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The big question

Maybe Baby:
28 Writers Tell the Truth about Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives

Edited by Lori Leibovich
Harper Collins Publishers, 2006

Review by Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Although intrigued by the range of issues piled into Maybe Baby: 28 Writers Tell the Truth about Skepticism, Infertility, Baby Lust, Childlessness, Ambivalence, and How They Made the Biggest Decision of Their Lives, I didn't have particularly high expectations. Having already read many interesting and moving essays either celebrating childlessness or agonizing over childlessness, I wondered whether an entire anthology poring over that quandary would become repetitive. At the same time, I must admit that especially since becoming a parent, I'm fascinated by how people make "the biggest decision of their lives."

Lori Leibovich, the book's editor and an editor at Salon.com, writes in her introduction that the book came about because a reader's desire to see more stories about people who had chosen not to have children. This reader caused a stir amongst editors because she wanted to figure out for herself the actual costs and benefits of parenting in order to determine whether parenthood's investment potential. These concerns developed into a series posted on Salon, entitled "To Breed or Not to Breed." Reader response was so voluminous and intense that the idea for this anthology came into existence, as a way to look deeply and broadly at the parenthood question. One of the most compelling aspects of these essays is the ways these writers articulate not only how they made that decision but also what the decision has meant to them, and how their understanding of self -- whether parent or not, as person -- changed over time and through experience. This anthology doesn't represent a retread of any sort.

Each essay in this anthology is personal. Some writers bring in theory or other literature, as Elinor Burkett does in her smart essay, "Emancipation from Propagation." A feminist, an author and an academic, she pins her lack of inclination to raise children to her mother's sense of being trapped by motherhood, so much so that in order to insure her daughter didn't want to procreate, she shielded Burkett from dolls. Instead, the young girl received books and puzzles. "Subconsciously, I absorbed the message: Reading and figuring things out are more important than warming bottles and changing diapers." The author reflects upon how far women have come in this society, and additionally observes that "the assumption that women are biologically programmed to conceive refuses to crumble. The right to choose seems to have bypassed the childless." Burkett's meditations upon personal and political are compelling and thought provoking while the tone is somewhat playful, wry without veering toward defensiveness. Her essay does everything a personal essay with political undertones should do: pushes without preaching.

Lionel Shriver, in "The Baby Stops Here" also melds a political and historical perspective in order to place her personal decision into a larger context. Citing plummeting fertility rates in the US and Europe since about 1970, she writes, "There may be some poetic justice -- nay vengeance -- in the irony that, while motherhood has long been derogated as scut-work by male movers and shakers, Western women's mass exodus from this lowly labor force is hitting elites where it hurts: in the wallet and in the legislature." Yet she goes on to explain that she doesn't believe in being childless, as glad as she is to be childless. Her piece is quite thoughtful, even somewhat pensive.

Near the end of the anthology, Amy Reiter's essay, "Mama Don't Preach" sits as a companion piece to Shriver's. Reiter, mother to a seven-week old son, explains that she hasn't been converted to the view that not having children is a lesser choice. "Thrilled as I am to be a mother and to hang with this astoundingly adorable little person sprung from within, I refuse to jump on this particular parental bandwagon, the one packed with proselytizers peddling their babycentric life view."

In each of these three essays, the authors pull back from their own personal experiences enough to put themselves into a larger context yet they refrain from generalizing. A shared quality of restraint characterizes these essays.

Essays chronicling the "no" side of childrearing emphasize the pleasures found in the life of the mind, the life of the writer or creative spirit, or appreciation for the luxuries of time and freedom and travel and romance. Certainly, many essays that describe the "yes" side of childrearing dwell upon the lack of those pleasures in day-to-day life, especially when parenting very young children. While the "no" essays don't fall flat, this section is least compelling overall. Certainly, time or creative pursuits don't solely push people into or away from parenthood. As essay topics though, those issues aren't entirely compelling. And some of the essays largely focus upon opting for time or romance or work over children, a fine choice, but one that's harder to write about with an urgency that rivals either ambivalence about parenthood or parenthood itself.

However, the middle section of this book -- subtitled, "On the Fence" -- includes some essays either that left me in tears, lingered with me, or both. Here, the range of experience and perspective represented by the book's contributors begins to emerge more richly.

In "Bloodthirsty Dwarves," for example, Rick Moody writes of feeling pulled toward parenthood after his sister dies, not so much out of an urge for the cuteness children bring but because he has discovered an affinity for something he'd never earlier imagined acquiring: responsibility. Through that loss, he begins to appreciate the importance the human baseline activity of being present and comprehends parenting in a new light. He writes, "Every mother who had her kid at nineteen knows that what she has done is creative. Each day of her life, she gets to drink deep of the satisfaction of knowing that she has made a great creative sacrifice. I don't see why I can't be part of that, too. So here goes." His tone or style in life as he communicates it, isn't to be cavalier but also not overly reflective, and the genuine shift in his own perception comes across skillfully, conveying genuine surprise and affecting immediacy.

Rebecca Traister's "They Will Find You" captures the realization that as time passes, character emerges almost beyond control or intention. Traister chronicles her progression through college and her twenties as her life fails to follow her parents' example. Instead, her adventures include rocky relationships, emerging career and the discovery of uterine fibroid tumors, which at first she carefully manages, fearful that they will squash future fertility and the leisure she hoped to make choices about parenthood. One office visit, her gynecologist assures her that she's fine, but says, "'I just wish you'd hurry up and get married and have kids in the next couple of years, so we don't have to worry anymore,'" Traister -- then twenty-six -- panics. Involved but not in love, she describes her decision to wait until the relationship's inevitable conclusion: "It is the first of my conscious gambles. I'm betting that the system -- the ride of life that will make me a mother and a wife, the assurances of my friends and family, my confidence in fate and romance -- will win out." Her writing, extremely honest and perhaps above all so well observed, lifts her story right off the page.

From here, Maud Casey's "The Rise from the Earth (So Far)" also poignantly captures a woman's wrestling match with fate and action, this time centered upon her struggles with mental illness and her conflicted relationship with her physical body. The theme of one's relationship to being a physical entity surfaces in a few places in this book, and always in ways that are intriguing. For example, Casey's description of her relationship to her illness: "I wasn't so much married to my medication as I was its child, as eager at thirty-two as I was at eighteen to escape my corporeal self." Casey imagines that an unintended pregnancy -- due to the imperfect alchemy of birth control pills and Tegretol -- may be "it." She writes, "This is as close to motherhood as I'll ever get," after her abortion as she describes staring at her sole sonogram (to ascertain how far along she was) and thinking about the boyfriend's admission that "he didn't want to have children." Casey's stark honesty leaves the reader aching.

Lauren Slater's "Second Time Around" and Joe Loya's "Redemption" also focus on mental illness and the decision to parent. These particular essays not only strengthen the anthology but also remind us how little discussion there is in most of the current parenthood literature regarding mental illness.

Stephanie Grant, the non-biological mom of twin girls, writes with a bare and sympathetic honesty about her personal conundrum beginning when she and her partner learned her partner was having twins. Calling it an "unwelcome feeling," she writes, "Not regret, exactly, but a kind of panic at the realization that now I might not get to have a baby myself. It had been easy, two years before, to agree to Ara's conceiving first; it had been less easy to wait patiently month after month when she did not." She continues, "In the doctor's office, in the midst of all that joy, I was embarrassed by my ignoble feelings. What about me? I wanted to shout selfishly, gracelessly. What about my pregnancy? What about my baby?"

The book's final section -- focused upon parenthood -- offers diverse voices and varied experiences. Besides loving their children, the thread that is woven through these essays is the assured voices telling their stories. Like Amy Benfer's "Parenting on a Dare" in which she describes a literal leap into parenthood at age sixteen, many of these essays are startling and understandable at once. I found Maggie Jones' "Surprise, Baby," Joan Gould's "Once More, With Feeling," Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez' "Diagnosis: Broken," and Andrew Leonard's "Road Trip" particularly moving. Having said that, all the essays kept me interested and most I admired for the writing and the honesty and the breadth of experiences to learn from. I signal these few toward the end of the book, because with each one, I didn't want to read the next right away; I wanted to stop and sit with that writer's experience.

This anthology is, without hitting you over the head -- issue-issue-issue -- remarkably inclusive and diverse in terms of perspective and subject. Race, class, gender, mental illness, being an immigrant, loss of a family member, infertility, adoption and divorce are touched upon, often more than once. This would be laudable in itself. But it's the high quality of the storytelling that renders this a standout book. If there is any small criticism to make, it's that the experiences described belong primarily to writers, editors and academics. Surely, less literary parents and non-parents on the planet could offer different pearls, other perspectives. Having writers write these essays, however, is likely the trade-off for such solid writing.

As the title itself indicates, this book covers a great deal of territory. I found this fascinating, even satisfying. Some readers might argue that while so many issues are touched upon, even deeply in an essay or two, the book poses more questions than it begins to answer and this leaves them wanting more exploration of each thread woven into this Maybe Baby cloth. Any one of the individual sections could potentially be expanded into a terrific book. Each section, or hypothetical separate book, could then include an even greater range of voices and experiences. Perhaps this is to say that because as a reader you might be left wanting more, the supply of stories worth telling is seemingly endless.

 If you consider Anne Lamott's memoir Operating Instructions (Lamott serves as author of this book's introduction) as the grandmother of "mommy-lit," then Maybe Baby is most certainly a grandchild. These twenty-eight writers offer up an awful lot for readers to contemplate and indeed to savor. I found this collection an absolute "must-read."

mmo : march 2007

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a regular contributor to the MMO. She is a former reproductive rights organizer and turned free-lance writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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