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Single, Childless, and Empowered

Two new books provide honest reflections on the growing trend of opting out.
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So many choices. (Photo: 42386632@N00/Flickr)

So many choices. (Photo: 42386632@N00/Flickr)

No matter where you fall on the feminist spectrum, it’s undeniable that women now have unprecedented choices about how they choose to live their lives. This is not to say these choices are free from judgment, however.

In new books about two particular choices—whether to marry and whether to have children—Kate Bolick and Meghan Daum are asking difficult questions about what gaining the ability to make these choices means. Culturally, both argue, women have more latitude in their private lives, more control over their destinies and self-definitions, than ever before. “Wife” and “mother” are not roles we as women automatically have to assume: They are socially constructed roles we can opt to take on or opt out of. But what does this mean in terms of the ability to define one’s own path? Are there social repercussions? How many women are making these choices consciously, and how are they doing so?

Chances are, you know quite a few single women. According to the 2010 Census, 44.9 percent of the unmarried population aged 18 and older is female. Some other interesting, if older, statistics, from Unmarried Equality (a group committed to advocating for the rights of people who choose not to marry): The average American spends the majority of his or her life unmarried (2002). There are more than 56 million American adults who have always been single, representing roughly 60 percent of the unmarried adult population (2006). In 2008, 29.4 percent of men and 22.7 percent of women ages 18 and over had never married.

"But what I truly hope is that the discussion can evolve past the usual glib one-liners like ‘I forgot to have kids!’ or ‘I’d rather have my Manolos!’ and address the very real and legitimate and, I daresay, moral reasons that people have for making this choice."

Of course, these statistics raise a lot of questions, not all of which are answerable. How many are in partnerships that are not marriages? How many of these people are divorced or widowed? And, perhaps most interesting of all, for Bolick’s argument, how many of these people are single by choice?

Statistics about having children are much harder to find because not many people identify as childless or child-free by choice. There is always the specter of infertility or of not having the opportunity to have a child but wanting one. However, there is evidence that women are consciously making the decision to opt out of motherhood. In the 1970s, one in 10 American women were childless. In 2010, according to a Pew study, the number was one in five.

What the numbers tell us, then, is that the assumptions around women's private lives—first comes marriage, then children—are being called into question in a very public way. Spinster by Bolick (out in April) and Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, an essay collection edited by Daum (publishing at the end of March), are both evidence of how these choices are no longer the stuff of fairytales on one hand and the cringe-y feminist imperative of having it all on the other. It’s no coincidence that these titles share a sense of defensiveness and defiance. Both of these books are interrogating hard choices borne of lived experiences, and ideas so new that we are still struggling to find the vocabulary to have conversations about them with each other and with ourselves.

Bolick’s book grew out of a cover story she wrote for the Atlantic in 2011 called “All the Single Ladies.” In it, she examined some of the statistics about marriage above, and also looked to the future: 44 percent of Millennials and 43 percent of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete. At the same time, though, Bolick is adamant about putting both marriage and remaining single into historical context: “With my book, I place our contemporary situation within its historical context, using my own experiences and those of five women from the turn of the last century to show that the changes to marriage we see as ‘new’ are actually the result of centuries of change and progress on all fronts—legal, social, political, emotional, attitudinal, and so on.”

The five women Bolick looks to as spiritual and practical guides are journalist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, novelist and women’s advocate Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton. “I see the book as a recreation of the long, ongoing conversation I’ve been having between myself and the five women I write about,” Bolick says, “which will in turn—I hope—become a conversation between the reader and the page, which will in turn inspire the reader to have a conversation with her own self about how she thinks about and shapes her own life. If attitudes change along the way, all the better.”

When asked if she’s trying to reclaim the term “spinster,” Bolick says, “It’s fun to talk about, but in an ideal world we wouldn’t need semantic identifiers at all—we’d all be as we are, people who make myriad and diverse decisions about how to live. For now, I offer it as a useful shorthand for thinking about that within ourselves which is autonomous, whether we’re coupled or single. Certainly I want people to see that those times between relationships, when we’re on our own, can be incredibly rich, productive, and full of excitement and possibility.”

In a similar vein, Daum and the contributors to her collection put forth various arguments about choosing to remain childless and still living lives that are “rich, productive, and full of excitement and possibility.” “I expect that the book will start all sorts of discussions, since the media loves to seize on this kind of thing," Daum says. "But what I truly hope is that the discussion can evolve past the usual glib one-liners like ‘I forgot to have kids!’ or ‘I’d rather have my Manolos!’ and address the very real and legitimate and, I daresay, moral reasons that people have for making this choice. For some reason, we’ve gotten to a place where it’s more acceptable to paint yourself as a shallow materialist than to just say, ‘You know what? It’s not for me.’” Of course, there is always the environmental argument against having children: human population growth. United Nations estimates suggest that there will be 9.6 billion on Earth by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100, compared to the 7.2 billion people alive today.

Daum’s writers are not really making the-world-is-going-to-hell argument, however. Though the essays in Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed range from Geoff Dyer’s dyspeptic indictment of family life and upper-middle-class childrearing as “an appalling instance of myopia” to Kate Christensen’s account of how her baby lust abated as her marriage disintegrated, all of them feel both brave and disarmingly truthful. “As much as a taboo as it is not to want kids, the even bigger taboo is being honest about the reasons why," Daum says. "It’s mind blowing because I can’t think of anything more compassionate toward children or more affirming of the hard work that parents do than to say, ‘The job of parenting is so important that no one should do it unless they really want to.’”

As many of the writers in the collection dote on relatives and friends’ children, it becomes clear that there’s a difference between not wanting children of your own and not wanting them in the world. “Choosing not to have kids doesn’t mean you hate kids anymore than choosing to have them means you love kids,” Daum says. “God knows, there are countless parents out there that dislike any kid that’s not their own (my parents fell firmly into this category). So that’s one more way that the discussion needs to be re-framed. It’s not about being so annoyed by kids kicking the back of your airplane seat that you vow never to produce such devilish spawn. It’s about knowing what kind of life you want to live.”