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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The cult of clean eating in a fast-food nation

In Britain, it used to be vulgar to comment on one’s food. Now, it’s a bit weird not to.

These are the top food trends that the British media predicted for 2016: seaweed, parsnip puddings and sprouted seeds. And yet what was the most popular recipe on BBC Good Food, the country’s biggest cooking site? Lemon drizzle cake. When it comes to the food that we eat, the gulf between fantasy and fact has never been wider.

A third of British children are overweight, yet from the pictures tagged as “kids’ food” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram you would think they lived on pumpkin muffins and raw breakfast cereal. The same site boasts 290,229 posts on #avocadotoast and a mere 7,219 for #baconbutty, but I would bet my best spiraliser that we eat more of the latter.

Food trends have always been the preserve of those wealthy enough to enjoy the luxury of choice. If social media had been around in the 18th century, the exotic pineapple would have been trending heavily even as the majority of Britons subsisted on bread and gruel. Yet rarely have these fads been so hard to ignore: right now, we are a society obsessed with our stomachs . . . or, at least, our eyes, given that these seem to do much of the consuming.

The average British adult spends five hours a week watching, reading about, browsing and posting about food – and just four cooking it. A record 14.8 million of us tuned in to the final of The Great British Bake Off – almost as many as saw England’s dismal performance against Iceland in last year’s Euros – yet the most commonly eaten meal in the UK is a sandwich. That conjures a depressing image of each one of us sitting in front of a screen, scrolling through endless pictures of kale smoothies and activated quinoa as we tuck in to a floppy BLT.

A nation in which it was once considered vulgar to comment on one’s food has turned into one where it’s a bit weird not to. The current feverish interest in all things culinary feels, I imagine, like the Sixties must have done after Britain discovered sex “Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”. And as with the sexual revolution and its fantasies of free love and cosmic joy through tantric chanting, perhaps the idea is more popular than the reality: increasingly, this endless parade of recipes cooked and meals eaten seems to be about more than the food itself.

While sex has (largely) thrown off its ancient shackles of judgement and shame, our diets are increasingly becoming their own morality tale. Once upon a time, “bad food” meant adulterated food – cheese dyed using lead, bread bleached with chalk – or perhaps cruel food, such as battery-farmed eggs. Occasionally someone who seemed to take too much pleasure in their meals might feel the weight of the country’s Protestant past, but wholesome food was generally seen as good rather than sinful.

Social media can’t be wholly to blame for the demonising of simple nourishment in the 21st century. Writing in the Observer last year, the philosopher Julian Baggini cited Salman Rushdie’s “naughty but nice” cream-cake advertising slogan from the Seventies as an early example; but “wicked” food was once a largely playful concept. Now, it is hard to find the humour in the modern idea of clean eating or, indeed, in its “dirty” dark side.

Clean eating, if you’ve been lucky enough to have avoided the torrent of smoothie bowls and bone broths pouring forth from screen, billboard and printed page in recent years, is a way of life (most adherents reject the word “diet”) with many rules – the Hemsley sisters’ “simple, mindful and intuitive” approach for “a long-term lifestyle change” takes up six pages of their bestselling recipe book Good + Simple. But there is little consensus among its advocates as to what these rules are.

Although clean eating is often described merely as a movement that champions minimally processed, “natural” foods, one of the few things that unites its various congregations is the need to eliminate what they deem to be unclean alternatives. Gluten is a popular target for dismissal, because it can be “hard to digest”; legumes are sometimes blamed for “bloating”. Cane sugar is definitely out, but consumption of dates and honey is actively encouraged, often served with a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter (but not peanut butter, because that “gives you cancer”).

Given the often spurious scientific grounds for these strictures (tomatoes are said to cause inflammation; dairy steals the calcium from your bones), it’s little wonder that clean eating stands accused of promoting what the food writer Bee Wilson described recently as a “twisted attitude to food”, valuing certain ingredients as pure and cleansing, while others come with an unwanted side order of guilt and anxiety.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming – and on social media, the crucible of the eat-clean craze, nothing is served in moderation. “Dirty” food, which revels in its own naughtiness, is the inevitable flip side of the clean-eating coin, a world where adherents compete to outdo each other in crimes against cookery. Online audiences encourage such extremes; they like their food, to misquote Longfellow, either very, very good or horrid. In short, a simple spag bol is never going to get as much attention on Twitter as an “Italian-style” beefburger, dripping with Bolognese sauce, drenched in Parmesan, and served between two slabs of deep-fried pasta (this does exist).

Such fantastical foods are fine online; as with pornography, the problem comes when they influence the way people eat in real life. Bee Wilson, who was subjected to a barrage of online abuse when she dared to question the thinking behind one clean-eating guru’s “philosophy” at last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, cites growing evidence of the dangers of clean eating from those working with people who suffers from eating disorders. One specialist in London told the Sunday Times in May that between 80 and 90 per cent of his patients were following so-called clean diets.

At the other end of the spectrum, an ­Oxford University study published last year in the journal Brain and Cognition explored the possibility that “exposure to images of desirable foods can trigger inhibitory cognitive processes such as self-restraint”. The researchers concluded that our brain has to make a great effort to resist temptation when looking at “food porn”, in order to “maintain a reasonably healthy weight”. And not everyone succeeds.

It remains to be seen whether this appetite for public displays of ingestion endures. I can’t imagine the world needs any more pictures of fried eggs but others disagree: 264 have been added to Instagram in the time it has taken me to write this piece.

Technology will decide – work is already under way on virtual-reality headsets that allow diners to eat one food while looking at an image of another. This is a significant development, as evidence suggests that changing the appearance of food can affect our perception of its taste and flavour.

It is possible to imagine, in the not-too-distant future, chowing down on a plate of steamed fish while gazing lasciviously at a bacon cheeseburger. Or we could just learn the old-fashioned art of moderation. Is there a hashtag for that?

Felicity Cloake writes the New Statesman’s food column

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times