In Teddy Wayne’s New York Times article, No Kids for Me, Thanks, the NotMom Summit (for and about women without children, by choice or by chance) was prominently mentioned.
Not only is it the first conference of its kind, it is the Girlfriend Mom’s first speaking engagement. Pretty cool. And so is the article.
Chelsea Handler, the television host and best-selling author of “My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands,” and Geoff Dyer, the critically acclaimed British writer whose 15 books include “Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D. H. Lawrence,” don’t have much in common on the surface, aside from both calling Los Angeles home. But neither has an interest in procreating.
“I definitely don’t want to have kids,” Ms. Handler, 40, said in a 2013 television interview. “I don’t think I’d be a great mother. I’m a great aunt or friend of a mother.” Mr. Dyer, 56, contributed an essay to the anthology “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids,” out last week (the title sardonically appropriates the traditional criticisms against childless couples).
In it, he related an episode a few years back in which gamboling children kept interrupting his tennis game in London as their mothers did nothing, much to his displeasure. The incident was “a clear demonstration that the rights of parents and their children to do whatever they please have priority over everyone else’s,” he wrote.
(The disruption of racket sports at the hands of youth seems to be a bête noire for Mr. Dyer. Two winters ago, I found myself playing table tennis with him in a Brooklyn establishment. Within 10 minutes, we were booted out for a child’s birthday party as dozens of children and their guardians swarmed the room. “The only thing I hate more than children,” he told me as we gathered our belongings, “are parents.”)
Ms. Handler’s and Mr. Dyer’s desire to be childless — or child-free, as some prefer — syncs with nationwide shifts over the last several decades, and with a host of celebrities who have spoken publicly about their decisions, like George Clooney, Oprah and Ricky Gervais.
The percentage of childless women ages 40 to 44 doubled from 1976 to 2006, when the figure stood at over one-fifth of women. Their ranks have increased enough that the first NotMomSummit will take place in Cleveland this October. (The numbers have tailed off slightly since 2006, to about 15 percent; some explanations may be more-flexible workplace cultures for women, advances in fertility treatments and increasing acceptance of unmarried women who conceive through sperm donors.)
People’s reasons for not reproducing remain as varied as ever, encompassing the personal, political, financial, environmental or the anti-narcissistic, as in the case of John Warner, the author of the novel “The Funny Man,” who self-deprecatingly wrote in an email, “I’m not convinced my genes are anything to wish on anyone.”
But one particular strain may be resistance to the current atmosphere of overparenting and its attendant upper-middle-class signifiers.
“If I had kids, I can’t see doing it in New York City,” said Kate Bolick, the author of the coming book “Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.” “Not just because I couldn’t afford it, but because I don’t like the idea of raising a child in this epicenter of class disparity and extreme wealth.”
Meghan Daum, the editor of the anthology and a Los Angeles Times opinion columnist, said, “It’s undeniable that watching this culture play out — the helicopter parenting, the media fixation on baby bumps and celebrity childbearing and -rearing — is overwhelming, and it’s natural that people would react against it.”
“I can’t tell you how many baby showers I’ve been to where the woman who’s having the child has this moment of ‘Oh, my God, what have I signed up for?’ ” Ms. Daum said. “I think there are people in the book who may have made a different decision if they’d been living in a different moment.”
Still, she cautioned against attributing too much of the recent surge in childlessness by choice to societal trends. “Not to have a child is a very personal, visceral decision,” she said. “Ultimately, it comes from within, not from Park Slope.”
A few contributors to her anthology do, nevertheless, chalk up some of their misgivings to Park Slope-ish fads that seem intent on creating a generation of Stepford moms.
Anna Holmes cataloged the “hoary ideas of womanhood” on display in her Brooklyn neighborhood, which has “overpriced boutiques filled with one-of-a-kind maternity clothes and hundred-dollar sets of receiving blankets made of ‘all-organic cotton.’ ”
Laura Kipnis wrote about her “profound dread of being conscripted into the community of other mothers — the sociality of the playground and day-care center, and at the endless activities and lessons that are de rigueur in today’s codes of upper-middle-class parenting.”
Both descriptions reflect a few of the ways parenting (at least in this rarefied socioeconomic milieu) has evolved since the 1980s into a competitive and consumerist sport. Partly as a result of this overextension, the culture has begun representing parenting as a less-than-satisfying occupation.
The news media periodically trot out articles about how parents are unhappier than their childless counterparts. The debatable postulation is often traced back to an influential 2004 study in which working mothers ranked child care the second-most-negative activity on a list of 16 (rated less negatively were commuting and housework)
Child care, of course, is just one aspect of parenthood, albeit a significant part, and the mothers were polled on workdays, which likely increased their exhaustion and hostility toward their children. Yet other research followed that has, if not debunked claims of the misery of parenting, then at least made them more nuanced.
A study last year from the Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business found that “parents’ happiness increases over time relative to non-parents.” Another 2014 paper, from the London School of Economics and the University of Western Ontario, determined that the first two children boost short-term happiness (which later returns to pre-birth levels), but not a third.
So while the long-held opinion that having children is the key to a fulfilling life may, indeed, be true for most people, contemporary popular culture habitually indicates otherwise.
Novels like Jenny Offil’s “Dept. of Speculation,” Lionel Shriver’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (and the film version) and Elisa Albert’s “After Birth” all portray the ambivalence and agonies of motherhood; the runaway best-seller “Go the ____to Sleep” was a release valve for irritably fatigued parents; and a popular blog is a mocking backlash to “parent overshare on social networking sites.”
With a few exceptions like NBC’s “Parenthood,” a paean to the titular vocation’s rewards (but which also didn’t shy away from the challenges of child rearing), TV parents are routinely sleep-deprived, harried, anxious, confused, cash-strapped, sexually frustrated or divorced, a far cry from the days of the comfortable and comforting stewards on “Family Ties,” “The Brady Bunch” and “Father Knows Best.”
And the children in these offerings are repeatedly depicted as the bratty, tyrannical rulers of their enslaved progenitors. Perhaps this is one reason that Andrea Dickstein, 34, a director of e-business and marketing communications who lives on Long Island, doesn’t want children.
“I think about having to attend or host children’s birthday parties, and it seems exhausting and unappealing,” she said. “Of course, the irony is I’m attending a colleague’s 2-year-old’s party this weekend. Maybe they’ll think I’m there to kidnap one.”
In a previous time, that statement would have been spoken in a whisper to evade censure. Now it’s anything but heretical, a standard line for people who not only see how difficult raising children can be, but for the generation that came of age as divorce rates spiked in the 1970s and ’80s (and which have since settled down some) and may be less optimistic about the classic nuclear family. For those who aren’t part of a cohesive familial unit that can provide different means of support, it’s far more daunting — emotionally and monetarily — to start a new clan.
Nonetheless, spouses without children are still frequently perceived as self-centered; the symbolic couple for this stereotype may be the Machiavellian Frank and Claire Underwood on “House of Cards,” for whom nothing gets in the way of political ambition.
Frank’s marriage proposal included the romantic pledge that “I’m not going to give you a couple of kids. … I promise you freedom from that.” Claire’s Lady Macbeth has had three abortions, one during one of her husband’s campaigns, which she lied about, claiming the pregnancy was the product of a rape. (She’s also been less than nurturing about other women’s pregnancies.)
A less toxic on-screen duo would be the 40-something Brooklyn couple played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts in Noah Baumbach’s new film, “While We’re Young.” Having suffered through a few miscarriages, and noticeably ill-at-ease around babies and children, they have decided, or at least claim, that they like their lives as they are, which is to say career-focused, responsibility-free and self-absorbed.
But “it’s the parents who are selfish,” said Mr. Dyer, pointing to families typically own larger cars and use up more resources. Regarding “any environmental consciousness, the needs of their family get ahead of everything else,” he said in an interview. “In terms of behaving in a civic way, I feel my behavior is always exemplary.”
His assertion is backed up by some studies showing that childless adults volunteer more for their community. In addition, their interest in leaving behind a better world has nothing to do with their own genetic line but with humanity itself. (Ms. Daum said that after she decided not to have children, she believed she “had to compensate by volunteering, doing more work, being there more for my friends.”)
One could also make the economic case that, with their taxes, childless couples are selflessly subsidizing the education and well-being of other people’s children (who provide tax breaks for their parents). Conversely, it is these parents’ descendants who will be taking care of the childless adults — and keeping society operational — when they are elderly.
“The fact is, everybody is selfish,” Ms. Daum said. “It’s like saying, ‘You breathe.’ Parents and non-parents need to think of themselves as partners. Kids need all sorts of role models, and not have every adult they know be somebody’s parent. We need to reframe the conversation, otherwise it just becomes, ‘Who’s more selfish?’ ”
Related to questions of egotism are those of class and reservations about participating in bourgeois child rearing, let alone their inability to meet its expenses.
Ms. Holmes’s essay touched upon “the creeping commodification of childhood in the form of must-have status symbols — baby carriages, sleeper clothing — and the economic inequalities and educational failures that find parents signing up their toddlers for placement in private elementary schools years in advance” as accounting “for some of the aversion I have for the demands of modern American parenthood.”
“From the outside, parenting today seems so harried and overwhelmed with Disney and plastic junk,” said Ms. Bolick, the author of “Spinster.” “Or you can be really rich and buy handmade Swedish wooden toys and curate your child’s life.”
She compared today’s modern accouterments of childhood with the simpler time of “when I grew up in the ’70s, when you sat a kid down with a bowl and a wooden spoon,” she said. (Pressed for clarification as to exactly which century her recreation with kitchenware occurred in, she maintained it was the 1970s, not the 1870s.)
Even some of the staunchest anti-reproduction advocates, though, concede that they may eventually second-guess their decision.
“There are regrets, but my entire life is an ocean of regret, and that’s just one drop in it,” Mr. Dyer said. “I would probably, in my 60s, be ready to start having kids, as long as I was spared all the stuff about it that doesn’t appeal to me. By then I’d have lost interest in practically everything, so there’d be no opportunity cost involved.”
But to do that, he acknowledged, “I’d have to trade in my wife for a younger model,” before cheekily adding, “Younger — and also a model, I’d hope.”
Mr. Dyer was recently awarded a Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, which comes with $150,000. When it was suggested to him that, after taxes, the money could have been used for almost two years of top-tier college tuition, Mr. Dyer had a less scholastic plan for his winnings.
“Instead it’s bought 20 years of beer drinking,” he said.