This year’s Orange Prize was won by U.S. born and New York and London resident Lionel Shriver, for her seventh novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. The Orange Prize is a literary honor, for work by women, judged by women. As the prize website explains, “The Orange Prize for Fiction is awarded to the woman who, in the opinion of the judges, has written the best, eligible full-length novel in English.”
My current understanding of the novel is that it is about a mother trying to understand why her teenage son committed a high-school massacre and how much of his behavior is her fault. One of the reasons that this particular novel stirred up a great deal of popular interest is that it has been seen as a novel against children and as promoting the idea of not having them.
I should say that I haven’t read Shriver’s novel, although I’ve read several reviews and commentaries about it, but I’m about to go out to my local bookstore and purchase a copy. I’m particularly motivated to do this right now by a lengthy piece by Shriver in today’s Observer (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), titled No kids please, we’re selfish.
The central point of Shriver’s Observer article is that it just might be that there is something selfish about the choice not to have children and that this choice is going to affect the gene pool, the ethnic makeup of our societies and perhaps the entire future of civilization. As such, it represents something of a U-turn for Shriver. As she writes
Yet even as “Kevin” won the Orange Prize in July, when my role as poster-girl for “maternal ambivalence” jacked up yet another power, something strange was starting to happen. I sometimes departed from script. When a Sunday Times reporter (who clearly thought me a chilly, arrogant creep) asked if I didn’t think that declining to reproduce was essentially “nihilistic”, I piped readily, “Of course.” And when a reporter from Birmingham asked tentatively in a phone interview, “Wasn’t refusing parenthood a little … selfish?” I bellowed into the receiver, “Absolutely!”
The truth is, I had started to feel guilty.
Her new attitude is summed up by
I may not, for my own evil purposes, regret giving motherhood a miss, but I’ve had it with being the Anti-Mom, and would like to hand the part to someone else.
The article is very well written, thought provoking in many parts and funny in some places. However, I found the article deeply annoying overall. In my opinion, there are enough examples of ill thought out and overly generalized statements to damage the piece irreparably. However, what got to me most is the unsubstantiated conflation of small, deeply personal opinions and decisions with greater societal trends in the western world. This mixing of ideas is used to portray many people who decide not to have children, including Shriver herself, as (at the risk of hyperbole) atheistic, nihilistic, narcissistic hedonists.
Before I get into Shriver’s article a little, I’d better come clean about my position on all this. My wife and I are one of those couples which, although children are not absolutely ruled out, acknowledge that we currently find our lives highly enjoyable, challenging and fulfilling, and that it is therefore likely that we will ultimately choose not to have kids. I don’t consider this to be selfish at all; or, rather, no more selfish than a couple who want kids deciding to go ahead and have them. I certainly can’t say I’ve come across people (although I guess they might exist) who knew that they didn’t want children but who made a conscious decision that, for the good of society, they’d better go ahead and have them anyway.
My problems with Shriver’s newly modified attitude on all this are best explained with a few examples. The paragraph that I find most annoying has, of course, a germ of truth in it. However, it is its inherent generalizations and its underlying pop-spiritualism that damn the enterprise
I propose that we have now experienced a second demographic transition. Rather than economics, the engine driving Europe’s “birth dearth” is existential.
To be almost ridiculously sweeping: baby boomers and their offspring have shifted emphasis from the communal to the individual, from the future to the present, from virtue to personal satisfaction. Increasingly secular, we pledge allegiance to lower-case gods of our private devising. We are less concerned with leading a good life than the good life. We are less likely than our predecessors to ask ourselves whether we serve a greater social purpose; we are more likely to ask if we are happy. We shun values such as self-sacrifice and duty as the pitfalls of suckers. We give little thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation; we take our heritage for granted. We are ahistorical. We measure the value of our lives within the brackets of our own births and deaths, and don’t especially care what happens once we’re dead. As we age – oh, so reluctantly! – we are apt to look back on our pasts and ask not ‘Did I serve family, God and country?’ but ‘Did I ever get to Cuba, or run a marathon? Did I take up landscape painting? Was I fat?’ We will assess the success of our lives in accordance not with whether they were righteous, but with whether they were interesting and fun.
I really find this remarkably short sighted and misguided. The idea that our predecessors asked themselves more frequently whether they had a greater societal purpose needs a lot more backing up than I see here if I am to take it seriously. At this level it seems to me more reasonable that our predecessors were either frantically scrabbling to survive through famines, wars or natural disasters (unlike today, of course) or were mindlessly following any of a number of social superstitions (religions) that served many other less noble purposes than those ascribed to them by Shriver. In short, I’m only too glad that less people are asking “Did I serve God?”, since I think this is a needless distraction from our real, earthly problems.
I find it equally misleading to say that people nowadays give less thought to the perpetuation of lineage, culture or nation. I would say that multiculturalism has forced these issues to the fore in today’s world, in a way that they never were in the past. I realize that Shriver’s point is that individuals don’t seem to take these seriously, but I still don’t agree. Many childless-by-choice people I know have given real thought to these issues, and have made their decisions anyway. I don’t agree with Shriver that this makes them more selfish, just that they have made their peace with a different outcome than Shriver would like. It’s OK with them if the developed world becomes browner and more Spanish-speaking. If other people lived the way they do – trying to be happy, to allow others the freedom to be happy and to raise the quality of human life, not the quantity – I could live happily in that world.
As I mentioned, it is the sweeping application of personal decisions to society as a whole and the underlying spiritual fumblings that I find most annoying about this article. Here it is again:
My friends and I are decent people – or at least we treat each other well. We’re interesting. We’re fun. But writ large, we’re an economic, cultural and moral disaster.
There has to be something wrong when spurning reproduction doesn’t make Gabriella and me the “mavericks” that we’d both have fancied ourselves in our younger days, but standard issue for our age. Surely the contemporary absorption with our own lives as the be-all and end-all ultimately hails from an insidious misanthropy – a lack of faith in the whole human enterprise. In its darkest form, the growing cohort of childless couples determined to throw all their money at Being Here Now – to take that step-aerobics class, visit Tanzania, put an addition on the house while making no effort to ensure there’s someone around to inherit the place when the party is over – has the quality of the mad, slightly hysterical scenes of gleeful abandon that fiction writers craft when imagining the end of the world.
This is the kind of silly, unsubstantiated extrapolation that leads to the kind of sentence with which she chooses to end the article
When Islamic fundamentalists accuse the west of being decadent, degenerate and debauched, you have to wonder if maybe they’ve got a point.
Now, I don’t mean to completely besmirch Ms. Shriver. In this interview she comes across as intellectual, bright, witty, and, yes, very likeable. She is clearly a talented writer who thinks about and is prepared to tackle the large issues. And there are, indeed, many points in her article with which I agree wholeheartedly. For example
We encourage minorities of every stripe to be proud of their heritage – Jamaicans, Muslims, Jews – as well they should be. We don’t assume that if an immigrant from China cherishes his roots and still makes a mean moo shoo pork he is therefore bigoted toward every other ethnicity on the planet. So can Italians not champion Italianness? Or the British their Yorkshire pudding?
(particularly about the Yorkshire pudding). It’s just that I don’t really see this as something that isn’t happening. Italians seem to be fiercely proud of their culture and heritage (just ask my graduate students), and the British are just the same. In the U.S., patriotism and pride in “the American way of life” is all pervading. Americans have no excuse for not knowing what is good about their culture and society. Those who are choosing not to have kids are making an informed decision, not a careless one.
So what’s my point? Well, I and many other people I meet are making informed decisions not to have children. Yes, we are doing it because we like our lives, get great personal pleasure from them, and realize that children would change them immeasurably. But we’re not all using the extra time just to worry about being fat or to indulge in Bacchanalian orgies (although, man are those fun!). Some of us take part in volunteer work. Some of us send more of our disposable income (although I don’t like that phrase, since people with kids do choose to use their money on that when they decide to procreate) to charity. Some of us use our extra time to be involved in the community, in public science education for example.
Many of us have thought about and realize the implications of our decision for our lineage (my Dad has been sure to help me realize it), and for the ethnic and cultural makeup of society. But we’re not going to have kids just so our society can continue to be white and European. And, speaking personally, I’m not going to be swayed by any argument that invokes God as a higher reason to procreate.
I (and I think most of us who are childless-by-choice) don’t hate kids, and if you want them, I absolutely think you should have them. My friends who have children are, almost to a one, bringing up remarkable little people, who are a joy to be around, and who I think it is clear are going to be great assets to society. I happily pay huge amounts in taxes to help them and others in that choice.
Just try to keep the little ankle-snappers on a leash when I’m grocery shopping please.