The anthology, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum was hailed as "hugely significant" (The Atlantic), "provocative" (Vanity Fair, The Rumpus), and "searing" (The Washington Post, The Huffington Post) when it was published in 2015. And indeed the book tackles one of the most stubbornly entrenched taboos of our society: the choice to remain childless.
The essays in the collection range from rather academic surveys of data harnessed to an argument, like those by Laura Kipnis and Jeanne Safer, to lyrical memoirs of childhood, like those by Courtney Hodell and Sigrid Nunez, and harrowing accounts of trauma, like M.G. Lord's essay, or sarcastic humor pieces, like Geoff Dyer's. Any childless person will be familiar with the enraging circumstances every childless woman, and not a few childless men, encounter on a regular basis and the usual arguments and reasons that people whip out when justifying their choice of childlessness. For the open-minded parent, some of these essays might reach for "hugely significant," "provocative," and "searing," but for your average thoughtful, childless person, the theme ends up being a bit of yawn, though some of the essays are fun reads.
In her introduction, Daum declares that her intention was to prod us, as a society, to "stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption - and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness." But there's one taboo that neither Daum nor any of the sixteen contributors dares to confront straight on: none of them are prepared to state, or defend those who state, that they plain and simple don't like kids.
Essay after essay presents the reader with a protest that each of these writers loves kids, but decided, for various and sundry reasons, not to have their own. Here we find the sore spot, the social bruise, that no one dares to palpate. Only one writer comes close and - quelle surprise! - that writer is Geoff Dyer, a straight man. He vehemently demolishes every argument in favor of parenthood with a sarcastic flourish. He complains about the grossness of the entitled little brats who frequent the fancy school in his neighborhood, but moderates his tone for the state school kids who gratefully accepted his used tennis balls.
That's the closest this book gets to acknowledging that you're not a monster if you don't like kids.
A brief, incomplete tour of protestations of adoring the wee ones:
"Let no one say that I didn't spend the equivalent of a year's college tuition hauling my beloved niece and two nephews to the movies regularly during their formative years, bribing them into good behavior with pricey buckets of popcorn and gallons of soda. Let no one say that I didn't do my best to imbue them with my values... and subtly shape them in my image, a project that continues to this day... 'Who's your favorite grown-up' I wheedle..." - Laura Kipnis
"Meanwhile there are a lot of kids in my life. I have six nieces and nephews and I am the godmother of my best friend's son and daughter." - Kate Christensen
"I have friends who are in grammar school, and my favorite movie date for the past six or seven years is presently a junior in high school." - Michelle Huneven
"What I do know is that I have nieces and nephews whom I'm proud to see growing into interesting, thoughtful people. I have friends whose children I adore - even children I haven't met yet... I call all these buns-in-ovens 'Porkchop,' and I look forward to passing along my own wisdom and being part of their lives." - Danielle Henderson
Blech, where is the vomiting emoji when you need it? I could have drawn at least one similar quote from every essay but Dyer's, attesting to each author's love for children. In Meghan Daum's introduction, she baldly embraces the taboo, writing, "We do not hate children (and it still amazes me that this notion is given any credence). In fact, many of us devote quite a lot of energy to enriching the lives of other people's children, which in turn enriches our own lives."
There, in stark black and white, a big, enormous, flashing sign that says: "We're not evil because we like children! We like them, we really, really like them!" There's the taboo that these seventeen childless writers didn't even try to dismantle. Rather, they retrenched behind it. Childless people aren't selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed, it's implied, because they still love children. They just don't have any of their own. But what exactly is so terribly wrong about not loving children, or even hating children? This collection would have had a much better claim to being "hugely significant," "provocative," and "searing," if just one of these writers had had the chutzpah to consider whether loving a child really is a prerequisite for being a human being worthy of being heard, recognized, and respected in our society.