No Kidding edited by Henriette Mantel (2013)

Book review: No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood edited by Henriette Mantel (Seal Press, 2013)

No KiddingIn No Kidding, comedy writer Henriette Mantel tackles the topic of actually not having kids. This fascinating collection features a star-studded group of contributors—including Margaret Cho, Wendy Liebman, Laurie Graff, and other accomplished, funny women—writing about why they opted out of motherhood. Whether their reasons have to do with courage, apathy, monetary considerations, health issues, or something else entirely, the essays featured in the pages of No Kidding honestly (and humorously) delve into the minds of women who have chosen what they would call a more sane path.

Hilarious, compelling, and inspiring, No Kidding reveals a perspective that has too long been hidden, shamed, and silenced—and celebrates an entire population of women who have decided that kids are just not right for them.

I jumped at the chance of reading this essay compilation written by women who do not have children, and for the most part, never planned on having any, but who are fine with it. Proud, even. We do need more childfree women to speak up and say that it’s okay to decide against breeding, because (as so many of these essays mention) women who decide against motherhood are seen as either weird, entirely selfish or as child-hating shrews. Why not throw a “crazy cat lady” in there as well for good measure?

To generalise, but I’m sure there are exceptions:

  • women who choose not to breed aren’t weirder than people who have children – it’s all about the individual, y’all, not about whether or not she procreates
  • women who choose not to breed aren’t entirely selfish – in fact, it’s often out of concern for the would-be child that they have decided not to have children (be it for concern about their mothering skills or for our overpopulated planet)
  • women who choose not to breed aren’t child-hating shrews – many work with children or have nieces and nephews that they dote on and love as if they were their own
  • women who choose not to breed aren’t crazy cat ladies – although some prefer to lay all their love and nurturing skills on raising pets (may or may not include felines) instead of children
  • women who choose not to breed don’t automatically look down on the women who do choose motherhood and/or see them as inferior – it’s more like “you have chosen to have kids and I haven’t, and that’s all there is to it” or “you chose motherhood, good for you”, and there’s no begrudging those who happily announce being pregnant or having given birth

The only thing that’s different between a woman who has children and one who decides against them is  that for one reason or another, she has decided that being called “mum” isn’t necessarily her primary goal in life. I talk about women here, but for those with partners, it’s a couple decision. The book happens to be written entirely by women, for other women (primarily), so that’s why I’m leaving the men out of this.

For some reason, though, a lot of people react in very peculiar ways when you say that you don’t have children, nor do you plan on having any. I’ve mentioned this before, when reviewing Childfree and Loving It! some time ago. You’re met with varying degrees of disbelief and/or scorn, and being patronised. It’s “you’ll change your mind, just wait and see” or “you’ll grow out of it” or – well, take your pick, really. Maybe it’s a generation thing, I don’t know. When asked by friends, they tend to go “okay, fair enough”, and leave it at that.

The essays here are all written by women whose fertility has already been and gone, so maybe that’s partly why I found it difficult relating to so many of these stories. I’m not there age-wise yet, I don’t have the correct answer sheet in front of me and can look back and analyse the situation from the “safety” of menopause. I still, deep down, want to be reassured I’m doing the right thing, and this isn’t too reassuring.

Some of the authors (all seem to work in the entertainment industry one way or another – also not really something to which most of us can relate) knew as children that they just weren’t keen on the idea of having children, most of them assumed that they’d become mothers as adults, and some have fur babies instead.

Sadly, most (if not all) of the essays feel as if the author is trying to justify the decision to herself and the world, and a lot of them contain the phrase “I love children, don’t get me wrong” or words to that ilk. Why do we feel the need to keep repeating that phrase? If it was about anything else, we wouldn’t question why people don’t have it. “You don’t want a yacht so therefore you hate boats/the sea” or “You don’t want a Mac so therefore you hate Apple” (okay, bad example) or “You don’t want a dog so therefore you hate dogs”. None of those. But very nearly always “You don’t want a child so therefore you hate children”. NOT SO!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: just because you don’t want a baby/child for yourself, for whatever reason, doesn’t mean you lack the ability to love children.* You also don’t automatically lack a nurturing skill – heck, my cats are my babies. It’s just that I can deal with having a four-footed bewhiskered fur baby, but I wouldn’t be able to cope with a two-footed bediapered human baby, and I want people to respect that not everyone longs for parenthood.

My (extraverted) mother looked puzzled and said “but surely that’s a good thing?” when I tried explaining that one of the reasons for not wanting a child was to avoid being overwhelmed (what with both of us being very introverted and needing a lot of space and alone time). In fact, that she felt compelled to interrogate me about my reasons for declining motherhood was annoying enough. I decided a couple of years ago to come clean, as it were, and tell her that she shouldn’t expect grandkids from us because we weren’t planning on multiplying (not phrased in that particular way, obviously), and instead of saying “oh, well, that’s disappointing because I was hoping you would” she went down the route of telling me to list every reason for that decision so she could counter-argue every point in some strange attempt at changing our minds, because obviously, we were just misinformed, and if she put us right, we’d plop out grandkids in no time.** If people in general could stop questioning childfree people’s motives and just accept that we’ve decided against having children, it would be much appreciated, thanks. You can have them as much as you want, that’s completely your decision, but please stop pestering those of us who don’t.

Oh right, yes, the book.

No Kidding is funny at times (a lot of the women have stand-up comedy careers), oftentimes interesting, but it feels more like the sort of book you’d give your childfree, [post-]menopausal aunt at Christmas, as a “there, there, you’re not the only one who didn’t get to have kids” because for a 30-year-old woman, there wasn’t much there. It’s as if the women in the book have chosen careers instead of kids or that they thought “maybe later” and then it was too late (some of them have even been pregnant at one point or another). The point remains that they’re all sitting there unable to have children because the fertility train has passed. What about those of us who could (in theory) still have children?

There was nothing there to really convince me either way. Sure, I agreed with some of them about the overcrowding of the world, and never really caring much for baby dolls as children, and simply preferring scooping out a litter tray as opposed to changing diapers, but the tone of the book, to me, is more that of retrospective lament and an almost apologetic feeling. “I didn’t have kids and now it’s too late, but I’m okay with that because I’ve done other things in my life instead.” In a way, it feels more like “you might regret it later, but really, it’s fine to not have kids”.

Perhaps it’s also because I can’t relate to the number of contributors who never planned on getting married either (I didn’t have my wedding day planned out even while we exchanged rings, to be honest, but I always liked the idea of marriage), or who are happy cougars, or that sort of thing. Or who had lots and lots of brothers and sisters (I have two), or traumatic childhoods.

But No Kidding is a good read. Always fascinating to read about other people, and it’s nice to know that you’re not alone – or, rather, you won’t feel alone when you’re in your 50s – but I would’ve preferred it if the authors were more spread out in ages and professions.

For those in my age range, who might have made up their mind to be childfree, or who are umming and aahing about parenthood, I’d recommend Nicki Defago’s Childfree and Loving It! from 2005 instead, because it will be a lot more helpful in making your mind up one way or the other, and then reassure you that you’ve made the right decision, whatever that decision may be.

3.7 out of 5 fur babies.

* In case you’re wondering, because judging from what I’ve been talking about, you are (especially if you are a parent): I have nieces and nephews that I love and would do anything for. The oldest one is going to study animal care later this year (all the time I’ve known her, she’s said that she wants to be a vet, and now she’s starting that journey for real – I’m so proud of her!), and the youngest one’s smiles can light up a whole room, because yes, he really is that adorable. We also have the privilege of being mentors to our friends’ first-born, a delightful boy with special needs who has recently been joined by a little sister, whom I’m looking forward to meeting in person. So no, I don’t hate children. I’ve just decided I’d prefer other people to have them instead of me personally.

** In hindsight, mum realised she over-reacted at the time, and I think she apologised too. A couple of years later, she can’t wait to come see the new additions to our family, as she’s now resigned to the idea that all the English grandchildren she’ll ever get have four paws and a tail.

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