Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

When The Knucklehead turned fifteen, I gave him a short stack of books, teen-friendly introductions to philosophy and ethics. Among them was Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris. “This isn’t to induce you to atheism,” I told him. “But it’s important for you to understand that atheism is a legitimate vantage point. My atheism compels me to be an ethical man. Even if you don’t agree with that, you should understand it. People with and without religion are trying to get through this life doing their part to make the world better than they found it. You should always be ready to hear how other people do that, even if they’re on a different path than you are. You never know from which direction help may come. But you have to be willing to accept it. And you can’t do that if you don’t respect the source.”

What I said to my son back then kept running through my mind as I read a book this week. I read a book I’d like more people to read, a book from another much-maligned minority with a lot to teach us. For parents, for the child-free, for any adult, and even (maybe especially) for high school and college students, I wish we could all read, then sit down and discuss, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.

* * *

The book’s title is self-explanatory; Daum invited sixteen writers – three men and thirteen women – to write about their decision not to become parents. To be clear, these are all people who have deliberately chosen to be child-free; this book is not about people who want to become parents but have been unable to do so. The title addresses the assumption that these adults have grown to endure; the idea that they are somehow evading responsibility or turning their backs on society.

That idea, when thought through, is unsettling in the least. No one will argue harder than I that raising a child into an ethical and civic-minded adult is an honorable and noble gift to the world. But it is not the only way to make a powerful impact for good in the world. And, as these writers make clear, it is not the only way to make a powerful impact for good in a child’s life. The same time, money, and energy I channel into the growth of my son isn’t being squandered by these people. In many cases, it’s used to nurture a wonderful and contributive life that sets an example for my Knucklehead: parenthood is a choice. It’s only a choice if there’s an equally noble and satisfying option available, and these writers prove that there is.

* * *

I have no problem with Daum’s “bias” toward motherhood in selecting a majority of women writers to represent childfree adulthood. Let’s face it: women in our society face far more pressure to become mothers than men to become fathers, and it is they who are usually most affected by a child. Men who decline fatherhood are usually greeted with eye-rolling; women with open-mouthed astonishment. I moved across two states to be with my son when his mother moved him to be close to her family. Most people admire my commitment as a dad. Had I been the one to move my son, his mom would have been given no such bonus points. Had I not done what I did, there would have been understanding that my job kept me away. Had Knuck’s mom decided to stay behind, she would have been considered abandoning her child. Daum did well to primarily turn to mothers in collecting her essays, and I’m pleased she gave ear to the father’s voice as well.

There’s another brave choice Daum made when editing her book: not all of these writers are likeable, and not all of them are interested in extending an olive branch to the parenting world. There is anger scattered through the book, and Daum allows those inclined to voice it. She makes no effort to press an argument with only the noblest voices. At least one writer I suspect I would label “batshit crazy” if I actually ran across that person. A few risk enforcing the stereotype of “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed.” It’s a precarious choice, but it pays off, as it imbues those essays with an honesty that carries over to the rest of the book.

And, frankly, for those of us who are parents, it’s what we need to hear. Until you read these peoples’ stories, you may not have considered the inherent insolence in an “innocent” question like, “Why don’t you have any kids?” As an atheist, I immediately cringed with them; whenever I hear “Why don’t you believe in God?” I want to insist the real question should be, “Why do you?” The burden of explanation should clearly rest on those of us who choose to take on such a Herculean labor.

And that right there is the crux of the book. For most parents in our society, and for most of the women and girls, parenthood isn’t a choice. It’s an expectation, often a religious, familial, and societal demand. I believe it’s far too important a job to simply herd everyone into. It’s not fair to those who aren’t equipped, inclined, or without resources to give the job the attention it demands. It isn’t fair to those who have other gifts to give the world that parenting would take from them. It isn’t fair to those who have gifts to give our children that lie outside parenting.

I have a surprising number of child-free adult friends who are teachers, therapists, or otherwise professionally deal with children. I have always sought out their counsel. Does education replace experience when raising children? Of course not. The two are entirely different animals. The education of trained professionals brings an objectivity to parenthood that the intentional parent cannot afford to ignore. Parenting requires a loving heart and nourishing spirit, but if you take the mind out of the equation, you’re going to end up doing harm. Experience of other parents can be a life-saver, but you have to watch out for advice that makes the job easier instead of more effective. There are times when I need the empathy other parents can provide. There are other times I need the ass-kicking an objective professional can give me. “I understand that this is something that’s hard for you. But it’s what your son needs right now.”

* * *

Mostly, I’d like people to read this book so that they understand how important it is to take the procreation requirement off our own children. For those who aren’t excited about the job, it’s too much to demand.

I was one of those people. I grew up dreading the prospect of fatherhood. I could tell that it was something neither of my parents drew any joy from. It was a burden to both of them, a source of unending stress and financial sacrifice. My mother especially must have had a different life planned out. She was the first person in her family (much less the first woman) to go to college, and then gave it up after two years when she met my father. She must have had plans outside the traditional role, but they were not to be realized. She put her energy and industry into motherhood, but not her heart. My father put his time and effort into his work, and found validation there, not at home. Parenthood was clearly thankless stress and work. I dreaded the role.

When I got married, I kept all that to myself. I didn’t have the courage to stand up to expectations, it’s true, but mostly I didn’t feel I had the right to deprive my wife of motherhood. I put it off as long as I felt I could, then gave in.

I got lucky. My Knucklehead got lucky. With fatherhood came an unsuspected purpose in life. I loved my new son, and lacking any pressing career drive at the time (I was starting nursing school, and to be honest my drive for my work never equaled my drive for fatherhood), parenting became the center of my life. But it didn’t come “naturally.” It came as the result of years of therapy, treatment for depression. It came because I had worked hard to discover that I didn’t have to be the parent my parents were. Five years earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready. I wouldn’t have had the resources. I wouldn’t have put in the work. Five years earlier, and the results would have been disastrous for my son and for me.

In all humility, I’ve been a good father. I’ve made sure of it because my son deserved no less. But none of the things that made me a good father were taught to me through fatherhood. I learned them through study, through work with children as a counselor and teacher. I learned how to be a good father when I was childfree. That is why I will not dismiss the voices of my friends who have worked with my son, and are not parents themselves.

* * *

We have to offer our children a real choice. We have to let our sons and daughters who would welcome parenthood run to it as a positive choice, not as the default they’re expected to take. If we are to free our daughters especially for other lives, we will also be freeing them for motherhood, if they so choose it. Others we will be giving the opportunity to make their own and others’ lives richer in other ways. We will be creating the teachers, coaches, therapists, nurses, and activists our children need who might not have shined so brilliantly in their work if they had had their attention diverted into parenthood. It’s not that you can’t do both. You can. But you should never have to explain yourself if you choose one over the other. And you should never saddle a child with the tyrannical impossibility that they must “have it all.” As Pam Houston writes in her contribution, “The Trouble with Having It All”:

…I’m sorry. I guess I don’t believe you can have it all. I don’t believe any of us can. In fact, I believe the very expression having it all is not only a myth but also a symptom of how sick we are in our contemporary culture. Nobody gets to have it all, not even Donald Trump. You will have one thing or another depending on what choice you make. Or you will have both things in limited amounts, and that might turn out to be perfect, just exactly the life you want.

Or, if you’ll indulge me one more quote, this, from “Beyond Beyond Motherhood” by Jeanne Safer which may at first read harsh, but I believe is exactly the liberating truth that all we adults must accept if we are to live at peace with ourselves. Perhaps this truth is the greatest with which we can arm our children as they venture into their adult lives:

The problem is that there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything–no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it’s possible to live without regrets. There is no life without regrets. Every important choice has its benefits and its deficits, whether or not people admit it or even recognize the fact: no mother has the radical, lifelong freedom that is essential for my happiness. I will never know the intimacy with, or have the impact on, a child that a mother has. Losses, including the loss of future possibilities, are inevitable in life; nobody has it all.

There is no life without regrets. Nor should there be. An honest and liberating lesson to teach our children.

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