Why are more people choosing not to have children? 16 women and men share their thoughts in a book by US essayist Meghan Daum. A conversation about egoism, career and the courage to swim against the tide.
To this day, childlessness has not been seen as a self-determined decision, but as a vagary of nature. And people who decide not to have children are often considered selfish. You don't have any children. Are you selfish?
You could just as well say the opposite: people who have children are selfish. People are selfish by nature. That’s how our species has survived. Most people want children because it fits their idea of living a fulfilled life. In my opinion, deciding not to have children is not a sign of selfishness, but of self-awareness. I’ve realised that being a mother isn’t for me. It cost me my marriage, but I’ve never regretted the decision.
You collected essays by 16 writers who have chosen not to have children for “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed”. What gave you the idea for this book?
I felt that our stories also deserve to be told. There is so much literature by and about parents, but nothing about what it’s like not to have children and be OK with it. Initially, publishers didn’t want to know. They said the readership would be too small. As it turned out, the opposite was the case. The book was a bestseller and read by parents as well as childless people.
Why did you want to include contributions from three men?
The issue of children is dealt with mainly as a women’s issue. But I believe there is social pressure on men too in this regard. Men who don’t want children are often regarded as perennial adolescents. They are suspected of suffering from a kind of Peter Pan syndrome and shirking responsibility. Women without children, on the other hand, are often seen as feminists, as independent and strong. I would have liked to have included more male authors. But men rarely talk about the social constraints that they feel.
And yet only women are accused of climbing the corporate ladder if they prioritise professional success over motherhood. Fathers hardly need to justify their work ethic.
That’s right. And it’s also true that it’s unfair. It’s unfair that women earn less because it is assumed they will have children at some stage and put their career on the back burner, at least temporarily. Men, on the other hand, earn even more because they are supposed to be able to support a family. The statistics bear that out. Women’s work is less valued than men’s. Quite apart from the fact that the work mothers do at home is taken for granted and completely underestimated. Ultimately, carrying, giving birth and breastfeeding the child falls solely on the woman. But that can’t be changed.
Then women are victims of their gender?
In a sense, yes. We may have the same rights as men, but nature prevents us from using them in the same way. There is a biological determinism at play here that we can’t get away from. However, we can and must change the conditions that still make having children an obstacle for women. State-supported childcare, for example, would be a good start.
Has your career benefited from the fact that you don’t have children?
Yes. I couldn’t have had my career with children, or at least it wouldn’t be the same. I’ve been working as a freelance author for 25 years. My income fluctuates a lot. Sometimes I earn a lot, sometimes nothing at all. Raising children requires a minimum of financial security. With a man who provides reliable financing, I might have been able to keep working like that. But I probably wouldn’t have had the time.
Is the desire for self-determination one of the prerequisites of being a writer?
I consider the willingness to engage in self-reflection more important. Since I haven’t raised any children, I have had more time to think about myself. Which, by the way, is by no means always a pleasure. Being a writer certainly requires a certain degree of self-confidence. If you are creative, you assume that others are interested in your work. This can also be interpreted as overestimating yourself.
Is self-determination a luxury?
And what a luxury! Self-determination is a fairly recent western phenomenon. Especially for women. Prior to the invention of the pill, even women in rich countries had little control over their lives in this regard. Children usually meant the end of their already very relative freedom. This is still the case in many countries today. And here too, millions of women don’t have the choice of staying at home or working. They are forced to work hard so they and their families can get by. When we talk about self-determination, we are talking about the privilege of a very narrow stratum of society.
Whether self-determination, overestimation or privilege: you’ve made a name for yourself as a lateral thinker. Where do you get the tenacity to pursue projects like “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed” and thus sometimes to represent unpopular opinions?
I don’t go along with the herd mentality. I also have a pretty sensitive bullshit detector. When I see nonsense and contradictions, I point them out, whether or not it’s the done thing. For example, I consider myself a feminist. But there are people who accuse me of misogyny when I say that a gender-blind society is not possible and perhaps not even desirable. That’s frustrating. My goal has always been to present facts in a differentiated way. Some things are complicated, and it's not good enough to make the right noises to harmonise with everyone else.
How do you deal with criticism?
I don’t let it irritate me. As a columnist, I’ve developed a thick skin over the years. In social media, criticism can really be despicable. But I avoid twitter spats and the like. When it comes to pursuing certain projects, my friends and acquaintances know by now that there is no point in advising me against something once I’ve set my mind on it.
Meghan Daum was born in 1970 in California and is one of the best-known essayists in the US. The extent to which she opposes dogma and ideologies is shown by her often unorthodox approach to big and small issues. She has written for numerous magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s and Vogue, and has published several books, including the New York Times bestseller “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed” (Picador) and most recently “The Problem with Everything” (Gallery Books). She is currently writing a bi-weekly column for the online platform Medium and moderating the podcast “The Unspeakable.” Meghan Daum has no children and lives in New York. www.theunspeakablepodcast.com