Thank You for Not Breeding

(Laurie Lisle. Without Child: Challenging The Stigma of Childlessness. Ballantine Books, New York: 1996. $23.00 hard cover.)

Reviewed for the American Reporter by Nicole Chardenet.
BRISTOL, CT - Finally, a book about the joys of being childfree!

Author Laurie Lisle might not approve of my use of the world "childfree", which she feels "suggests a flippant disregard for children," but having just discovered the Usenet newsgroup, the word fits me better than Lisle’s chosen euphemisms, "nullipara" (the medical term for a woman without child) and "nulligravida", the word for a woman who has never been pregnant. Without bashing parents, parental wannabes or the desire to have children, Lisle finally provides the rest of us, those who have to bear the derision and disapproval of a society infatuated with babies and children, some ammunition for the next time someone says, "But you’re *selfish* for not wanting children!"

Fortunately for me, I have a family and relatives who are largely supportive of my desire never to have children, except for one misogynist who can’t stand to see a woman in control of her own life.

But I feel like passing this book on to my coworker, whose two sets of in-laws have been pressuring him and his wife to breed "before it’s too late."

Lisle is a woman in her fifties who never got around, for one reason or another, to having children. She is the author of two biographies, on artists Georgia O’Keefe and Louise Nevelson (the first who was childless and the second who left her son with her parents in Maine so she could study art in Europe.) Having grown up at a time when it was always assumed that a girl’s only ambition was to marry well and have children, Lisle found herself putting off motherhood when she discovered feminism and a desire to be a journalist in the ‘60s. She was not totally against becoming a parent; at several times in her life she seriously considered having a baby because she honestly liked children. But for one reason or another it never happened, and she knows she was never truly committed to the idea in the first place.

Lisle pulls a few characters out of the mothballs of history, religion and mythology to show that there were those who lived childfree existences and, contrary to the prevailing belief, were quite happy with their decisions. She shows how many people, whether they came to their childfree state either by choice or because of infertility and the inability to adopt, lead lives that are different but not necessarily inferior to the lives of people with children. She illustrates how the childless do not necessarily "hate" children (a common belief) and addresses a common concern of the childfree, whether one will be alone in one’s old age (maybe, or maybe not, although Ann Landers and Dear Abby have been publishing letters for fifty years apiece written by people who are alone in their old age because their children ignored them.)

"As I searched the past, I realized that ancient female archetypes include the mistress, helpmate, sage, artist, warrior, and virgin, only the last of whom is by definition childless…The prototypes of the modern nonmother appear in pre-Hellenic myths as independent goddesses, like the aggressive Athena, the meditative Hestia, and the able Artemis. Not mothers and rarely wives, these goddesses are virginal in the symbolic sense of having psychological integrity, personal identity, and social independence, exemplars of feminist ideals." This is from the chapter entitled, "Searching History," which also describes an anonymous author who called herself A Childless Wife and who wrote in 1905 about how she and her husband mutually agreed on having a childless marriage and how happy they were with their decision. It also questions the pressures from the church to be fruitful and multiply, when neither Jesus Christ nor the priests and nuns who serve him today were parents, and when a more pressing moral problem is what to do about a severely overpopulated planet.

Since I knew when I was eighteen that I never wanted to be a mother, and haven’t changed my mind despite fifteen years of people warning me I would "when the clock starts running out" (mine must have a busted spring!), I didn’t entirely relate to Lisle’s vacillation over the decades of whether to have a baby or not. Nor did I relate to the people who searched the world for a solution to an infertility problem, even while I sympathized with them. What I was grateful for was the smashing of the old myths that the willfully childfree are selfish, immature, immoral, irresponsible or that we hate children. Just being around everyone else’s ill-behaved progeny has been the best birth control for me, but I do care about children, how they’re raised, and how they’re educated. I wonder, along with my compatriots in, where it is written that we *must* have children to be productive members of society, or why the infertile are so hell-bent on having their own children when there are so many children who need to be adopted (and we wish the adoption laws weren’t so strict so that more decent parents could have children!)

Likewise I didn’t relate to the analysis of children and childlessness and their relation to femininity and how women perceive themselves, I suppose since I was never much of a traditionalist anyway. But it provided some valuable insights into the changing face of what it means to be a woman, how we relate to men, and how we can overcome the stigma of making the *responsible* decision not to take on the all-important task of raising another human being in a world where people clearly ill-adapted to parenthood are breeding like gerbils and neglecting and/or abusing their children.

The book may not be as useful to men who resist the idea of parenthood since it is written from a woman’s perspective and is mostly about womens’ relationship to children and childlessness, probably because the pressure to have children is particularly strong for women in our society. But it’s a good start, and with any luck, some brave soul may some day speak out for a *man’s* right not to become a father. When I checked the World Population page on the Web last week, the national population stood at 265 million (up by three million when I checked last year) and at six and a half billion worldwide. So the next time someone tells you you’re (fill in your favorite pejorative term) for not having children, hand them a picture of a malnourished Third World child as well as copy of Lisle’s book.

To Home Page