For the unexpecting, there is nothing more dreadful than the baby shower. At least in theory. I’m a guy and, blessedly, I am rarely invited to such things. Generally, for men, not having kids is much different than it is for women, who are often treated as if they are giving up a biological imperative and betraying their sex and humanity as a whole. When you’re a man, your father friends tend to either look at you with envy when they hear about your child-free exploits or joke, as a certain editor here does, about how you hate kids. I don’t hate kids, for what it’s worth, but I hate kid culture, the princesses and video games and whatever the fuck. And I am not good at not cursing around them.
If you don’t have kids, you’ve been forced to think about why. So I was quite excited to see the new collection “Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed,” especially when I discovered that it featured some of my favorite essayists, such as the collection’s editor Meghan Daum, Geoff Dyer, Laura Kipnis, and former CP contributor Tim Kreider. One wishes that Daum would have written something more substantial than an introduction. It isn’t that her intro is bad, it’s that her writing is so good it seems wasted on introducing others. Dyer, for his part, provides the funniest essay in the book. “I crave pity the way other men crave admiration or respect. So if my wife and I are asked if we have kids, one of us will reply ‘No, we’ve not been blessed with children.’ We do it totally deadpan, shaking our heads wistfully, looking as forlorn as a couple of empty beer glasses.”
Kipnis is just as wickedly smart—beginning with Shulamith Firestone’s description of childbirth as “like shitting a pumpkin”—and Kreider offers glib existential musings on the idea that “extinction does not negate meaning.”
I was surprised that none of the 17 different authors were moved by the same deep historical pessimism that has, partially, moved me. Once you start thinking about kids, as this book amply demonstrates, you start thinking about continuity, about the future and the past and the species and the gene pool. I’m a pretty happy fellow in ordinary daily life, but when I contemplate the big things, I quickly take on a gloomy cast.
When you have kids you want them to have it better than you did, right? Well, that’s impossible. Things are going to come crumbling down. No empire lasts forever. No one can use as many resources as we have for long. Plus the climate. And China. Or ISIS. Or white supremacists. Your kid could shoot up a church.
Even if you do manage to give your kid a better life than you had—well, it will be at the cost of the millions of other kids who don’t get the resources that your kid got. You either support inequality or support your kid having a worse life than you. But it doesn’t matter what you support or believe. Very bad, terrible things will happen. When we’re in the world, we should embrace it. But I will pass on creating a new being for all these very bad things to happen to.
Just because no one shared my macro-pessimism doesn’t mean that no one was philosophical in their ruminations. But it felt like many of the authors were holding their tongues, careful not to enrage their parenting peers.
Lionel Shriver’s ‘Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later’ is, perhaps, the most intellectual and the least satisfying essay in the volume, with its rather shrill railing against a Baby Boomer focus on the present. But all of the essays suffer from their proximity with one another. This is the kind of book you want to flip through occasionally. But it makes little sense to read it straight through. If you do, it feels something like an anti-baby shower. You invite a bunch of childless friends to a party and you are only allowed to talk about not having kids. It gets boring pretty quickly.
The illustration for this piece was chosen from submissions from students in city paper contributor Alex Fine’s Sophomore illustration II class at MICA.