noting how the pressures placed on mothers in the nineteen-fifties have been succeeded by other, not necessarily less pernicious pressures, to conduct childbirth and child-rearing in the most "natural" way possible, almost always meaning, for women, the most painful and time-consuming way possible. Pam Houston puts a similar point piquantly: "My score on the LSATs suggests that I have the mental capacity to be a lawyer, but I have not gotten one single letter from a stranger or anyone else telling me that I would make a really great lawyer."

Not that all of these writers are convinced that they ever "naturally" wanted to have kids. Daum’s introduction quotes and seconds contributor Jeanne Safer’s essay on how, when she thought she wanted kids, what she really wanted was to want to have kids. Of course one (particularly if one is a woman) would want to want to have kids, considering that the alternative is to be labeled "selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed."

A number of these writers were raised by bad parents, many of whom may have felt this need to want to want to have kids. Michelle Huneven’s uncompromising but generous contribution notes that her mother, trained as a concert pianist, "thought she wanted kids, but once she had them, she really didn't." The result was physical and mental abuse. "I would say that I was originally childless due to damage," Huneven writes. "But eventually, it did become a choice." She is "grateful for the freedom not to have children," but to devote herself to other pursuits instead, mostly love affairs and her work. "Here," she writes, "I stand in contrast to my mother, who took up marriage and family by default, because the job for which she’d actually been trained, concert pianist, did not exist for women."

Other writers tell of terrible childhoods (Danielle Henderson’s story of her mother’s abandonment of her is particularly harrowing), but this can hardly be called a common thread. Jezebel founding editor Anna Holmes has nothing but praise for her own mother, and says, memorably, that she is "afraid of my own competence" as a mother -- she would enjoy motherhood so much that she fears all other aspects of her life would suffer. Instead, Holmes wants to "do things, meet people, and carve out a special space in the world in which I could find my most authentic self, whatever that came to mean."

Finding one’s most authentic self is, of course, exactly the sort of language that gets caricatured as "selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed." Instead of trying to find yourself, the childless are often instructed, you should create somebody else. Do your duty to…what, exactly? Your bloodline? This does not seem unselfish, or in any way morally praiseworthy, but Lionel Shriver wonders at length in her odd contribution whether she and her friends should have focused on passing on their bloodlines rather than leading fulfilling lives, appearing to come to the conclusion that yes, they should have.

This is, of course, a common idea, and Tim Kreider has an excellent riposte to it in his collection-ending essay "The End of the Line":

Reproduction as raison d’etre has always seemed to me to beg the whole question of existence. If the ultimate purpose of your life is your children, what is the purpose of your children’s lives? To have your grandchildren? Isn't anyone’s life purposeful in itself? If not, what’s the point of propagating ad infinitum?

Exactly. Considering one’s own genes so precious that they must be passed down at all costs does not seem the opposite of selfish, shallow, or self-absorbed. Making life purposeful in the present, on the other hand, is something from which all who are actually alive, rather than merely potentially alive and related to you, can benefit. (Having a child to make yourself less selfish is a rather transparently selfish thing to do.) Daum’s introduction calls these sixteen essays "gifts," a term that might be a throwaway if did not recall Lewis Hyde’s great book The Gift, which considers art as a gift to be shared. I am lucky to have wonderful parents, but my life has also been enriched beyond calculation by books written by men and women who may or may not have been able to write them had they had children -- including, now, this one. Enriching lives that already exist may be, if anything, less selfish than passing on your own genes.

This is, of course, not to judge those who decide to have children. I recently got married, and my wife (also a writer) and I intend to procreate at some point. If we do, perhaps we will one day be invited to contribute to an anthology to defend that selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed decision.