- Unmothers: Women Writing About Life Without Children
The literature on parenthood and parenting is thriving. That reality was especially evident last spring, when publishers and reviewers brought to readers’ attention the latest crop of nonfiction books by and about mothers and fathers. In fact, it was an unusually fertile time for the latter group, prompting The Daily Beast to wonder, “Is 2014 ‘Year of the Dad’?”
Now, I love parents. I’m most partial to the mother and father I happened to win through some unbelievably generous cosmic lottery. And I love children—again, most notably, the offspring of my own family and friends. But there’s another identity that I want to read about: that of an adult—especially, an adult female, like me—who is not a parent. By the numbers, this is a minority experience, albeit one that characterizes [End Page 186] a growing proportion of American women. Drawing on data from the June 2010 fertility supplement of the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the Pew Research Center has concluded, “Among all women ages 40–44, the proportion that has never given birth, 18% in 2008, has grown by 80% since 1976, when it was 10%. There were 1.9 million childless women ages 40–44 in 2008, compared with nearly 580,000 in 1976.” Considering the relatively small population size, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the voices and stories of this cohort remain underrepresented. But the fact that they’re rare is why I’ve taken note of the few books published and promoted over the past year or so that acknowledge and/or feature them.
An emphasis on articulating experiences of what I’ll call “unmother-hood” unites the first three books discussed in this essay. Often, the writers have found that people devalue them because they don’t have children; their pages are, in part, responses and retorts to this perceived mistreatment. In the fourth book, a memoir that isn’t explicitly about not being a mother, the author nonetheless—perhaps even unintentionally—provides a remarkably realized portrait of one such life.
It’s rare to discover an entire anthology composed of contributions by women writers who aren’t mothers. But that is, in fact, an accurate description of No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood, edited by Henriette Mantel.
No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood edited by Henriette Mantel with a foreword by Jennifer Coolidge. Seal Press, 2013, 248 pp., $16 (paperback; also available in e-book format).
No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood
edited by Henriette Mantel with a foreword by Jennifer Coolidge. Seal Press, 2013, 248 pp., $16 (paperback; also available in e-book format).
Some of the book’s best pearls of wisdom appear in the introduction, in which Mantel crystallizes lessons gleaned from the editing process. First, “women without children absolutely don’t hate the little buggers.” Moreover, as the saying goes, it truly can take a village to raise children; just because a woman doesn’t have children of her own doesn’t mean that she isn’t bonded to or otherwise part of a nurturing complex. Finally, women can be generative in ways that don’t [End Page 187] involve parenthood. Overall, Mantel says, “I feel like these writers are letting all the daughters of the world know it’s okay to not have kids.”
That’s an important message. As contributor Kathryn Rossetter observes in one of the book’s strongest essays, many women who...