The 16 essays—variously funny, devastating, infuriating, insightful, and, yes, occasionally smug—not only dismantle the assumption of selfishness, they shed light on a stigma that’s remained stubbornly pervasive well into the 21st century, even as other formerly taboo lifestyles have become thoroughly mainstream. In 2015, thanks in no small part to the success of various works of fiction, it’s more acceptable to talk about wanting to be beaten by a sexual partner than it is to express honestly and openly a deliberate intent to not procreate.
“Shame,” writes the psychotherapist Jeanne Safer in one essay, “—for being selfish, unfeminine, or unable to nurture—is one of the hardest emotions to work through for women who are conflicted about having children.” In 1989, Safer wrote a magazine article about her “conscious decision not to have a child,” but was so aware of the thorny territory she was wading into that she published it under a pseudonym. The article became a book, Beyond Motherhood: Choosing a Life Without Children, and Safer became a figurehead for all the likeminded women who felt, she writes, “that someone was speaking for them at last.”
Twenty-six years later, the women Safer interviewed tell her they’re more than happy with their choices, but still the shadow of shame lingers. “Any person who marries but rejects procreation is seen as unnatural,” writes the author Sigrid Nunez in another essay. “But a woman who confesses never to have felt the desire for a baby is considered a freak. Women have always been raised to believe they would not be complete and could not be thought to have succeeded in life without the experience of motherhood.”
The concept of the innate biological desire to have a baby is a familiar one, repeated throughout books and television shows and emotional anecdotes about how friends and family members were suddenly gripped with a burning desire to get pregnant. But for women who’ve never felt such an urge, and who keep waiting for it to happen without ever experiencing any such stirrings, the notion can be alienating. “I finally said to myself, I don’t really want to have a baby, I want to want to have a baby,” writes Safer. “I longed to feel like everyone else, but I had to face the fact that I did not.” If you're of child-bearing age, it can indeed feel like Facebook feeds are flooded with bump selfies and sonograms and baby pictures. In the 1970s, one in ten women reached menopause without giving birth to a child. But by 2010, it was one in five, according to data gathered by the Pew Research Center, and one in four for women with a bachelor’s degree. A quarter of educated American women are getting through life without ever having children.
The inextricable links between increased education and intelligence, and opting out of procreation, are underscored by Laura Kipnis, a cultural critic who writes one of the more explicitly feminist essays in the book. Referring to the activist Shulamith Firestone, who believed that “childbearing was barbaric and pregnancy should be abolished,” Kipnis ponders the value of equating motherhood with “such supposedly ‘natural’ facts as maternal instinct and mother-child bonds,” which, she writes, “exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment in history, not as eternal conditions.” The concept of profound maternal affection, she argues, was invented in the 19th century after both birth and child mortality rates started to decline. Before that, women couldn’t afford to get attached to infants that had a 15 to 30 percent chance of not reaching their first birthday. Ditto the concept of mother-child bonding, which coincided with the rise of industrialization, “when wage labor first became an option for women” and it became important to impress upon them the significance of staying home. The reason why fewer women are giving birth in Western countries, Kipnis says, is education.
Though no one exactly says it, women are voting with their ovaries, and the reason is simple. There are too few social supports, especially given the fact that the majority of women are no longer just mothers now, they’re mother-workers. Yet virtually no social policy accounts for this. Interestingly, women with the most education are the ones having the fewest children, though even basic literacy has a negative effect on birthrates in the developing world—the higher the literacy rate, the lower the birthrate. In other words, when women acquire critical skills and start weighing their options, they soon wise up to the fact that they’re not getting enough recompense for their labors.
That critical thinking plays a role in falling birthrates is backed up by a study conducted at Kansas State University, in which researchers found that “people’s desire to have children is most influenced by the positive and negative interactions, and the trade-offs.” These are detailed elegantly in an essay by Lionel Shriver, the author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a book in which a mother’s life is ruined by her psychopathic son. “I could have afforded children, financially,” Shriver writes. “I just didn’t want them. They are untidy, they would have messed up my apartment. In the main, they are ungrateful. They would have siphoned away too much time from my precious books.”