Review of NO KIDDING edited by HENRIETTE MANTEL
NO KIDDING describes itself as a collection of essays from “women writers on bypassing parenthood.” I snatched it up because I don’t want children, and the judgments, assumptions, and invasive questions that decision attracts is an issue close to my heart.
There are many reasons why someone would decide against kids. Some of those reasons can be easily expressed and some feel very complex and/or very personal. It’s a natural reaction when a woman says she doesn’t want children to ask, “Why?” because many people assume procreation an ingrained instinct, especially in females. Natural reaction or not, “Why?” is an intrusive question. Answers can include: inability (infertility), dislike of kids (most often assumed but rarely the case, from my experience), disinterest, lack of time or money or emotional support, a negative worldview, different priorities, genetic medical problems…and so many more. Not to mention that most of the time the answer isn’t something simple you can easily recite in response to the question “Why?” Often it’s a combination of numerous elements, some or many of them private. I attended a reading once where the author shared a story of a female friend who doesn’t want kids. Irritated by how often near strangers ask for an explanation, her friend had taken to responding to “Why don’t you want you kids?” with “How much money do you make?” - her point being that it’s private and she finds the question rude and prying.
The essays are all short, so the book packs 37 into its slim page count. My favorite essay has to be the very first, by the editor of the anthology Henriette Mantel. In “The Morning Dance,” she writes about when she dated a man with a daughter. I won’t write much more about it because I’m too tempted to summarize the entire essay, but it’s moving and confronts one of the most common assumptions about women who don’t want children. I like how Bonnie Datt addresses the common-held belief that women who say they don’t want children are deluding themselves and will of course change their mind in her essay “What to Expect When You’re Never Expecting.” In Laurie Graff’s piece “First Comes Love” she talks about her bafflement as a girl (and then as a woman) at being grilled by friends about her hypothetical wedding and family, an experience I’ve had numerous times with a similarly perplexed reaction. I love how Andrea Carla Michaels starts “Mother to No One,” with a conversation between her and her eight-year-old niece that had me laughing aloud. Jeanne Dorsey’s concept of an “ambivalence scale” in “Motherhood Adoption Ambivalence” makes a lot of sense. (My go-to answer when someone asks me, “Why don’t you want kids?” is “Because I don’t want kids.” It sounds like I’m being a smart aleck, but Dorsey proves other women know exactly what I mean.) I’m frustrated that I can’t locate the exact essay, but I also admired the woman in here who switched shrinks when she said something along the lines of, “Next time I want to talk about my never having kids,” and the shrink responded, “Yes, that’s a big loss.”
I did have some things I didn’t like about this anthology, three things to be exact. The first, and hands down the biggest, is that the book describes itself as “women writers on bypassing parenthood” on the front and “about opting out of motherhood” on the back. As a woman who decided not to have children, that’s why I picked up this book. In truth, a majority of the 37 essays are actually about women who don’t have children, not women who choose not to have children. HUGE difference. I had hoped for a collection of inspiring and empowering essays on a greatly misunderstood choice, but many essays tell more depressing tales of women who wanted children or weren’t sure and either way it never worked out. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still lots of great material in here. But I’m eagerly in wait for an anthology more along what I had expected. Second, all these women are comedians. Nothing against that, but I would prefer a wide range of varied backgrounds. Some of the essays feel repetitive and I’m sure that effect would be lessened with a more diverse list of contributors. Also, as comedians, a lot of them feel the need to make their essays funny. Some efforts work and others feel forced and deflecting. While I don’t mind jokes, I expect sincerity, honesty, and vulnerability in creative nonfiction. (I know that’s asking a lot, but if you don’t want to publish about your own life you don’t have to. If you’re going to, well, that’s what I expect.) Third, a handful of essays amount, in summary, to “Huh, well, I don’t know why I don’t want/never had kids.” If someone has trouble articulating why they don’t want children, that’s absolutely fine, but I don’t see a point in publishing an essay on your reasoning if you’re not going to make an effort to think through the why and find the right words.
It made me a little sad, too, reading some of the essays in which the writers have clearly internalized everything society says about women who don’t want children. In exploring the why behind their no kids decision, a few women in this book say they must be selfish or broken. All the more evidence that there’s still a need for a collection of essays by women who consciously decided not to have kids and don’t feel ashamed of that decision. NO KIDDING is worth reading for anyone interested in this topic (if a little skewed from the advertising), but I hope it’s only the beginning of a new trend in memoir.