Meghan Daum

Meghan Daum is the author of one new(ish) essay collection, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, and the editor of another, Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, which she’ll be discussing with the writer Jac Jemc at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 7. Recently she took some time to chat on the phone about Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed from New York, where she’s a professor in the MFA creative writing program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

How did Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed come to be?

It was the book I’d been wanting to read. It’s difficult to find a discussion around that topic that’s not glib or mired in “Oh, I forgot,” or “My kid has four legs and drinks out of a bowl on the floor.” It’s a difficult decision. People think about it really, really hard, and that’s not reflected in our cultural conversation in a thoughtful and nuanced way.

I was impressed by the range of reasons and responses among the essays.

The experience varies. One reason isn’t everybody’s reason. The stories are very different. The essays aren’t designed to have readers agree with all of them. They’re all so different, but they all really do avoid the brats-and-breeders derisiveness. I can’t stand that, and it’s not useful. It’s a difficult and important job being a parent. In a way the book is a tribute to parenting. There’s a whole discussion of parents versus nonparents and how parents feel that childfree—I hate that word—people are judging them. The book reframes that. It’s the ultimate way of doing that.

Like the writer who says she’s afraid she won’t be as good a parent as her own parents.

Yes, Anna Holmes. She “fears her own competence.” People have different experiences with parents and childhoods. The assumption is that people who don’t want kids had unhappy childhoods. That doesn’t stand. Plenty of people have unhappy childhoods and still go on and have their own children as a corrective.

You write in your introduction that you approached a lot of writers to write essays and a lot of them turned you down.

It’s obviously a loaded subject. I started by thinking, What writers do I admire who don’t have children? And why don’t they? I sent a lot of delicately worded e-mails. Some of the people I wrote to had so little angst about the subject they had nothing to say. They were always clear in their decision and never had to apologize. Others said, “I have a lot to say, but I can’t because it would hurt other people and I can’t handle that.” And others were pretty certain but not ready yet to put it in print. Those are very natural reactions, and I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised that not a lot of people did want to think it through.

You only contributed an introduction, although you’ve written elsewhere about your own decision not to have kids.

I wrote an essay about this for The Unspeakable. It was about mentoring kids, a foster child, juxtaposed with reconciling the issue of whether or not to have kids in my own marriage. I thought the world had heard enough from me on that topic. I wanted to let other writers speak. Someone pointed out that this forces everyone to buy The Unspeakable. But this never crossed my mind. You could also read it online in the New Yorker.

How does the decision about having kids relate to the Chicago Humanities Festival theme, “Citizens”?

This whole question about whether or not to have kids is a question about what does it mean to be an adult in the world? You need to figure out the right place and role for yourself. It’s so important for kids to live in a community with adults who aren’t someone’s parents. Thoughtful parents say they’re grateful to people who show their kids other ways of being. It’s really important.

What’s been the reaction to the book?

I’ve had several women tell me that they want to get the book for their grown daughters who don’t want kids as a gesture of solidarity. I’ve gotten very little criticism. That’s shocking to me because, as a writer and opinion columnist, I’ve gotten a lot of blowback and elicited strong reactions. I didn’t want the essays steeped in divisive rhetoric. There are so many different views, and the book is so respectful of parents, it’s very difficult to have a vehemently negative reaction. Maybe to a few of the pieces, but there are so many perspectives, it’s hard to get exercised over the whole thing. Most people say thank you for opening up the topic. Especially women who felt really alone in the decision. Now they feel less alone in the world. It’s not a manifesto. I have no interest in talking people out of having kids. That’s absurd, as absurd as trying to change someone’s sexuality. I just want to reframe the discussion so people don’t resort to jokes.

Maybe not having kids is so taboo because everyone has parents, and this might be seem as a rejection of them?

If someone is self-possessed enough to think about the decision, that’s a testament to their parents. There’s an unconscious assumption in our culture that self-knowledge is the same as self-absorption. With this question, knowing yourself well enough is a guide to what you should or shouldn’t be doing. “Childfree” people need to stop with the glib answers. Just because you’re biologically capable doesn’t mean you have to do it. Pam Houston writes in her essay that she got a high score on her LSATs, but no one told her that meant she had to be a lawyer. Having kids is a primal instinct. If you have the instinct that you don’t want them, people act like it’s not to be trusted or that it’s a pathology. That needs to be changed.

It’s interesting that there are so many more essays by women.

There are three men and 13 women in the book. Usually men are entirely absent from the discussion.

I’m glad there are both straight and gay men.

There’s an essay by a single straight man, a married straight man, and a gay man, Paul Lisicky, who writes about coming of age assuming he’s not going to live [through the 80s, when many gay men he knew were afflicted with AIDS]. It’s not until recently that this issue’s had an effect on the LGBT community.

I liked that Lisicky’s essay is juxtaposed with Courtney Hodell’s about how her gay brother is the one having children.

There are so many different stories. Even though everyone at the root feels similarly, no two people get to it by the same path. But still people question. I’m 45, and I was just talking to this guy on the radio about how my time for having kids was probably up, and he said, “Well, my mom was 45 when she had me!”

Meghan Daum in conversation with Jac Jemc, Sat 11/7, 11:30 AM, UIC Forum, 725 W. Roosevelt, 312-494-9509,, $12, $5 students and teachers.