Books – Review
No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood
Fall 2013 issue
One of the first rules of writing is to avoid writing about the absence of things. As a result, I don’t write about weird reactions I get when people learn I don’t have children. These interactions are both overt (“You don’t have a lot of time left!”) and subtle (“Who will take care of you when you’re old?”).
The brilliance of Henriette Mantel’s anthology, No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood is that it combines smart-ass answers with touching and honest responses to these questions. Its 36 contributors—many of them comedians and entertainers, including Margaret Cho and former Saturday Night Live actress Nora Dunn—offer a composite, if not an ethnically diverse one, of women who have nurtured their careers or relationships with younger stepchildren, nieces and nephews, or children of friends instead of starting their own families. Some of them chose to stay childfree; for others, time passed and so did the expiration date on their eggs (their words, not mine).
That phrase we all love, “Having it all,” is a resounding theme throughout the pieces, since this generation of feminists got the message that having it all meant having a nuclear heterosexual family unit while also having a well-paying gig. In “All of It,” Dunn writes: “Women without children don’t really know what we’re missing, though we feel times that we missed the boat . . . No one but a childless woman can understand how much work it takes not to have a child and how off-putting it is to particularly smug women who have children and a career and a husband and an endless series of private Pilates.”
Maureen Langan, like a few other writers in the anthology, has a pretty good response to the smug parents in “Sitting on the Fence.” “I may not be anyone’s official mother, but I have done a lot of mothering in my life. I was more of a mother when I should have been more of a child. I don’t resent it. Life isn’t always linear or chronological. In fact, I’m glad I got to experience that mothering energy…It’s why I can be okay without having children because I have nurtured.” A couple of contributors make the case for being unapologetically unnurturing. In “Mother to No One,” Andrea Carla Michaels describes herself as the woman with two pairs of glasses on her head, more than one cat, and zero mothering energy. “I’ve never actually wanted children, but I don’t usually think about what I don’t have or define myself by others’ terms. Yet, despite my best efforts, I’ve accidentally become one of those women who, folks joke, will die alone, my cats eaten off half my face.”
Like good writers, these authors don’t define themselves by the absence of children the same way that society and popular culture often do. Instead, they have found ways to define themselves for themselves. They travel. They perform. They have lovers and partners. Most important, they are brave enough to admit in public that they like other people’s kids but they’re not having any of their own. In her honest and compelling essay, “I Kid You Not,” Kathryn Rossetter sums up a lot of the other sentiments in the book: “I have doubted or second-guessed almost every choice I’ve made in my life: what to eat, where to live, what to wear, who to date, what I should have said, what I should have done. Every choice except one—that I wanted to be married when I had kids. That is the one choice I made and stuck to in my life, and it turned out to be the defining choice of my existence. For it determined that I would journey through life childless…I will never know what I don’t know.”
RECOMMENDED IF: You’ve ever felt completely alone as a childless woman above the age of 22 with no intentions of ever having kids.