After 9/11, writer Dani Shapiro, her husband journalist-turned-screenwriter Michael Maren and their young son Jacob moved from New York City to rural Connecticut. She tried to have another child, but suffered miscarriages, and now was in her forties. Jacob was thriving, but she was failing him, and she knew it.
Her failure was certainly not physical or emotional. At six-months, Jacob had been diagnosed with infantile spasms, a rare seizure disorder that impacts seven out of a million babies. She and her husband went to extraordinary lengths to save their child.
“Never once did it occur to me to blame God – nor to ask him for any special favors,” Shapiro wrote. “Yet my prayers continued… Please watch over my baby and keep him safe. Please keep him safe, I whispered over and over again. Please. Never once did I wonder who – if anyone – might be listening.” Miraculously, Jacob was spared.
Now years later, Jacob was indistinguishable from any other healthy child in school – and he was asking questions, hard questions. “How could I give Jacob a spiritual foundation when I was all over the map?” Shapiro asked. Thinking about her son’s future, she began a journey into her past, to make sense of her Jewish legacy and bring it into her family’s present. Devotion, dedicated to Michael and Jacob, was published in 2010.
How different Shapiro’s story was compared to the sixteen writers in Meghan Daum’s book of essays, Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to have Kids.
In her introduction, Daum wrote: “I’ve come to suspect that the majority of people who have kids are driven by any of just a handful of reasons, most of them connected to old-fashioned biological imperative… Those of us who choose not to become parents… arrive at our destination via our own meandering, sometimes agonizing paths.”
The sixteen childless-by-choice writers shared this assumption. With the exception of essayist and ‘childfree’ Tim Kreider, the authors declared their love for children but were either ambivalent or strongly opposed to having their own. Some noted lack of financial stability and other concerns – abusive childhoods or insecurity about parenting skills. But financial instability had not deterred Shapiro and her husband. And many writers, such as Tobias Wolff, claim difficult beginnings. He calls his children, “Dear.” (Link to New Yorker article by George Saunders, also a smitten father. Image of my own “Dears.” With remarriage, I now have three.)
So why didn’t these sixteen writers want children? To avoid the “boredom and intellectual atrophy” of raising children, a chore that usually falls to mothers, Laura Kipnis stated. Not having children seemed like having dodged a bullet of a “too constraining, too routine” life-style. If that wasn’t clear enough, Geoff Dyer quoted from his book Out of Sheer Rage: “Life for people with children is crammed with obligations and duties to be fulfilled. Nothing is done for pleasure. The child becomes a source of restrictive obligation…”
Ok, I confess. I did get a little bored on the millionth reading of The Troll Bird. But I also felt constrained as a teacher, grading 80 freshman essays written on the same topic.
So what did these childless writers want? FREEDOM! When did they want it? NOW!
When author Pam Houston became pregnant at age 29 – she was unmarried and her first book was about to come out – she called her mother to ask advice. “You are a very special talent, Pam,” her mother said, “and if you decide to have that baby, you are going to become perfectly ordinary, exactly like everyone else.” Pam Houston aborted the child.
Kate Christensen wrote, “I picture my life without children as a hole dug in sand and then filled with water. Into every void rushes something.” I was reminded of childless-by-choice, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr and his January 27, 2016 reflection:
“I recently visited the 9/11 Memorial at the site of the Twin Towers in New York City. A huge waterfall drops down into the darkness of a lower pool whose bottom you cannot see. It struck me deeply as a metaphor for God: mercy eternally pouring into darkness, always filling an empty space. Grace fills all the gaps of the universe. Counting and measuring can only increase the space between things. Even better, water always falls and pools up in the very lowest and darkest places, just like mercy does. And mercy is just grace in action.”
I don’t think Dani Shapiro pictures a sand hole filled with water rushing into voids when she writes, or watches Jacob play baseball. I suspect she sees a deep, dark pool filled with God’s infinite grace and mercy.
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I’m not surprised to hear people describe a major life and growth experience as limiting them. They are too perfect, too special, too talented to grow, learn and share themselves. Children test their parents and humble them. Who wants that? Having an unformed human mind in one’s care during its greatest growth period, seeing its curiosity, its little hands reaching out to the world, to you …
Before I had children, I thought the joys of my childhood were gone forever. Watching my children explore their world brought it all back, and I experienced childhood wonder once again.
In my January 4th post (obedience), I quoted another of Richard Rohr’s reflections, this one about marriage and child rearing. “It’s the surest path to death of the ego, if you really allow your partner and children to mirror you, revealing your ordinary and weak self, and also helping you to experience unconditional love. Life has a way of revealing that you are not the center of anything and forcing you to give up control. We must keep growing–and that always implies death to the previous level–which many just will not do. Again and again we must move beyond our narcissism.”