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.

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.

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

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 defeating Islamic State means taking on the digital caliphate

A new book by Liam Byrne explains that the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism.

The terrorist group Islamic State caught the world by surprise in June 2014 when it declared a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East. Within a few months, like an avenging fire, it had scorched across Syria and much of Iraq, carving out an empire stretching more than 400 miles from Aleppo to the Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek, which lies just 60 miles from the Iranian border.

IS, or Isis, or Da’esh, seemed unstoppable but it has now been pushed back, possibly decisively. Since 2014, it has lost an estimated 45,000 jihadists, as well as control of key towns and resources. Its enemies – Kurds, Iraqi troops and Shia militias – are in Iraq’s second city, Mosul, and are advancing on the group’s de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa. But, as the Labour MP Liam Byrne points out in this timely book, the fight against Isis and its brutal ideology has many fronts. Isis is obsessed with controlling territory and creating a global caliphate. But it existed for many years without territory. With its war on the world going badly, its digital caliphate is becoming ever more important.

In his wide-ranging and discursive study, Byrne concentrates on what is perhaps the most significant fight of all: the “battle of ideas”. His journey has taken him to northern Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. He makes his most interesting discoveries, however, in his own constituency of Birmingham Hodge Hill, where Muslims boast the highest share of the population (52 per cent) of any area in the UK.

Byrne concludes that Isis and other jihadi groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda are fundamentally heretical by nature. Essentially they are death cults, with as much relevance to most Muslims as David Koresh and Jim Jones had to “mainstream” Christians. Ironically, Isis claims to espouse the purest form of Islam, pursued in the 7th century by the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, it believes that it has the power to excommunicate apostates, an act known as takfir, and the right to exterminate them. This has metastasised into genocide, as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and, above all, Muslims in the Middle East can attest.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the group, which then called itself alQaeda, morphed with Saddam Hussein’s avowedly secular Ba’ath Party. In effect, this was the merger of a terrorist group and an embittered terror apparatus. The objective of Isis was to trigger conflict between Iraq’s Shia majority, which came to power after the invasion, and the Sunni minority, which had hitherto ruled the roost. The group’s global aim was to foment division between Muslims and everyone else.

Byrne believes the British government is making a critical mistake in its methods of combating home-grown extremism. It has bought in to a “clash of civilisations” doctrine that makes Islam the problem. In the UK, counter-extremism programmes such as Prevent are based on a “conveyor belt” theory that identifies religious conservatism as the trigger for radicalisation. But Byrne, citing security and academic sources, argues that anger and resentment, often engendered by a sense of marginalisation, are more powerful factors: “. . . the starting point for radicalisation may in fact be rage rather than religion”. Jihadists have often created their own version of Islam after conducting rudimentary research online; two Birmingham men convicted of fighting in Syria ordered copies of Islam for Dummies on Amazon before leaving for the front line.

We should – at the very least – recognise the true nature of the extremist threat we face. The US president-elect’s declared solutions to dealing with Isis include bombing “the shit out of ’em” and barring all Muslims from entering his country. Reason and rationality may seem in short supply these days, but they have a habit of returning once people tire of the dispiriting alternatives. In the meantime, we could do worse than reach for Byrne’s excellent, revealing and clear-sighted book.

Andrew Hosken is a BBC reporter and the author of “Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State” (Oneworld)

Black Flag Down: Counter-Extremism, Defeating Isis and Winning the Battle of Ideas by Liam Byrne is published by Biteback (258pp, £12.99​)

Liam Byrne and Michael Gove will discuss Isis, Islamist terror and the “battle of ideas” with the NS contributing writer Shiraz Maher on 12 December in London. To book tickets visit newstatesman.co.uk/events or call 020 3096 5789​

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage