Childless writers address choice to forgo parenthood

Writer and director Henriette Mantel was at a reading for fellow comics when a familiar theme took root.

"They were all reading these essays about their kids," says Mantel, who doesn't have children. "Everyone was laughing, 'Ha ha! I know!' and I turned to my friend and said, 'What about me?'

"He said, 'Go write your own.'"

So she did.

"Yes, there is a little sadness around (not having kids)," she writes in that essay, "The Morning Dance." "But there's also a little sadness around the fact I may never get to go to the moon. Jeez, you can't do everything in this lifetime."

Her essay opens "No Kidding: Women Writers on Bypassing Parenthood" (Seal Press), a new anthology she edited that includes pieces by comic heavyweights Margaret Cho, Nora Dunn and Merrill Markoe, among others.

"The traditional rules for having children are long gone," Mantel writes. "Some days I feel like the harder choice is to not have a kid."

At a time when women are running Lockheed Martin (Marillyn Hewson) and Yahoo (Marissa Mayer) and Germany, for Pete's sake (Angela Merkel), I'd think having children would represent just that: a choice. One of thousands that we trust women to make for themselves, without our prying or judgment.

Mantel says that has not been her experience. "There's such a stigma around not having them," she told me. "If you're a woman who has hit 40 and you don't have kids, people wonder why."

Her book offers a few of the countless reasons.

Sue Kolinsky writes about giving child-bearing the old college try in "In-Fertile Ground," which begins with her first attempt to get pregnant: "The next morning I awoke with a smile and a craving for pickles and ice cream. I thought, 'Wow! Does it really happen that fast?'

"No," she learned. "Unless you're 17, living at home, with a book report due."

Two years and 15 failed artificial inseminations later, Kolinsky decided to focus her energies elsewhere.

Betsy Salkind, who has worked as an activist for child protection legislation and volunteers with troubled teen girls, believes the globe has enough children to support.

"This sense of some mandate to reproduce seems rather outdated to me," Salkind writes in "Why I Didn't Have Any Children This Summer." "When God said be fruitful and multiply, there were only two people."

Merrill Markoe simply never wanted to be a mom.

"No one in my family of origin seemed particularly enamored of that role," Markoe writes in "Why I Never Had a Kid." "The only thing I do recall hearing my mother and my grandmother repeat on a regular basis with regard to raising children was a heartwarming retort that went, 'One day you'll have kids of your own, and then we'll see how much you like it.'"

She considers her decision something of a public service.

"My dogs, the only creatures on the planet marked by my singular nurturing imprint, have all turned out to be rude and self-absorbed," Markoe writes. "In all likelihood, if they were children instead of dogs, I would have foisted more Charlie Sheens or Kardashians onto our crumbling culture."

Mantel says an off-Broadway producer approached her about adapting her book for the stage.

"Margaret Mead suggested that the generative impulse could be expressed in other ways," Mantel writes, "such as passing ideas on to the younger generation through teaching, writing or by inspiring example."

"No Kidding" strikes me as Mantel and her fellow writers answering that call: inspiring the next generation to give a clear-eyed look at all the paths before them and to choose the one that leads them to know their truest selves and does the greatest good.

For some, that may include parenthood. For others, it surely won't.

There's no room for a stigma around that.

hstevens@tribune.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

"There's such a stigma around not having (children)." — Henriette Mantel

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