The book with spine I'm plugging this month is Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum.
Sometimes, a book with spine reveals something new to you, but sometimes it validates something important in your life. For me, this book is of the latter variety. As a writer myself, I picked up the book of essays by writers because I was curious about how other writers came to the same decision as I did about parenthood (the decision being to remain childfree by choice, which is an important distinction from people who want kids but can't have them).
As you would expect from writers, the essays are well constructed and well argued. From a craft point of view, you get a great masterclass in how to write great personal essays. Of course, the content resonated with me, although the males' point of view, not so much. I just think that for people born women, the concept of choosing to be childfree is an issue on a far grander scale than for men. Sorry, dudes. If you are a female-identifying writer who is on the fence about having kids, this book could be incredibly powerful. It's rammed full of sound rationale for fully embracing the creative life, which may offer some readers real comfort.
However, the one thing that struck me about writers writing about this topic is how inadequate words are, and none of the essayists really tackled the lack of appropriate language for childfree-by-choice cis women, like me. So, in a move of breathtaking arrogance, I'm offering you my opinion!
Words Fail Me: Communicating My Choice
The English language was once the stooge of the British Empire, busy appropriating words from other cultures for its greedy master. Nowadays, English has atoned for its imperial past by becoming the most hospitable language on Earth. It no longer goes abroad to steal; rather, it welcomes thousands of foreign/alien words with open arms and makes them feel right at home, no questions asked.
I love English’s speedy adaptability. Even as I write, the new term “social distancing” is being entered into the OED. Though there is always controversy around certain language developments (lately in the sphere of gender identity, where vocab moves at breakneck speed), it’s critical that people take control of the language that refers to them. And it’s their inalienable right to choose their words carefully.
You might have noticed I steer clear of the word “childless”, which to me suggests something is missing, and for women who want children but are without them, this word feels especially unkind. I’m not especially keen to refer to myself as “childfree” either, reminiscent as it is of the prolific food-related intolerances of our age, as if the mere whiff of a fertilized egg in my uterus might trigger anaphylaxis.
So, if not “childfree” or “childless”, what? I would prefer to describe my persona as a “woman without children” (people-first language) and refer to my counterparts “women with children”, but I know that most of them would rather be called “mothers” because it’s a label that carries a great deal of weight in society. Even bad mothers get more respect than non-mothers, on the whole!
Sadly, women without children have no equivalent of the word “mother” that might respect their particular reproductive decision. “Non-mother” is another one of those oppositional words, like “childless”, so that won’t do. Old English would have labeled younger women without children “maidens”, which has a certain charm, but older women were called “crones”… not so nice.
We have hardly any deities from which to draw our alternative moniker, given that the ancient pantheons and most religions are simply potty about fertility. “Libertas”, the goddess of freedom, was about the closest I could get, but I do not want to be confused with libertarians, so that’s a no-go.
I guess the best we can do is 'nullipara', which is the medical term for a woman who has not given birth and encompasses those who are not fertile (too young, too elderly, and the infertile) and those who have chosen to defy their fertility. It will take some explaining, but we've seen lately how quickly new terms are adopted. So, I say it's worth a go: let's change it from an adjective to a noun, and maybe even a verb ... 'to nullipara: to choose or to embrace a childfree life'.
Nulliparas of the world, unite!
Book Review: Start Something That Matters (Random House, 2011)
At the start of 2018, I made it my resolution to read one fiction and nonfiction book per month for pleasure. Now, that may not sound many, but I probably read at least two other books per week as part of my day job, so it’s a realistic goal rather than an ideal one.
In February, I chose Start Something That Matters, by the founder of the TOMS shoe brand, Blake Mycoskie. It's been in publication for seven years now, but I only came across it recently and was curious. I was interested in it because social entrepreneurship is such a growth area, and since TOMS launched, other “one-for-one” initiatives have sprung up. Did TOMS invent that model? Perhaps not, but it is certainly the highest profile example, and as such, it has undoubtedly inspired other for-profit companies that give one of whatever they sell to someone in need, including Warby Parker (eye glasses) and Smile Squared (toothbrushes).
Having worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years and seen the struggle organizations have in raising funds, I LOVE the “conscious capitalism” movement. Companies like TOMS would never replace the not-for-profit sector, which often plays such a critical political role, but social entrepreneurs are adding something valuable to the philanthropic landscape. I have high hopes that, one day, giving will lie at the heart of every successful business and that corporations that don’t follow suit will simply not survive.
Mycoskie’s book is a clear attempt to influence people of his generation and younger to follow his lead. He says, “I feel a deep responsibility to share everything we have learned at TOMS, so that as many others as possible can start something important.” It could have been a straightforward business biography, with some advice thrown in, but in keeping with his view of the world, Mycoskie explores a range of other inspiring stories of mission-driven people with a simple idea who are making a difference.
“Simple” is a key message of the book. You cannot save the world yourself, but you CAN solve one of its problems. It’s a powerful point. Mycoskie had a lightbulb moment in 2002 while on a trip to Argentina. He liked to wear the locally made alpargata shoe and thought they would have a market in the United States. But then he discovered that local children were walking barefoot to school, and he realized how much easier and more comfortable the kids’ lives would be if only they had shoes, which is something we all take for granted in the affluent West. In 2006, TOMS carried out its first “shoe drop” of 10,000 pairs in Argentina and the brand was truly born.
The book is a useful guide and giver of inspiration. However, it’s not the most riveting read. My principal criticism of the book is that the writing is somewhat sterile, and I don’t get a clear impression of Mycoskie. He had a cowriter, which may explain this absence of voice. This is an issue for people who have something to say but need a cowriter or ghostwriter to say it for them, and even the best ghostwriter in the world will still act as a filter (perhaps unconsciously) that sifts out some of the nuance of an individual’s voice. But in this case, I doubt “voice” was Mycoskie’s main concern. He set out to honor his responsibility to share the TOMS experience, not blow his own trumpet, and he achieved it. And, if you yearn to start something that matters, you should definitely add this book to your reading list.
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith