Inspiration for childless and childfree women

Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice

we need to talk about kevin

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?

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22 comments on “we need to talk about kevin

  1. Nell
    April 17, 2012

    I think I need to buy this for my Kindle, I have heard many people rave about it but was not quite sure what it was about? The ethos of the story sounds like my greatest fear, if we decided to have a child.

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      I’ll be so curious to know what you make of it, Nell! It’s just about the most thought-provoking thing I’ve ever read on this topic.

  2. Kaitlyn
    April 17, 2012

    I want to read the book and see the movie. She sounds a lot like me, except I won’t take the gamble of having a child.

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      While I think this would be a VERY unsettling book/film if you were at all on the fence, its an amazing affirmation for people like us who’ve decided against the gamble. I’d love to know what you think when you’ve had a look, Kaitlyn!

  3. Rachel
    April 17, 2012

    I too didn’t feel at all attracted to the film but I’ll be seeking out the book now.

    I can recognise something of my own challenge in the idea of life being wholly in your lap and not knowing what to do with it.

    In my case, when growing up my life never felt my own. It’s been a series of exercises in playing out roles which I felt were given to me: daughter, sister, pupil, student, manager, aunty, Godmother. I was just waiting for the wife and mother roles to materialise. ‘Mother’ is now out of the question and all of a sudden I come to realise that I’m in charge of my next role. I’m the creator and I get to choose. I have a lot of figuring out to do 🙂

    Thank you, Olivia, for this beautiful space. It’s great to come and always find something to spark me into thinking more creatively and hopefully.

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      That is so, so lovely to hear, Rachel. Thank you :).

      Reading your interesting thoughts here has me thinking of the strangeness of the idea people sometimes express, that you’re not a real adult until you’ve had a child. I wonder if true adulthood is actually the willingness to take on ideas such as the one you’ve suggested here – ‘I’m the creator and I get to choose’… I love it.

  4. Angie
    April 17, 2012

    I think this definitely needs to be added to the book club list!

    My desire to remain childfee was influenced by many things, but the uncertainly regarding what sort of child I would end up with was always at the back of my mind. My best friend has two amazing children and she always said that my kids would probably be like hers, but I didn’t want to risk getting a “bad” one.

    The issue of self-sacrifice is an interesting one to me. While many of my friends and family members became pregnant purely by chance (or “accident”), I do have some very well-educated friends who chose to become parents after they had established their careers and were in their late 30s or early 40s. One in particular was a colleague at my frist legal job out of school. He was a successful and respected constitutional scholar, but after achieving his career goals he said he felt like he had nothing else to do, and he hand his wife were “bored”, so they decided to have children. He had followed the path that was set before him for his entire life – college, law school, study, work, publishing – and at the end of that path, he was lost and felt the only way forward was to give his life over to something or someone else. I cannot imagine every being so “bored” in my marriage, or so at a loss for what to do next that I decide to have children, but I do understand how some people come to that.

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      I’ll confess to the odd existential twinge, but like you Angie, I have NEVER struggled with boredom. A huge motivation in my non-motherhood is the fact that I already can’t fit in half the stuff I want to do!

  5. rantywoman
    April 17, 2012

    I haven’t read “We Need to Talk About Kevin” but I did enjoy Shriver’s “The Post-Birthday World,” in which a woman debates the pros and cons of a staid but safe relationship versus a passionate and unpredictable one.

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      Rantywoman, I’m often struck by the overlaps in our reading lists. I haven’t read The Post-Birthday World, but I want to now! Shriver is so interesting in interviews, I can hardly imagine she’s ever written anything I wouldn’t be glad to have read.

  6. Megan
    April 17, 2012

    I haven’t read the book yet but definitely will do so now. I can anticipate having a very similar reaction to it as you’ve had. When my husband and I first got married, we spent a good deal of time considering whether we “ought to” have kids, because now that we were married it “seemed like the thing to do.” However, as we considered it more, I would find myself feeling trapped and scared by the idea of having a baby – let alone having an actual one. Now, almost every day I give thanks to the universe for our ultimate decision not to go along with the crowd. I do believe it would have been a real mistake – one that we would have dealt with, but a mistake nonetheless. I am somewhat nervous to read what sounds like a vivid description of how we could have ended up. But with your recommendation, I think I will take the plunge!

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      Megan, I think your perspective on the story will be such an interesting one! I’ve only found a few interviews with Shriver in newspapers and on her way out of the premier of the film etc, but my hunch is that she shares your feeling (and mine) that children just aren’t right for some people. Be brave! Plunge, I say! (But only for the selfish reason that I want to know what you think of the book :).)

  7. Traci
    April 17, 2012

    I’ve been a bit of a lurker (tried to reply to other posts, but have had technical issues and they wouldn’t go through for some reason!), so wanted to finally say that I’m really enjoying reading your blog. This post really resonated with me – so much so that I felt as if you’d read my mind! I absolutely LOVE Lionel Shriver! We Need to Talk about Kevin was the first book of hers that I read years ago and was my favorite, even though I really liked The Post-Birthday World also. I’ve never really been on the fence about having or not having children (have never had any desire at all to have any), but if someone had any doubts at all as to whether they wanted children, that book would quell any doubts whatsoever. In fact, they would likely run out and buy extra birth control!

    Oh, I totally agree with you also regarding it being a turnoff if a book makes Oprah’s book club list or if others are raving about it! Oddly enough, since I read the book so long ago, I didn’t even realize until recently that We Need to Talk about Kevin was causing such a fanfare or that it had been made into a move! I’m not sure I’ll see the movie since I think I might be so disturbed that I feel the need to race to the doctor to be sterilized 🙂

    • olivia
      April 17, 2012

      I’m sorry to hear about the technical issues Traci – I do so hate to miss out on a comment from a reader. Sadly, I can’t find a way to open the comments up any more than they are. Thank you for persisting and for getting through this time!

      It’s brilliant to read your perspective on the book. I think the movie is worth a look too, personally! The Post-Birthday World is definitely next on my list.

      Delighted to hear you’re enjoying the blog :).

  8. Heidi
    April 18, 2012

    Funny that I never really got stuck into the book…..I got part way thru and have left it until now. That is not a frequent activity for me – I usually devour books, so the ones I’ve left without finishing have obviously been for a reason……Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind to sift through the ramblings. I got lost in the supermarket visits of her thinking everyone was looking at her and smashing her eggs when her back was turned??? And her rambling one sided talks to her non-present husband about his behaviours etc. I guess it didn’t reasonate with me at that point. I still have it in my stack and will go back to it when the spirit leads.

    I guess I don’t need a book to validate the reasons behind my decision not to have children. I did have almost the exact opposite reaction to another book (that you had to this particular book) which was Mia Freedman’s “Mia Culpa: Confessions from the Watercooler of Life”. Sure there were some laugh-out-loud incidents she relates but there were a lot of kid related stories that I didn’t relate to. Weird. Her relationship stuff was funny at times. Isn’t it interesting how books can lead us on such journeys? 🙂

    As ever, thanks for your blog….

    • olivia
      April 18, 2012

      It is interesting, Heidi! I’ve sometimes revisited books that resonated with me profoundly at one time in my life and found them completely impenetrable – and vice versa. I sometimes find it hard to believe that books are static objects.

  9. Karin
    April 18, 2012

    Hey, fantastic blog, Olivia. I stumbled across it a few days ago and have been dipping into various posts and discussions ever since. You seem to have created a very much needed forum for a significant section of women of our generation whose lives don’t fit percieved (though definitely not correct) expectations of what should be normal/natural, but want to, for the most part, be able to celebrate rather than regret this. Such a relief and an inspiration to counter the slightly oppressively over-esteemed (in the media at least) cult of parenthood. I’ve half-accidently-fallen, half-willed my way to childfree status at forty and have a younger sister who has always known she doesn’t want children. Luckily I seem to have avoided all social pressure or judgement on this issue, partly because I’ve strayed so far home (half-way round the world via Asia), and a quick scan of my facebook friends suggests that in my circle we childfree may be in the majority.

    You’ve inspired me to read We Need to Talk About Kevin. I saw the film which is pretty gruelling (although Tilda Swinton’s mega-acting is worth seeing it for) and in which the whole meditation you describe on the choice to be or not be a mother is pretty much deleted. Interesting. Have you read any Barbara Pym? I recommend Excellent Women, a celebration of childfree women in the post-war years in London.

    • olivia
      April 18, 2012

      Hi Karin. Thanks so much for your kind thoughts about the site and for a bit of your backstory too. So interesting that you haven’t experienced the pressure and judgement so many non-mothers describe and even find yourself among a majority on facebook! I wonder if it might be a geographical thing or a career-field thing? I’m going to do a post on the minority/majority issue soon and I hope so much that you’ll add your viewpoint there too.

      The film was gruelling, wasn’t it, and I couldn’t agree more about the Tilda Swinton!

      No, I haven’t read Barbara Pym and it sounds as though I should. Thank you for the recommendation, I shall get onto it right away.

  10. valkyrie5959
    April 18, 2012

    Another interesting post. I think we have a challenge as a society to support women
    in both the motherhood and non motherhood roles. Keep in mind the choice to not
    have children is still quite new in our society and in other societies does not even exist yet. Perhaps that is why all these ridiculous myths were generated as to how great having children would be when you didn’t want to have them and how this miracle would occur when you were holding the baby and you would have a psyic change and adore the fact that you were under house arrest and would never be allowed to sleep again.It was probably to protect both the baby and the mother
    from the relentlessness of an unplanned and unavoidable lifestyle for ever.
    and then watching the same thing happen to your children.
    The reality for me when my baby was placed in my arms I thought ” OMG! WHAT HAVE I DONE!” I rush to reassure that this isn’t the experience for others just me.
    And no I didn’t have post natal depression. I just realized that the only thing that had altered in my life was that I added a child to it.
    I am lucky that I have been given arguably the nicest child in the world but I
    certainly wouldn’t advocate motherhood to any one ambivalent towards it

    Also I believe children need more than a mother. They need good Aunts,Teachers, and friends. In all seriousness I think a ratio of 10 care givers to each child would be ideal.

    • olivia
      April 18, 2012

      Such insightful thoughts valkyrie5959. It’s brilliant having your perspective here. As a childless woman who happens to feel a lot of fondness for other people’s children, I’m happy to consider myself one of the villagers in the village it takes to raise a child! (I hope it can go without saying that I don’t think there should be any kind of obligation for non-mothers to take on this role – it just happens to be one that I am very happy with for myself.)

  11. Rhona
    April 18, 2012

    I didn’t even know there was a book! I had seen the preview of this when I went to see some film a few months ago and I knew I had to see it. I immediately knew the mother was not excited about being a mother upon the preview therefore called to me. To me it is a cautionary tale. if your instincts say do not have a kid, do not ignore it and do it anyway. I am going to go get the book tomorrow!!

    • olivia
      April 18, 2012

      Rhona, I bet you’re going to find it fascinating – I can’t wait to hear what you think of it :)!

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This entry was posted on April 17, 2012 by in issues.

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