Stork fetish: our cultures encourage us to believe that the breeding instinct is universal. Photo: Bridgeman Images
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Caught in the parent trap: the fierce social politics of not having children

Why don't I have children? The answer is simple: I never reached the point where I wanted them.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids
Edited by Meghan Daum
Picador US, 282pp, $26

A few years ago, I received an email from a famous actor I had interviewed for a men’s magazine. The message was short and larky. First, she thanked me for the piece, which she had found interesting and rather “sweet”. Then she confessed to a certain amount of relief because, well, you never know with journalists, do you? And then she signed off. Beneath her name, however, there floated a PS. It consisted of just three words. “HAVE A BABY,” she’d written, this beautiful movie star with whom I had eaten lunch.

Naturally, I was outraged by her blithe addendum. Oh, the things people feel able to say to those who do not have children. And yet I understood it. Over lunch, I had struggled to explain why I was almost sure I didn’t want to try to get pregnant; perhaps she had mistaken my hesitation for ambivalence. Even now, my position having settled into dead certainty thanks to biology, it is still fearfully hard to order my thoughts. For one thing, there is the knowledge that whatever I write will only provoke vitriol. In the 21st century, the subject of motherhood, whatever your angle, must be approached with extreme caution, hazard suit at the ready. The last time I wrote about my childlessness, the nice people on Mumsnet established a thread whose sole purpose was to destroy my character.

For another, when we talk about elective childlessness, we are dealing not in facts but with feelings so complex and deep-rooted they cannot easily be fathomed – assuming that we want to fathom them in the first place. Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, a new collection of essays about childlessness edited by Meghan Daum, has a subtitle that refers to the “decision” not to have children. But is this right? The word suggests a moment that many of its contributors never experienced. For them, as for me, the “decision” in question is akin to the “decision” to have blue eyes. It’s a part of us, impossible to change. As the cartoonist Tim Kreider writes in his essay, “The End of the Line”: “It simply never even occurred to me to have children, any more than it occurred to me to enlist in the Coast Guard or take up Brazilian jujitsu.”

Why don’t I have children? The answer is simple: I never reached a point where I wanted them. When I turned 40, I wondered if it would happen. Would I grow demented with baby lust? But no. The war against pregnancy did not let up; those anxious days every month continued just as before. It sounds silly yet even now, over 40 and (touch wood) happily married, I still inwardly punch the air when my period starts.

Ask me the question again, though, and this time I’ll tell you that it is also the opposite of simple. There are so many reasons. Some, up to and including my morbid fear of scattered toys, are trivial. Others are rather grave. I hated being a child and as a result have no desire to inflict that state on anyone else, especially not someone I love. I fear the thwartedness I recognised in my mother. I tend in life only to do things at which I have a strong chance of being good (parenthood would not be one). I have three adored sisters who are much younger than me, so perhaps my maternal “instincts” were satisfied early on. Above all, I have always set great store – perhaps too great – by Philip Larkin and his coastal shelf. The example of my own parents did not suggest that children necessarily equal happiness and fulfilment, something that has only been confirmed to me in the years since, during which childhood, at least among the middle classes, has grown ever more competitive and commodified. (I could honestly vomit when I hear the schedules of certain 12-year-olds of my acquaintance.)

But you’re reading a book review, not playing the shrink while I take a good, long lie-down on your couch. Suffice to say that my feelings when I picked up Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed were mixed. Part of me thought: yes, let’s sock it to the smug bastards. But I felt weary, too. Why should we, the childless, always have to justify ourselves? What is there left to say? Why don’t we just lead our lives and let that be its own example?

As it turns out, my doubt wasn’t misplaced. Daum’s collection is patchy and pretty shoddily edited (“disinterested” for “uninterested” and so on). It is also solipsistic in ways that won’t do its cause any good at all. If you’re putting a book together, it is wise to ask writers to get involved, as opposed to, say, models or accountants or landscape architects. Yet I wonder why this one’s editor and so many of its contributors regard their chosen profession as a special case, as if writing were more important work than nursing or presiding over a courtroom or driving a train. It really isn’t.

I don’t buy the myth, to which several of its essayists subscribe, that great writers – particularly great female writers – can’t be parents. Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro are mothers; so, too, are Zadie Smith, Marilynne Robinson and Siri Hustvedt. The Bugaboo in the hall is certainly a distraction; apart from anything else, its wheels are so huge, you’ll struggle to get past it and into your study unless you live in an embassy. But the truth is that writing can be made to fit around family life in a way that most other work can’t, simply by dint of the fact that, in extremis, you can ply your living at the kitchen table. At moments, this special pleading becomes seriously embarrassing. Those who refer here to their books as their children, or who draw casual comparisons between their lives and those of Virginia Woolf or George Eliot, neither of whom was a parent, would sound a good deal more convincing if they were even a tenth as talented themselves. (The worst offender on this score is the novelist Sigrid Nunez, whose dreary, plodding essay, “The Most Important Thing”, is notable for just one thing: its crazed self-regard.)

More than once while I was reading Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed I found myself thinking that, yes, this or that writer did sound selfish, shallow and self-absorbed – a spectacular own-goal in the circumstances. American non-fiction of this kind (with the exception of Geoff Dyer, all its writers are American) often sounds to British ears like the product of too much therapy rather than of deep thought, but some of these essays are worse than that, shading into self-help, trite and simplistic. It was moving to read about the childhood of Danielle Henderson, a Seattle-based journalist who was abused by her stepfather and abandoned by her mother. But when she informed me that she had finally decided to lavish on herself the love she might have given any children, I’m afraid my sympathy shrivelled.

Equally ghastly are those writers whose attitude can be summed up as: I may be wrong but I think I’m wonderful. Anna Holmes, a columnist for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, writes that she decided not to have children after realising that she would have made too good a mother: so good, in fact, that there would have been no room in her life for anything else. Rosemary Mahoney, an award-winning non-fiction writer who at one time tried to get pregnant using a sperm donor, realised in the end that she would – oh, yuck – love any child far too much to be a good parent. Too many also waste time emphasising how much they adore kids, which seems to me to be obvious and beside the point. Just because I dislike gardening doesn’t mean I don’t love walking in the park.

The best essays in the book have writers who don’t even try to seek the reader’s approval. Laura Kipnis’s “Maternal Instincts” is a fierce and fairly closely argued repudiation of the concept of the natural as it is now applied to women and their biology. As she points out, when rates of child mortality in England were at their highest, before 1800, maternal attachment ran far lower (parents, for instance, often gave their offspring the names of siblings who’d died before them; they also used wet nurses). Only once children’s economic value had begun to decline, and birth rates had dropped accordingly, did society begin to connect motherhood with emotional fulfilment. Kipnis regards a maternal instinct as a social and historical construct, and one that is wholly pernicious to boot. In its thrall, women forget to demand their rights in the matter of childcare, single-handedly shouldering the burdens at home like good little biological determinists when they should really be out on the streets demanding reparation.

For similar reasons – fierceness, indignation, honesty – I enjoyed both M G Lord’s account of her girlfriend’s decision to adopt a baby, a move she found so bewildering she had to leave her, and Paul Lisicky’s mild amazement at finding that the gay world had suddenly woken up to the possibility of babies (his essay is an elegant and warm variation on the theme that half of the point of being gay used to be that you were childless and frequently fancy-free). There is something straightforwardly disarming, too, about those essayists who talk openly about how either timing affected their attitudes to babies (when it’s off, it’s off) or their mental health did (both Kate Christensen and Elliott Holt describe psychiatric problems that, for them, ultimately ruled out pregnancy).

Only one writer, however, aces it: Geoff Dyer. He blows everyone else out of the water, nailing instantly the grim paradox by which those who have an absolute lack of interest in children attract the “opprobrium normally reserved for paedophiles”. In an Islington park, for instance, his tennis partner once yelled at some pesky kids to “GO AWAY”, whereupon a mob of middle-class mummies descended on him as if he had “exposed himself”. It makes Dyer sick, this kind of scene, which leads him to think his feelings about kids might be inseparable from his class antagonism: “I sometimes wonder if my aversion to having kids is because if I did have one he or she would be middle-class, with all the attendant expectations: the kind of child on whose behalf I’d make calls to friends at the Guardian or Faber & Faber about a possible internship after he or she had graduated from Oxford or Cambridge.”

Hmm. I will certainly console myself by quoting Dyer under my breath next time I’m on a crowded number 38 bus and all the old ladies are forced to stand while all the children merrily wiggle their Boden-clad bottoms on the itchy London Transport moquette.

Unlike almost everyone else in Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed, Dyer isn’t bothered whether his life has a purpose; he is happy in the void, thanks, and doesn’t require it to be filled with kids or, for that matter, anything else (the exaltation of the writing life is as abhorrent to him as the exaltation of children – which really made me wish that Daum had posted his essay to certain of his fellow contributors). What about regret? Those who have children are always using the R-word, as in: “If you don’t have kids, you might regret it later.” I even know a few people who have acted on this warning, as though reproduction was just some kind of weird insurance policy.

Dyer, though, isn’t having it. “Life,” he writes, “may not have a purpose, but it certainly has consequences, one of which is the accumulation of a vast, coastal shelf of uncut, 100 per-cent-pure-regret. And this will happen whether you have no kids, one kid, or a dozen.” Is it possible to put this on a T-shirt? Or one of those write-your-own Tatty Devine necklaces? If it were, I would do it. Right now.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special

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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.