February 14, 2007

Childfree Men

Book Review by Guest Contributor, David Graham
Aspiring Author & Childfree Man

The Chosen Lives of Childfree Men
by Patricia Lunneborg


A key aim of any competent book review is to give the reader some idea of how the book stacks up against its competition. In the case of my subject, The Chosen Lives of Childfree Men by Patricia Lunneborg, my task is finished before it starts because, quite simply, this book has no competition.
It is, as the jacket flap says, “the first book to explore the motives and consequences of voluntary childlessness from a man’s perspective.” I hope to change this state of affairs by writing my own book to help men decide whether to have children, but that is another subject, and here ends my gratuitous self-plug.

Before I get to the content of the book, a word about Lunneborg’s method is in order. Although she does not say so outright, her study relies on what sociologists call a “qualitative,” as opposed to “quantitative,” method. The exact ten-dollar term is “the phenomenological method,” which may help explain why she elected not to burden her readers with it.

Or, translated from academic jargon into plain English: “

"We sat a bunch of people down, asked them questions about an experience they had, and wrote down everything they said."
Lunneborg admits that this approach makes her study more “exploratory” than “scientific.” It is true that, without sampling thousands of men, we can’t know what percentage of the general population made this or that decision, for this or that reason, within x % margin of error. Nevertheless, in some ways her choice of method was better than a statistical survey. This is because human nature is to a large extent universal; we all have, at bottom, very similar needs and motives; and in the end there are only so many reasons that any reasonably intelligent person can give for not having children. Given these facts, exact percentages and pluralities seem ho-hum compared with a close examination of every reason from every possible angle. This method achieves depth where the statistical method achieves breadth.

Another good thing about qualitative methods is that you enjoy a certain amount of wiggle room in choosing your sample. Lunneborg used a “sample of convenience” consisting of thirty childfree men from the United States and the United Kingdom. Some were “recommended by friends of friends,” while most replied to ads placed through three childfree organizations. Some readers might wonder why the men were overwhelmingly well-educated and from the professions, and indeed it would have been refreshing to hear from more blue-collar men. But this is not surprising because, statistically, the voluntarily childfree tend to be more highly educated than average.

For what it’s worth, the sample does include a retired mechanic and an airplane painter. And while most of the other men have jobs requiring at least a college education, a few of those jobs probably have blue-collar paychecks attached—for example, a high school geology teacher, mainframe computer operator, elementary school librarian, rural library clerk, and “dulcimer player” (although, who knows, maybe dulcimer playing is more lucrative than I’m assuming).

Before meeting the men, Lunneborg mailed them a “Reasons Exercise” to fill out and return. It listed several reasons men might give for not having children. The men were asked to check each reason that applied to them. Later on, the Exercise allowed Lunneborg to follow up on the men’s specific concerns when she met each one for a taped, one-hour, anonymous interview. The interviews also gave each man a chance to bring up any motives or concerns not covered in the Reasons Exercise.

These interviews make up the bulk of the book, in the form of lengthy excerpts sandwiched between Lunneborg’s summaries and commentary. Some common themes emerged from the interviews, enabling her to divide the book into chapters based on the most common reasons and concerns that came up. Chapter titles include:
  1. Personal Development
  2. Relationships
  3. Not Liking Kids
  4. Early Retirement
  5. Avoiding Stress
  6. Staying the Way We Are (fear that a child might wreck an already perfect relationship)
  7. Men and Overpopulation
  8. Work and Money
  9. Mixed Feelings (daydreams about progeny that might have been)
  10. The Fatherhood Connection (relationships with their own fathers)
The very richness of these categories is enough to crack the childfree-male stereotype found in TV, movies, and popular literature. To the extent that the media bother to portray a childfree man at all—not counting the token “gay pal” in chick flicks—he is usually well-meaning, but emotionally clueless. Often the leading man’s lonely friend or brother, he somehow managed to hit the age of fifty without finding The Right Woman to have his child. And so at night while his friends read bedtime stories to dozing toddlers, he carries on a beery debate in some sports bar. At the other extreme, exemplified by Hugh Grant’s character in the film About a Boy, he is a shallow womanizer whose rejection of fatherhood is deliberate and part of an overall refusal to “grow up”.

In contrast to these stereotypes, Lunneborg’s profiles reveal men who are thoughtful and complex: They have taken great pains to question “family values” that most people take for granted, and they have taken even greater pains to know themselves. Many have rejected fatherhood not to safeguard a life of hedonism, but in deference to a hard-headed, at times exaggerated, notion of what it takes to raise a child. Some had cats or dogs on whom they spent a great deal of time and worry and love; this experience convinced them that caring for a child would be even more onerous. As a childfree man who is very attached to his three cats (one of whom very nearly runs the household), I took a special interest in the remarks of Roger, a 55-year-old Sales Manager living in Washington state:
"My view of being a father is having the responsibility of providing home, hearth, encouragement, love, support, teaching, training, etc., from the moment of birth until the moment the child leaves on his own. It’s an overwhelming task…. Three years ago we rescued a cat that was run over by a car.

I don’t know how people who have really sick or injured children manage it. But I know how I felt about this stupid cat. His jaw was broken, and I remember worrying, “Has the cat suffered? How’s he gonna eat?”…I assume you have deeper feelings of affection for a child than for a cat.

I’ve always figured children would complicate your life terribly. That cat has complicated our life. We rescued him and now it’s our responsibility to take care of him."
Lunneborg, incidentally, brings a much-needed dose of horse sense (no pun intended) to the whole issue of whether animals serve as surrogate children for childfree people:

It’s hard not to notice the role that pets play in maintaining a warm, comfortable home and how many of the dogs and cats in this book were rescued. Jean Veevers (1980) claims it is a myth that childless people’s pets serve as surrogate children. I think that in some cases here, they were surrogate children, but isn’t it the same in the homes of parents who have pets? Don’t some of them treat their pets as if they were children, and some of them not?

There is no question, then, that these men took to heart the full weight of childrearing in deciding to stay childfree. But if you think this means they had any doubts about their parenting skills or the way their child would have turned out if they had chosen to take a crack at parenting, think again.

To Lunneborg’s (and my) surprise, only one of the 30 men listed “possible disappointment” as his chief reason for not having children. (Lunneborg initially had called this reason “failure” but wisely replaced that loaded term with the euphemism “disappointment.”) And 11 men, over one third, said that not only did possible disappointment have nothing to do with their decision, but the very thought of a procreative blunder never crossed their minds. To them, raising a child was just another project whose success depends on hard work and know-how, like getting a promotion or building a deck in your backyard. A good example is Gordon, a 32-year-old programmer for Microsoft:
"I have no doubts about how good a father I’d be. I’d be successful…I would have paid as much attention to childrearing as I could have and done the best I could. For example, all children go through a rebellious phase where they want to be separated from their family. That’s going to happen, and if I had a child and got to that point, I would love that time. Because I would talk with the child and give my perspective on rebellion and help the child rebel in a productive way. I would never, never live my life through my child."
Such comments are jarring. After all, it is the male who has the reputation for bringing cold realism to the childrearing discussion. Yet here are eleven smart and successful men who, in a show of almost Quixotic confidence, refuse to entertain the possibility that, despite their best efforts, they might have produced a neurotic, a dropout, a thief, a Jeffrey Dahmer. Do these guys honestly believe that no one was ever raised by loving and capable parents and still grew up to be a loser or a whacko? Lunneborg, to her credit, was not afraid to push the issue:

Sometimes I challenged the men. Why are you denying for yourself the disappointment you see around you all the time, every day, in your own family, in the families of your workmates, in your next door neighbors, in society as a whole? Most could not begin to contemplate such a possibility.

In addition to categorizing the types of reasons they gave, Lunneborg found that the men themselves fell into three types of decision maker. Two of these types will be familiar to anyone who has read the existing childfree literature dealing mostly with women: Postponers and Early Articulators. But
the third category is almost unheard of among women:
Acquiescers - a class of men that has sparked irritation and puzzlement on childfree blogs and messageboards, Acquiescers are married men who decline to voice their own opinion for or against having children.
Instead, they go along with whatever their wife wants to do. (Here again a harsher term, such as “Wishy-Washy” or “Henpecked,” yields to a euphemism, “Acquiescer.”) As 49-year-old Sven puts it, “[My wife] had a lot of doubts about kids and I am neutral. If I had married someone who really wanted kids, we would have had kids. I like children, although the older I get the less tolerant I am.”

What bugs childfree people about Sven’s attitude is this: We know damned well that he would never dream of letting his wife single-handedly decide whether to buy a Ford SUV or a Toyota Corolla, whether to rent or buy their house, or any of the other monumental decisions that come up in a marriage. Knowing this makes it hard to swallow his claim of neutrality on the question of whether to create a human being who will live with them for at least 18 years at a cost of well over $200,000. Could he be passing the buck out of his own queasy uncertainty? Is he afraid to challenge his wife on a matter that she really cares about?

As much as I hate to leave those questions hanging in the air, I will have to stop. Although I could go on citing these provocative excerpts all day — for the book is full of them — this review is already too long and Teri is probably ready to flog me as it is. So I’ll hurry up and get to the requisite discussion of the book’s flaws. There aren’t many.

The index could be more comprehensive. I found myself wishing that Lunneborg had offered some theories to explain why the Acquiescers acquiesced, or at least had asked them tougher questions. And for a 143-page non-textbook, the $69.95 price is outrageous. But if you have anything more than a passing interest in the study of childfree men, or you are a man struggling to decide whether to have children, and you can’t find a copy at your library, it’s worth biting the bullet for this book. And anyway, it’s the only book we guys have at the moment.

[Blog Administrator's note: Did you make it to the end? Bravo, you deserve something special! Send me an email with your mailing address (I will not share it with anyone) and I will mail you a Purple Woman! button - Happy Valentine's Day!]

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Anonymous said...

David - I can't wait to read your book. We really need another one about childfree from the man's perspective, written by a chilfree man.

Thanks so much for putting the work into producing this book review. A very thorough job!

bonsai said...

I also bet his new book will cost a lot less than "Chosen Lives of Childfree Men" does!

Is that what happens to books which are out of print for a long time and then have a resurgence in popularity?

Anonymous said...

A terrific review and well worth reading to the end. Thanks for all the information, David!


Laura S. Scott said...

My research indicates that aquiescers do so because they value the relationship more than they value the opportunity to be a parent. They are usually informed early in the relationship that their partner doesn't want to have kids and they have the choice to stay or find more suitable partners.

Sometimes there is a period of separation when they take the time to sort out their feelings about a childless partnership but more often they start to question their assumption of parenthood and their motives for wanting to be a father.

Many have told me that they realized, through that process, that their motives were "selfish" or "dumb--like wanting to carry on the family name or wanting someone to play sports with, or they would realize that parenthood was just an assumption they had made, not a real desire on their part.

It's really sad to see only one book on childfree men and none written by a man. That's why I interviewed as many men in partnerships as I could find.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the review! I am really interested in men's reasons for remaining childfree. I am also interested in whether men feel the same pressure that it seems women do to have children and how they handle it.

Anonymous said...

Hi all - Thanks for your kind words. Glad I could play a part in depleting Teri's button inventory. Laura: Thanks for that info. I've thought about the reason for acquiescing that you bring up---the man's fear that pushing the issue might cause a break-up. I'm still curious as to why men seem to acquiesce so much more frequently than women. After all, a woman could give the same reason for acquiescing to the man. I guess, as the academics say, "more research is needed" on this intriguing breed. Elise: You bet your keister my book will cost less than $69.95! -Dave

Laura S. Scott said...

I don't know for sure why men acquiesce more than women, but I suspect it is because the female identity continues to be so tied up with motherhood. If a women grows up imagining herself as a happy parent, she is less likely to acquiesce to a childfree life. This is true for a man too. However, my research has shown that men are less likely to imagine themselves as parents in their early years. Most of the men I have interviewed said something to the effect "I really never thought much about being a parent. I just though it would happen some day, or not."

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Spammed again. At least this time it was relevant spam - a pet food ad link!