Outside the Paradigm: Meghan Daum Seeks Answers to The Question We Never Ask, Why Didn’t You Have Kids?

to have kids

“The fact that my life was so far outside the usual paradigms made me feel unexpectedly—what? Raw.” – Paul Lisicky

Story Break

One of the courses my husband—then boyfriend—and I took while at Stanford Business School was called Marriage and Family. As one would expect from a top business school course, it provided compelling rigor and detail, so we could model our future lives. One of my classmates took this literally and built an Excel model to determine when to have children. Yes, well… regardless of how we interpreted the syllabus, we were confident the future was laid out, details accounted for, optimization in our hands.

We just had to make the right decisions. Because life is just one decision after another, right? Although there was never a stated correct way, we knew what we were deciding against. Let’s just say no one took the class in order to learn how to live unmarried without kids.

Having children is one of the deepest, most personal and intimate decisions of our lives, and yet, we don’t reflect how that decision is made, or question if it’s even a decision. Meghan Daum (1970–), one of my favorite personal essayists, known to skewer herself on the alter of self-awareness, tackles this taboo head on by asking sixteen writers why they decided not to have kids in her book Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. The essays add much-needed understanding and voice to this group of non-parent individuals whom society often reduces to those who have opted out, decided to live differently, to be outside the paradigm.

For TV writer Danielle Henderson, the “decision” is akin to an early feeling of not wanting kids coupled with formative experience that reinforces this way of thinking. She remembers her very young self saying “College is like jail, and babies are gross” to a stunned grandmother, who, of course, imagined Henderson would change her mind as an adult. But as a childless adult reflecting, Henderson states:

“I am not afraid of babies. I’m not afraid of all the things you have to do to keep them alive, and I think I’d be able to do all that without worrying about them constantly…but I spent the majority of my formative years healing from what felt to me like bad parenting, which made me realize that sometimes your willingness to be a parent isn’t enough. I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself instead.”

As she adds nuance and empathy to her feelings around not having children—or, rather, not being a parent—is Henderson really just rephrasing what she felt as a young girl but was unable to express fully? Probably not just that, although the suggestion that this feeling for some might be as hardwired as sexual attraction or gender identity is hard to ignore.

Decisions, whether we feel we’ve made them or not, often change as much as we do. Kate Christensen, a Maine-based novelist, begins her essay A Thousand Other Things with the line “I don’t have kids, and I am very glad, although there was a time when I wanted them more than anything.” Christensen’s life and story arrives at her current place of contentment through a long history of change and loss and finally realizing, though nothing is permanent, this non-child life suits her very well.

I found writer and cultural critic Laura Kipnis’ article The Maternal Instinct equally refreshing and paradigm changing in the way it warns against romanticizing the maternal role by pinning it to cultural—not natural—forces:

“Despite my proven talents at nurturing, I don’t believe in the maternal instinct because, as anyone who’s perused the literature on the subject knows, it’s an invented concept that arises at a particular point in history—circa the Industrial Revolution, just as the new industrial-era sexual division of labor was being negotiated, the one where men go to work and women stay home.”

If we consciously divorce ourselves from feeling we must pander to this instinct (or force it to exist at all) of being mothers, does that allow us to make a more accurate or appropriate decision about children? Kipnis’ own thoughts on the subject were that she wasn’t for having kids, wasn’t against it, and life has a way of existing outside our limited, cultural expectations such that she just never had kids.

Ultimately, how we approach whether to have children, directly or indirectly deciding, should come from our self-awareness and needs, not cultural norms. In Mommy Fearest, Anna Holmes, founder of www.jezebel.com, writes that she saw herself as mother so talented it would eclipse everything else, not a sacrifice she was willing to make: “That terror, that utter horror, had very little to do with my feelings about children and everything to do with my feelings about myself, namely my hunger to do things and meet people and carve out a special space in the world in which I could find my authentic self, whatever that came to mean.” There is self-awareness and empowerment in her words.

The most emphatically decisive essay, or at least the one that feels that parenthood is something to be weighed, assessed, reviewed, and decided, comes from author and iconoclast Lionel Shriver in her Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later. In weighing the consequences of choice—which she does feel exists—Shriver draws on information as widespread as the nature of population to the role of imprint, of legacy, to fundamentally the basics of a happy life:

“However rewarding at times, raising children can also be hard, trying, and dull, inevitably ensnaring us in those sucker values of self-sacrifice and duty. The odds of children making you happier are surely no better than fifty-fifty. Studies have repeatedly documented that the self-reported ‘happiness’ index is lower among parents than among the childless. Little wonder that so many women like me have taken a hard look at all those diapers, playgrounds, and nasty plastic toys and said no, thanks.”

Unlike Shriver, I never decided to have children. I never decided not to have children.

My upbringing, cultural expectations, and dare-I-say nature somehow, in lockstep, decided if I didn’t decide not to, then I was sure as hell going to.And thus, we are trying to have children. The whole thing feels like I absentmindedly wandered into the ice cream aisle at the supermarket, and now I’m here, I might as well get some Cherry Garcia. Never had it, but it sure looks good when I see other people eating it. And the longer I stay here—gazing and imagining possibilities of cherry goodness—the higher the sunk cost of leaving the aisle.

Ultimately, the outcome belies the process. Do you have children or do you not? It’s a binary option, which suggests we make a choice to get there. But the truth is, many of these authors illustrate, it’s not that simple. And that isn’t what matters anyway. Neither choice nor lack of it defines anything about us except how we stand vis–à–vis the “do you have children” question. Which is one very small aspect of the entire “self.”

Although, that is how society continues to judge and asses nonparent individuals, as Daum reminds us, falsely attributing a notion of selfishness and shallowness.

And that is why, as Paul Lisicky, American novelist and memorialist, admits in his essay The New Rhoda, to never have had much commitment to have a child nor misses having one today, yet still feels raw when confronted with the fact that the perhaps forgotten truth—that one might be outside the paradigm. “It wasn’t that I wanted to be a father…”

Time to break the paradigm and see people—and their choices—as individual as they truly are.

  • rogertbaker


  • rogertbaker

    Very well done, but something important seems to me to be neglected here. This is not intended as a criticism but more as a question.

    We make many important decisions in life, but children are unique. For many parents, including I’m sure others like me who did not anticipate anything of the sort, children become almost immediately and from then on remain an experience of joy and love. Consider the rarity of that.The experience, at least at intervals, is almost transporting, as if touching the miraculous.

    There are the well-known trials and tribulations, sacrifices, and, worse, fear and heartbreak. All of that (let’s call it life) is not to be minimized, but I think is beside the point I try here to make.

    I do not suggest everyone have have children. It might turn out unfortunately for any number of reasons. But I do believe it should not be thought of as lifestyle choice or aid to self-realization. It goes deeper than that.

    Roger Baker

    • Thanks Roger. Your view on children or parenting is your own, which you are certainly entitled to. But what this book is about and what my essay is about, each of these individuals is entitled to their own thoughts on the matter, just as you are. There is no overarching paradigm of thought on the matter, which is how it often feels on our society.



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