Lionel Shriver On Not Having Kids

I've been meaning to post this essay for a while. In the September issue of Cookie magazine, four women wrote about how they chose how many children to have. One of the contributors was Lionel Shriver, author of The Post-Birthday World, which was the choice for one of EDIWTB's online book clubs. (Lionel Shriver also answered questions on this blog here.)

You can read all of the essays here, but I want to post Lionel Shriver's essay about having no children. I haven't yet read We Need To Talk About Kevin, though I understand that it is about one woman's disastrous experience with motherhood. But I find her to be so interesting that I was glad to read this essay. Enjoy.

ZERO

By Lionel Shriver

Hot flashes every five minutes are a reminder, in my 51st year, that my decision to forgo procreation has slipped to the past perfect. I'm no longer choosing not to have children; I did not have them. Surely any reputable female could scrounge up a trace of wistfulness on this point. But I cannot bestir in myself an iota of regret. I first swore off a family at the age of 8—maybe I couldn't bear the notion of being saddled with a little girl just like me who was forever flying into tantrums—and I never looked back.

Self-satisfaction is always obnoxious. So I won't pretend that my daily routine sends me into an unremitting swoon. My work life is as plodding as most writers'; barring my marriage, my most intimate relationship is with a frequently malfunctioning computer. While I have enjoyed an extraordinary freedom, I seldom fully avail myself of its pleasures. Not once have my husband and I spontaneously whipped off for a weekend in Paris, though the city is just a hop across the channel from our London flat.

Nevertheless, I have relished my solitude. I can barely stand having even one other human being underfoot, and I prefer the kind that has already mastered the alphabet. I like my dumpy work life, and I suspect that you can measure the cost of raising children not only in dollars but also in the number of books you did not write. I would never equate literary and literal progeny; people are more important. But you cannot shut the lid on a baby for the night, or rewrite the scene of your evening so that the infant goes straight to sleep, or skip the ages 7 to 14 between chapters to pick up the pace. Children are a great deal more trouble than books.

Sounds selfish? Of course it's selfish. I'm a big believer in healthy selfishness. Parents are certain to do a better job if they're raising kids because they want to. Though the role may entail sacrifice, well-adjusted parents do not subject themselves to children like hair shirts. They may be in for some disagreeable surprises, but prospective parents must be better off planning to raise a family for their own pleasure and enrichment. I would hate to learn that my parents brought me into the world solely out of a sense of duty.

Advocating "healthy selfishness" is as close as I come to ele­vating a private decision to a political position. I'm as happy for other people to have kids as I am to have personally given the urchins a miss. I don't go on the stump and rail that pregnancy is servitude, and that all self-respecting women should cease to reproduce. Yet you would think I had done just that. Since publishing We Need To Talk About Kevin—a novel about a woman whose experience of motherhood goes, to err on the side of understatement, rather badly—I have been endlessly solicited to appear in the media as a champion of the childless. Or, as a recent nonparents'-advocacy book prefers, the "childfree," as in Childfree and Loving It!.

It is an uncomfortable role, tantamount to being anti-people. And it's not clear to me why the "childfree" would require a champion. After all, these days, demographically, we are legion. Electing to do without children no longer counts as eccentric and has ceased to confer an appreciable social stigma. So why would this contingent of the willingly unreproductive ever need to advance our blissfully independent, we-can-go-to-France-if-we-want-to liberation as a full-blown cause?

My theory? Insecurity. Because most people have imaginations and cannot quite let go of the might-have-been. However resolute, many nonparents must still suffer existential angst, and entertain for a second or two the thought that bearing children might be essential to a fully meaningful life. In short, because that perfect dearth of regret that I described at the outset is surprisingly rare.

12 Comments

  • Amy
    September 4, 2008 - 9:22 am | Permalink

    Hi Gayle,
    This is fascinating, especially in light of my sister who has never wanted kids, but is now going the traditional marriage route and considering the reproduction thing too. I don’t know what to tell her because, yes, I love it, but maybe she is one of those people who are just happier without.
    Anyway, thanks for the interesting post!
    Amy

  • September 4, 2008 - 11:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the great post! This article is fascinating.

  • Nancy West
    September 4, 2008 - 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I know I’ve said this before (probably insufferably), but “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is one of the most unforgettable novels I’ve ever read — not because of the subject matter but because of Shriver’s shocking and compelling illustrations of familial relationships. This essay underscores the complexity of her perspective. If you like this essay, read the book…

  • September 4, 2008 - 7:22 pm | Permalink

    This was a very insightful and light-handed essay about a subject I think too many people get worked up about. I recently came across a group on another website I frequent that is focused on being child-free. However, these women were so incredibly nasty towards anyone who had kids, basically calling them stupid. I think that Shriver showed that all choices are OK, as long as you respect the other!

  • Karen H.
    September 4, 2008 - 7:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this essay. It makes me want to read There’s Something About Kevin.

  • Sheila
    September 5, 2008 - 8:42 am | Permalink

    I have not yet read this article by Shriver (although I want to) but I need to completely agree with Nancy West that “WNTTAKevin” is one of the most compelling and compassionate book I have ever read. I read it when it first came out, and years later, I am still drawn to think about that book and how the family dynamics played out. Her way of making each character so alive is something that is rare in current fiction. I strongly recommend this book to anyone!

  • Lisa
    September 6, 2008 - 9:29 am | Permalink

    As someone who has only recently decided that I wanted kids after all, this essay hit home. I never wanted kids and sometimes paid dearly for those remarks by friends/family who thought I kicked puppies in my spare time. Now that our journey has led us to adoption (and all the ups and downs that entails) I sometimes long for the blissful days when my maternal instincts were on sabbatical. WNTTAKevin was an excellent (and scary)book for me to read.

  • Len
    September 8, 2008 - 12:16 am | Permalink

    Gayle,
    Thanks for posting this essay. As others have noted, it adds fascinating layers to WNTTAK, which for me (like Nancy and Lisa) was an outstanding and disturbing read. The question of regret is so interesting too, because it seems that folks on both sides of the kids/no kids equation (at least those who choose one side or the other) occasionally look to the other side wistfully. Obviously, this wistfulness isn’t limited to the kid question, but maybe it is human nature to do this, or maybe we just cling to the belief that the other path HAS to be better than the one we chose. Shriver makes this point much more eloquently than I do.

  • September 8, 2008 - 9:39 am | Permalink

    All I have to say is that I agree with Lionel Shriver 120%*.
    *I’m fully aware of how much percent I can actually agree with someone.

  • September 12, 2008 - 8:20 pm | Permalink

    What a great essay, thanks for posting it. My husband and I don’t have children and are forever having to explain why on earth we haven’t!

  • September 17, 2008 - 2:14 am | Permalink

    Just wanted to comment that “Kevin” was one of the most horrible and wonderful books I have ever read. It’s been a year and I can still vividly recall scenes from that book. I recommend it for anyone who wants a fascinating and unforgettable reading experience.

  • jessica steiner
    December 28, 2009 - 2:26 pm | Permalink

    I’m enamored of Ms. Shriver’s work and found this essay to shed light on her as a person and a writer; but not enough light, at least, i hope not enough; which is to say i hope that Shriver herself is not the raging psychopath the mother is in “We Need to Talk…” I hope the problem is that Shriver just didn’t do her homework. It’s an outright alarming book; i’m still haunted by it, not least because the protagonist screams lack of writerly experience. It’s true what’s said in some of these comments, that the relationships in the book are compelling; but the mother just isn’t conflicted enough; she’s just not real. her child is a monster that she continues to inflict on society almost without remorse; all she cares about is herself. Sure, there are ignorant and careless mothers everywhere, but this character doesn’t serve the book. i could have told you half way through Shriver isn’t a parent. i’m not criticizing her for that, i’m criticizing her for not doing a better job creating a resonant character. i hated that woman, and that made me very sad.

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