book review: reflecting on life’s unconventional choices in Spinster and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed

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Spinster By Kate Bolick.
Crown| April 21, 2015|308 pages |$26.00| ISBN: 978-0-385-34714-3

Rating: ****/5*

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids Edited by Meghan Daum.
Picador| March 2015|288 pages |$26.00| ISBN: 978-1-250-05293-3

Rating: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I won an ARC on Goodreads.

“After all, artists—especially writers—need more alone time than regular people. They crave solitude whereas many people fear it. They resign themselves to financial uncertainty whereas most people do anything they can to avoid it. Moreover, if an artist is lucky, her work becomes her legacy, thus theoretically lessening the burden of producing a child to carry it out.” –Meghan Daum

Being 45 never married and childfree I could write an essay on both these books. I have written essays on these topics. At an early age, I knew I never really wanted to marry or have children. It wasn’t something I sought out in relationships i.e. a guy I would end up marrying. I never wanted to own a house. I never felt any maternal urges. I didn’t play with dolls or fantasize about weddings. I rode horses. I wrote poems.

Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed approaches the topic with fresh voices. Much superior to No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood. It’s not the usual “I’m too busy/my career got in the way and I forgot about children” argument that many people use. Many people feel plenty fulfilled with pets, careers, volunteer work, hobbies, partners, lovers and yeah, just being alone. This idea of being single or being a spinster is exactly what Kate Bolick investigates in Spinster. It’s much more acceptable to be single and over 35 these days. However there remain misconceptions and stereotypes [crazy cat lady anyone?]. In fact there are 158.3 million women in the United States and 105 million are single. Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way surrounded by wedding rings and couples.

Bolick explains: “Not until colonial America did spinster become synonymous with the British old maid, a disparagement that cruelly invokes maiden (a fertile virgin girl) to signify that this matured version has never outgrown her virginal state, and is so far past her prime that she never will. If a woman wasn’t married by twenty-three she became a ‘spinster.’ If she was still unwed at twenty-six, she was written off as a hopeless ‘thornback,’ a species of flat, spiny fish—a discouraging start to America’s long evolution in getting comfortable with the idea of autonomous women.” Bolick mixes her personal experiences and thoughts with research on literary inspirations—Edna St. Vincent Millay; Maeve Brennan; Edith Wharton; Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman to examine the idea of pursuing not just a room of one’s own but a life of one’s own choosing.

Danielle Henderson [“Save Yourself”] writes: “But to me, the lack of desire to have a child is innate. It exists outside of my control. It is simply who I am and I can take neither credit nor blame for all that it may or may not signify.” Geoff Dyer [“Over and Out”] admits: “It’s not just that I’ve never wanted to have children. I’ve always wanted to not have them.” He continues: “Of all the arguments for having children, the suggestion that it gives life ‘meaning’ is the one to which I am most hostile—apart from all the others. The assumption that life needs a meaning or purpose! I’m totally cool with the idea of life being utterly meaningless and devoid of purpose.”

Laura Kipnis [“Maternal Instincts”] states: “It’s only modern technology’s role in overriding nature—lowering the maternal death rate, inventing decent birth control methods—that’s offered women some modicum of self-determination.” She adds: “Though no one exactly says it, women are voting with their ovaries, and the reason is simple. There are too few social supports, especially given the fact that the majority of women are no longer just mothers now, they’re mother-workers.”

Unfortunately due to societal expectations and pressures it does make one feel a bit of a freak, an outsider that one doesn’t have a ring on one’s finger. That one isn’t coupled up. That one doesn’t have children. For a while you get the “you might change your mind” or “it’s not too late” or “you just haven’t met the right guy yet” when someone hears of your supposed dilemma. At 29 I had to have a laparoscopy and wanted tubal ligation but my gynecologist refused because I might change my mind I was young. Then a few months later I turned on The Today Show and see a 20something guy talking about his choice to get a vasectomy. Just because I have a vagina doesn’t mean I want to breed. I’m happy solo. I’d be a great aunt but no one wants to forge that relationship probably due to my mental illness.

Oh, that’s another thing who would want to inflict mental illness knowingly on a child. I belong to DBSA [Depression Bipolar Support Alliance] and in groups I hear person after person talking about their own children being diagnosed with a mental illness. They themselves are here in a group because they struggle with mental illness every day. Someone once said that her babies were what made her get out of bed because of her depression. Yeah, get a cat. That’s a lot of pressure for a child to be your reason to get up in the morning and not kill yourself. As Lionel Shriver writes [“Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later”]: “The odds of children making you happier are surely no better than fifty-fifty.” Elliott Holt discusses her depression and mental breakdowns in “Just An Aunt.” She writes: “I offer my three nieces an entirely different female model: a career-focused artist, with no financial security, who will probably never own a house.”

Both my brothers married college girlfriends at age 23. My older brother had all three daughters before he turned thirty. His daughter married at 21 before even graduating from college. Who knows who one is or wants to be or is a fully formed individual until age 30? Sometimes it takes a while to figure ourselves out both professionally and personally. Anna Holmes [“Mommy Fearest”] writes: “These days, as I enter my forties, I find that I am now beginning to feel comfortable in my own skin, to find the wherewithal to respect my own needs as much as others’, to know what my emotional and physical limits are, and to confidently, yet kindly, tell others no.” Kate Bolick notes: “Austen never married, Wharton didn’t fully come into her own as a writer until she’d divorced her husband, and Mary Eleanor Wilkins—a wildly successful fiction writer in her day; who like Maine’s never-married Sarah Orne Jewett before her, often chose spinsters as her subjects—did in fact produce her best work before she married at age fifty.”

An ex once told me that marriage and having children was “the thing to do.” Another high school friend said that she and her boyfriend thought about whether they wanted to be the type of couple who had children or the type who didn’t. Sounded weird. Think of first time fathers Jeff Goldblum at 60 and Steve Martin at 70. Having a child can be just as selfish an act as not having a child—- to pass on your genes; to keep your lineage flourishing; to have someone to love unconditionally.

We’ve all seen those couples who work out together or those who call each other from the grocery store to consult on what they need. Then there are those people who cannot see films alone or go to a concert. They miss out on so much for fear to go alone. Bolick, who doesn’t go much longer than a few months without a boyfriend, writes: “though marriage was no longer compulsory, the way it had been in the 1950s, we continued to organize our lives around it, unchallenged.” However on the flip side: “Having nobody to go home to at night had always seemed a sad and lonesome fate; now I saw that being forced to leave the house for human contact encourages a person to live more fully in the world.”

If you’re feeling the need for kinship, both Spinster and Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed are compelling reads. If you don’t understand how someone could choose to be single or choose not to have a child, then you need to read them also. If you’re a feminist [and if you’re reading one of my reviews you should be], these are required reading.

Kate Bolick will be at Harvard Book Store tonight, April 23 at 7pm.

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purchase at Amazon:

Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids

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  1. #1 by habibilamour on April 29, 2015 - 08:45

    For me, life is more meaningful without motherhood….I can have my career, ability to make *my own* decisions, body and individual identity intact….I am not just another link in a genetic chain

  2. #2 by reviewdirector on April 23, 2015 - 16:34

    Nice review!

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