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

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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