Book Review and a(n Unpopular) Commentary
I just finished reading I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman. Kirkman is a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles and works on the shows “Chelsea Lately” and “After Lately.” I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of her before reading this book; I don’t watch the shows she works on.
I didn’t come across this book on my own. A co-worker saw it and immediately thought of me. Why that is, I’m not too sure, except for my complaints of how people inundate me with questions of when I will have a baby. So, yes, I checked the book out and began to read.
This book is funny, filled with stories about how people constantly badger Kirkman on when she will have a baby, why she doesn’t want them, and how her life will never be fulfilled until she does so. Her reactions to these questions—from strangers—is quite amusing, maybe more so because I can relate.
My overall reaction to this book: Finally, someone who gets it.
Let me preface my commentary by saying that I have nothing against babies, children, parents, or parenting in general. What I do have something against is the assumption that I should have them, that it’s the only contribution I can make to society, and that I will never know the meaning of love and family if I never raise a child. It doesn’t matter whether or not my husband and I have decided to have kids—that’s a personal issue and not the point of this post. These are just my own opinions based on what I have experienced up to this point in my life. I don’t mean to offend anyone with anything I say, just merely saying what I think. I give you permission to stop reading now if you already feel biased against what I have to say simply because I voicing an opinion while not currently being a parent.
In a few weeks, I will be 35. I have been married for almost 7 years. I do not have children. I am happy. This apparently is not the norm. I got my first questions of “When will you have kids” a week after my wedding. Really? What happened to “spend some time with your husband, get to know each other, enjoy each other before changing the dynamics of your relationship completely with the addition of a child?” The fact that I’m in my mid-thirties and have been married for seven years and still don’t have children really disturbs people. Why that is, I don’t know, considering it’s none of their business. I don’t make a habit of asking people about their personal lives—if they want to tell me, fine. But I don’t intrude. What is it about the topic of children that makes people feel they are entitled to know what your plan is? And the worst part is that they don’t ask if we want kids, but when we will have them. It’s always an assumption. It got so bad, from one person in particular—a person I barely know—who kept pestering me, that I finally told her I didn’t know if I could have them. This is true given that I hadn’t ever tried, and so I truly didn’t know. But it got my point across and she never asked again.
I’m sure people would argue that others are just interested, that if they too are parents, they just want me to know the joy and love they have experienced with having and raising children. I get that. But it doesn’t mean that I should want that for myself. And it certainly doesn’t mean they have the right to ask such personal questions. What if I desperately wanted them and really couldn’t have them? They don’t know my circumstances at all. These questions are not coming from close family and friends, but from almost strangers, who for some reason, think they have the right to know and ask. They do not.
In her book, Kirkman discusses various topics about not having kids. She gives a voice to many thoughts I have had over the years. Though she is no longer married, she also felt the pressure of people wanting her to have children just because she was married. I know several people who do not want children. Some are married, some are not. The single girls, it’s okay if they don’t want kids because they’re still unmarried; there’s time for them to find a suitable mate, settle down, and change their minds. (This does happen in some cases, and that’s fine. But it’s shouldn’t be expected. It also shouldn’t be expected that they even get married. If they’re happy on their own, more power to them, is what I say. So long as they’re happy, that’s all that matters.) But for those who are married, people just can’t understand why they don’t want kids. Why else would they even get married, right?
People often tell Kirkman that she will change her mind about wanting children. Why? If she knows she doesn’t want children, shouldn’t that be enough? Why do people feel that she will change her mind? Just because many people want children, that shouldn’t disqualify someone’s feelings if they don’t want children. In addition, when she does say she doesn’t want children, people want to know why, what event caused her to feel this way. Why does there have to be a reason beyond “I just don’t want them”? She often feels that she has to defend her position.
I have felt this way too—people expect a reason behind why, at 35 and after 7 years of marriage, I don’t yet have children. For the record my response is, “After spending all of those years in school, preparing for a career, getting and working at said career, meeting my husband and working at our relationship, I want to spend a little time on me, especially if I’m going to bring a child into this world, at which point, my life will be all about that child.” I have enjoyed my free time. I have cultivated hobbies and interests beyond my career, things that are mine alone. Some may call that selfish. I call it getting to know who I am. I know many women who are approaching retirement. They got married and had children right out of high school. Now that their children are grown, out of the house, and have children of their own, these women don’t know what to do with their time. They have nothing for themselves. Everything is about their grandchildren and television shows and vacations. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But I want something different for myself when I approach that stage of my life—I don’t want to be afraid to go out and try something new, and I will be less afraid if I already know who I am, what I like, and what I still want to pursue. If I become a mother, I feel that I will be happier knowing what I like and dislike outside of my children, keeping that little side of my life just for me. And if I’m a happier person, then I’d be a better mother. If that makes me selfish, then so be it.
Kirkman also states that being a parent is like being in a club. I have felt this way too. Yes, I’m sure parenting is a type of club. I’m not disputing that. People tend to congregate with others who have had similar experiences and know what you’re going through. But this club often ostracizes people who are not members. Many different experiences in life can be considered a “club”—people who have certain diseases or illnesses, people who have suffered a certain kind of loss, people who have been victimized. They all share a common bond. I lost my father to a horrible disease and dementia. People who haven’t experienced a loved one with dementia don’t know what that’s like. But I don’t fault them for that. In all of the “clubs” I’ve experienced, both as a member and non-member, I have never felt like a true outsider the way I do with the parenting club. True, I don’t have first-hand experience with what it is like to have and raise a child. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate what others do as a parent, doesn’t mean I don’t get what their life is like. Like anything though, that’s a choice they’ve made, and I don’t appreciate the insinuation I have sometimes been given that I’m unworthy just because I haven’t experienced that same thing.
In my experience, some people who have children can’t seem to talk about anything else. I get that it’s an all-consuming job, that people talk about what they know and experience. And honestly, I don’t mind hearing about your children. I like to know what they’re up to, the funny things they’ve said or done. But when it’s all you can talk about it, that can be overwhelming, especially if we were friends before you became a parent—we obviously had enough to talk about pre-baby, so why is it that we no longer do? And what really gets me is how people feel the need to post their children’s bathroom habits on social media sites like Facebook. I’m glad your child is potty trained—that’s an accomplishment. And if I knew you well and we were talking face-to-face and the subject came up, great! But I don’t need to read about the details from people I barely know across the Internet. If I posted about my bathroom habits, I’d be reported to Facebook for indecency. So why is it different just because it’s about a child (who, by the way, can’t even give permission for those habits to be discussed)?
Some people have asked Kirkman who will take care of her when she’s old. Her reply is that same as I’ve given: even if one has a child, there’s no guarantee that he or she will take care of you when you’re old. There’s no guarantee that you won’t end up in a nursing home. There’s no guarantee that you won’t die alone. In the end, do any of us really not die alone?
My biggest pet peeve to me as a non-parent is the idea that some parents feel that my life will be vapid and unfulfilled if I choose not to have children. I don’t agree with this at all. Yes, my life would be drastically different as a parent, and probably for the better. But that doesn’t mean that my life as it is is meaningless and that I have nothing to contribute to the world. I am a librarian—I help people find answers to questions they didn’t even know they had. In some cases, it has made a huge difference in their life. I feel that’s contributing something to society. Everyone contributes to society in some way, and in many cases, it’s not solely adding another body to this planet. I don’t need to do that in order to be useful. In addition, just because I don’t have children doesn’t mean I don’t have a family or know love. I have a family—I have a husband (yes, a couple is indeed a family!), a mother and (deceased) father, a sister, a mother-in-law, an array of brothers- and sisters-in law, nieces and nephews, and friends so close I consider them family. I am a daughter. That automatically makes me a member of family. I don’t need to have children to be a part of a family. As for love, I love everyone in my life. I am close with all of my family and would do anything for them. True, it’s not the same type of love as a child would bring. But love is love, is it not? As human beings, isn’t a common denominator wanting to be loved and happy? I don’t need kids in order to have that. If I choose to do so, I’ll know it in a new and wonderful way. But I’m not any less of a person if I choose to get love and happiness down a different path.
Jen Kirkman’s book really struck a chord with me. Yes, I laughed. But that wasn’t the point of the book for me. It was finding someone who knows what I have often felt (our own child-free club, if you will). I give kudos to Kirkman for knowing what she wants and not being afraid to say so, for standing up to people who tried to bully her into a certain way of life. She doesn’t apologize for who she is—none of us should. We are who we are, and that should be enough, without question. Like us (or don’t) for who we are and not what you think we should be. This goes for anyone, from any walk of life. So, thank you, Jen Kirkman, for giving a voice to what I have been trying to get across to people for many years.
I will admit that if I do have children, my views on this topic may change drastically. Who knows what any one of us would feel or think, given different circumstances? All I can say is this is how I feel, right now, in this moment. And that is enough.
Note: I am in no way affiliated with or getting kickbacks from Jen Kirkman or her book. I am simply a happy reader.
[Comments have been turned off for this post—I am not looking to get into a debate on this topic, simply wanting to voice my opinion and thoughts as a result of my latest read.]