Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice
I’ve been trying to figure out how it is that I’ve only just discovered Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. In part it’s because I thought it was a thriller about a demonic, sociopathic child, which is a genre I left behind with my Stephen King-riddled adolescence. Also, there was such a fanfare about it and there is some silly, perverse part of me that longs to be bored or disappointed by what other people like. Nothing turns me off a book faster than an ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ sticker or a cover based on a movie adaptation.
Anyway, in this instance I regret that I am only now engaging with the book and having the deeply satisfying experience of watching some of my own innermost feelings of ambivalence-about-motherhood unfold page after page. The book is not about a demonic, sociopathic child, it’s about a woman who had no inclination towards motherhood but who chose to have a child anyway. I think it would be a very, very difficult read for anyone struggling with non-motherhood, but an incredibly thought-provoking read for any woman who is feeling strong and content.
Looking back on the decision for herself and her husband, the narrator and mother asks:
“What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child?”
By imagining a vivid and relentless nightmare to follow her choice, the narrative creates a powerful counter to the advice many childfree women will be more than familiar with – that as soon as we lay our eyes on our own child, any doubts we’ve ever had will fade away, so it’s best for any woman, every woman, regardless of her self-knowledge, intuition or situation, to take the plunge. Shriver cranks my own small-scale what-would-I-be-doing-right-now-if-I-was-a-mother daydream up by about a billion notches.
One of the reasons I’m loving the book is that I’m coming to think of Shriver as an incredibly articulate (if somewhat desolate) kindred spirit. She has anticipated a huge array of my own worries and questions and is systematically addressing each one.
Another reason is that I’m grateful whenever there is an opportunity, even in fiction, to challenge the idea of motherhood-as-an-uncomplicatedly-blissful-and-entirely-fulfilling-role-for-every-woman. I think it is cruel to women who cannot be mothers, frustrating and demoralising for women who choose not to be mothers, and downright terrifying to women who are mothers and whose experience fails, even by a small measure, to match the ideal. Its a toxic suggestion for women all round, I think, and can rob us of joy whatever our choices and circumstances.
And finally, from my perspective as someone who identifies a good deal with the childfree position, the novel has the same uplifting effect on me as Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. You remember when Scrooge wakes up in the morning and it turns out that he still has his life ahead of him, to understand and recreate with all the insights he’s gained from his nightmare?
Just to be clear, I’m not likening motherhood to a nightmare – just this particular woman’s guilt and personal loss of liberty. For example, she writes this of her husband’s enthusiasm to become a parent:
“Then, you were always captivated by self-sacrifice. However admirable, your eagerness to give your life over to another person may have been due in some measure to the fact that when your life was wholly in your lap you didn’t know what to do with it. Self-sacrifice was an easy way out.”
I loved reading that. It perfectly articulates, in its reverse, what I regard as my own personal challenge as a non-mother – to look at my own life still wholly in my lap, undistracted by self-sacrifice or any other way out, and continue to figure out, bit by bit, what to do with it.
Lionel Shriver is the 200th pin on the pinboard of inspiring childless and childfree women.
If you’re interested in philosophical aspects of non-motherhood you might like reading about how Thales of Miletus defended his choice not to parent or about my suspicion that doubt is part of the human condition and not a particular affliction of the childfree.
But in the meantime, how about you? Have you read or seen We Need to Talk About Kevin? If so, what did you think? And even if not, do any of the points raised above ring true for you?