No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood
“I cried for my disappointments. I cried for my mistakes, I cried for my losses. I was a failure as a woman. No one loved me enough to commit to me. I was embarrassed. I felt I needed to apologize for my life. I screamed at God and cried out for my mother. I was not going to ‘have it all.’ I cried and cried and my body shook until all I could do was fall asleep…” –Kathryn Rossetter
To have children or not to have children – a private reality that devils women of a certain age, and often seems to be the first thing people notice, and the last thing they stop talking about. Diving headfirst into a topic that is every bit as private and personal as your favorite sexual position – yet often times treated conversationally as fair game by friends and strangers alike – No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood drags out into the open a woman’s decision to not have children in a fresh and compelling way.
Edited by Henriette Mandel with a forward by Jennifer Coolidge, yes – Stiffler’s mom Jennifer Coolidge – I started reading No Kidding with trepidation. What would I learn about women who didn’t have children (like me), of a certain age (like me)? Would I feel better or would I feel worse? Would I feel camaraderie or would I throw my hands up in annoyance, wondering why life sometimes feels like a bad parody of bad TV? The answer is, none of the above. No Kidding illuminates the angles of the non-motherhood experience in a way that helped me feel less alone, and also made me feel lonelier than ever – sometimes all at once. I don’t always want to face my singleness – sometimes I want to run away from it and pretend it isn’t happening, but that never changes the facts. And the facts are, like the 37 women who penned essays for this book, it’s becoming more and more clear that traditional motherhood is not in the cards for me. Relationships with children and young people I do not lack. I have two delightful nieces and two rascally nephews whom I love to distraction; I have bosom friends whose children I love as if they were my own; I have kids to love and there have been, and are, children in my life that I love and need, just like a partner. But my own children? My own blood and DNA and chromosomes? That I do not have.
Which makes me think No Kidding is very important. It is important to the single woman, home alone and crying under her covers after realizing that at 45 years old, life is not going to, in fact, let her have “it all”; it’s important to the husband of the woman who struggled for years to conceive before finally deciding to release herself (and him) from the hamster wheel and see what other life she could metaphorically birth. It’s important for anyone who has looked at herself in the mirror and said, “I don’t want children … do I?” or known assertively in her heart, “No, I do.not.want.to.have.children.”
For so long, the defining role for a woman, motherhood, was the path that the majority of women were expected to follow at some point in their lives. (And I guess to some extent it’s still the path that women are expected to follow. And the crux of this whole situation is, I always did want children. I wanted to be a mother and to give my life over to this opportunity, it just never presented itself. But I digress.) Certainly for my generation, those brooding, subdued yet brilliant Gen X’ers, motherhood was something most of us probably grew up being told was a rite of passage for women. For us. You “will” grow up, you “will” get married, and you “will” have a baby. Dot period. Yet perplexingly, life didn’t follow this path, and for many of us – that meant life didn’t walk our feet into our gynecologist’s office for our first pre-natal, or into Babies “R” Us for our first diaper purchase, or to the pre-school for our first parent-teacher meeting.
Instead, life walked many of us into our hot new boyfriend’s bedroom; into the dressing room at Barney’s; the designer sale racks at DSW and into our favorite corner bar at 5:30 p.m. on Friday night. It walked us onto trains, planes and automobiles for vacations, get-aways, and fresh starts in cities near and far. It walked us into our quiet homes which we paid for out of our own single person’s salaries, and which we may or may not share with a partner or husband, and it forced us to face our choice? Decision? to not have children with brevity, with tears, with happiness and with sadness – with all the emotions that come with realizing children are not part of our equation.
The essays in No Kidding eloquently touch on all of these realities without coming across as bitter or smug – even if they feel bitter or smug. In fact, the writers, comediennes, performers and women who contributed to this collection, including Nora Dunn, Julie Halston, Laurie Graff, Bernadette Luckett, Suzy Soro, Margaret Cho, Amy Stiller and Wendy Liebman together give voice to the anguish, sadness, elation, joy, misery, loneliness, and confusion that remaining childless – whether by choice or by circumstance – actually is with elegance and aspiration. I found myself laughing with tears, crying with laughter, and everything in-between. But even more interesting to me was the amount of times I found myself agreeing with what these women were saying, with the number of times I said out loud to my empty living room, “Yes! I have felt exactly that way!”
It’s a tough thing, to capture with so many different opinions the voice of an experience, but in No Kidding, Mantel has brought together a selection of prose that succeeds – and succeeds exceedingly well. As Jennifer Coolidge remarks in her foreword, “It’s clear to me that kids are not in my future. My childbearing years are gone, and to some this fact would be disconcerting. Instead, I take comfort in the camaraderie I share with these cool women who face the same reality.” As a childless woman, approaching the end of her childbearing years, I couldn’t agree more. There is an incredible comfort in knowing that someone else has gnashed her teeth on the couch at 3 a.m., wondering why the universe has forsaken her, has forsaken her young woman dreams and wishes for love and family. It’s comforting to know that no matter our child-status, women continue to find new ways to define and re-define the roles that are given to us, and that through this process, we all continue to create a peace with ourselves, and with the crap that life sometimes routinely dishes out.
“I didn’t have an abusive childhood. I had an abusive adulthood” notes Amy Stiller, and I think all women who have bypassed parenthood can agree: it’s not easy, this adult path we walk with no children, and an ally is a good thing to have. No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood is that ally. Spend some time with these cool ladies. You won’t regret it.