SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Sunday, May 12, 2013

No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood:

Bay Area writers answer comic’s call to tell their stories in anthology celebrating choice not to have children

Henriette Mantel was at a book event listening to women read essays about their children several years ago, when she realized she’d had enough.

“I never even thought about having kids,” said Mantel, a comedy writer in New York. “I think about it as much as I think about brain surgery.”

And so, as the national day for heaping gifts on mothers nears, she and a group of 36 other writers, several of them from the Bay Area, are speaking up about another often made but less publicly celebrated choice — not to have kids. They tell their stories in the recently published No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, which they hope will spark conversation and perhaps consideration of a new holiday tradition, Non Moms Day.

The book is a candid, often funny collection of perspectives, ranging from women who never had the urge to those who were ambivalent or who accepted or were relieved by infertility. It’s not that these writers don’t like kids. Most of them do, at least on a case-by-case basis. They just don’t want to take them home.

“There is nothing wrong with being kid-centric,” said Mantel, who edited the collection, including pieces by comic Nora Dunn, novelist Laurie Graff, and San Francisco–born comic Margaret Cho. “But don’t you want to hear something else once in a while?”

The book lands at a time when an increasing number of women don’t have kids by their mid-40s — nearly 20 percent in 2010, up from about 10 percent in the 1970s, according to the Pew Research Center. Child-free singles and couples around the country seek each other out on the Internet for meet-ups (and in one case for nude wine tastings) where they don’t have to talk about offspring. Another book on the subject, Jen Kirkman’s I Can Barely Take Care of Myself, also was published in April.

Andrea Carla Michaels, a San Francisco writer, comic, and naming consultant, had never tried to write about her child-free path until last summer, when Mantel contacted her to ask if she’d contribute to the book. The two knew each other from their days performing stand-up comedy in the 1980s.

Since then Michaels had worked as a television comedy and game show writer. She’d had significant relationships, one with a man who wanted kids when she did not. (They are still friends.) She also had traveled, won a motor home on “Wheel of Fortune,” written crossword puzzles for the New York Times, and been paid to name everything from an airline to a parasite-free potato. What she had not done was had kids, gotten married, or bought a house.

“I don’t define myself by what I don’t have. I don’t walk around saying, ‘I’m not married. I don’t have kids,'” she said, sitting in her Nob Hill apartment one day recently as her cat, Blackjack, clung precariously to the back of her chair. She is close to her niece and nephew, but she never even set out to have a cat.

“I am not even his mother,” she said, looking at Blackjack, whom she brought home from a Scrabble tournament in Arizona after he suddenly appeared and refused to leave her alone. Now, although he is prone to swatting at her and climbing her arms and legs as if he were scaling a tree, she is attached to him, joking in her essay that perhaps she will be the lady who dies alone, “my cats having eaten off half my face.”

Now in her 50s, she realizes that people assume she is a mother, and she is not averse to giving advice. But she can’t understand why people would ask her — or any other woman — why she doesn’t have children when they would never ask the reverse — “Why did you have that kid?”

Booksmith-event3Maureen Langan, Vanda Mikoloski, Andrea Carla Michaels, and Bernadette Luckett at Booksmith, San Francisco, May 13, 2013.

In Mantel’s bittersweet essay, she mourns a connection with the 11-year-old daughter of a man she once loved. She misses the girl more than the man, but doesn’t confuse her affection for free-floating child cravings. “I confirmed once again it’s hard to beat the joy I feel when a kid is laughing,” she concludes. “But do I want or need that kid laughing to come out of my own loins? Absolutely not.”

Maureen Langan, a comic and KGO radio talk show host who divides her time between New York and the Bay Area, said she always figured that marriage and kids were “down the road.” She ultimately was relieved when she realized, after several miscarriages, that she couldn’t have kids.

“That kind of energy had been exhausted,” she said. “I wanted to explore other parts of me.”

She knows she is the kind of person who wants to do what she wants when she wants to do it. But the issue of whether to have kids was never a “declarative topic” before and she hopes her essay, titled “Sitting on the Fence,” won’t upset her family, particularly her mother, who comes from a big Irish family.

“I love kids,” she said. “I like to talk to them at a party. But do I want to dedicate my life to them? No. But if I had them …” Her voice drifted off. “I am truly ambivalent.”

Bernadette Luckett, a comic and writer who lives in Berkeley and has mentored wounded war veterans for the show and documentary Comedy Warriors, said she’d never given a lot of thought to why she didn’t have kids before she started her essay. She’d been too busy living her life.

“All these ideas started flooding through my mind,” she said. “I never really felt like I had to explain myself. The only thing that really bothered me was (people saying) you’ve never been married? What’s wrong with you?”

In their first scheduled Bay Area appearance, local contributors will gather for a reading at the Booksmith in San Francisco on what Michaels hopes will become a regular Non Moms Day, falling right after Mother’s Day. (Hello, Hallmark?)

“We’re trying to get the discussion going,” she said. “You know, this is a legitimate choice and it’s just not discussed.”

Upcoming events for “No Kidding”: 7 p.m. June 6. Books Inc., Opera Plaza, S.F.

Katherine Seligman is a San Francisco freelance writer. E-mail: style@sfchronicle.com

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