Lollygagger’s #CBR5 Review #18: I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids by Jen Kirkman

Full disclosure: when I first heard about this book I got annoyed for two reasons. The first was jealousy – “Oh man why did she get to write this book? I so could have written this book. Damn it.” The second was annoyance at the title – saying “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself” seems to play right into the stereotypes so many of those with children have about us childfree folks. I can take care of myself just fine and I STILL don’t want children. But as the author so kindly reminded me herself on twitter when I made such a comment, you really shouldn’t judge a book by its title.

Well, I’m no longer annoyed by the fact that she wrote this book before I could – because is it GOOD. Ms. Kirkman (a writer for Chelsea Lately) did a much better job with this material than I could have done. The book feels honest, self-aware and not obnoxious. Of course I’m probably her target audience (happily committed to the childfree life) and I’m not sure what the Eileens of the world (Chapter 11 – man I’ve met many of them) will think of it. But screw that – who cares? It’s nice to read a book that doesn’t assume that every woman in her 30s without kids is just waiting to get pregnant.

I’m still annoyed at the title a bit to be honest, just because even though she spends a lot of time explaining why she really wouldn’t be the best parent, and even though this is (cringe) her truth, it’s still sort of frustrating that such an awesome book’s first impression is “No, you’re totally right, people who don’t want children are a little broken and just recognize that we aren’t as good at life as you parents are.” But that won’t keep me from recommending the content to all my friends (the ones with kids and the ones without).

The book gives us some of Ms. Kirkman’s background, although it doesn’t feel like a full-on memoir. I bought the book on Thursday and read about 40 pages. I wasn’t able to pick it up again until today (Sunday), and I basically read through the last 160 pages in one sitting. While the early chapters were interesting, she really gets into the meat of the different ways childfree folks find themselves in uncomfortable situations. So many people say (sometimes in the comments of articles Ms. Kirkman herself has written) ‘why do you non-reproducers feel the need to talk about your choice?’ We really, really don’t. But because (some, many, a lot of) people won’t accept no for an answer, we’re repeatedly ‘defending’ a position that is really only our (and our partner’s, if relevant) business. Sometimes it’s easier to just preemptively strike.

I don’t want to take away from the joy of any potential readers by spoiling too many of the great insights Ms. Kirkman shares, but here’s one of my favorites. She spends the better part of one chapter talking through this idea that having a child somehow makes someone selfless (the opposite of us selfish childfree folks) and this whole “I really didn’t know the meaning of life until I had a child” concept. I can’t do it justice here but she basically points out that all of these parents making those claims are essentially suggesting that they had no moral compass until they reproduced, which – huh. Interesting thing to admit. She also points out that many childfree folks are contributing to society in a selfless and meaningful way, such as contributing to charity and doing all sorts of things that people with young children may not have the time to do.

She also takes on such fun responses to “I’m not having children” as “But you’d be such a good mother!” and “It’s all worth it!” while addressing how amazingly insulting it is for some people to just assume they know someone better than they know themselves (the “you just think you don’t want kids” condescension). The liberties people take when they hear ‘no’ in response to ‘are you having children’ is mind-boggling, and Ms. Kirkman does a pretty great job in the Eileen chapter of pointing out how horrible and violated it can make us childfree folks feel. We actually DON’T owe anyone an explanation, and yet somehow we always end up having to defend our choices to people at cocktail parties and weddings even if we really would rather be talking about literally anything else. We also really don’t like being forced to essentially lie to try to make small talk easier for the person with the child who cannot understand.

She does veer a little into a sort of ‘huh’ realm with what I think might be an ill-advised analogy in the last chapter but I do get what she’s aiming for. And it doesn’t take away from the rest of this well-written book. If you’re interested in hearing her perspective before committing to buying the book, check her out on the April 18 episode of Citizen Radio – it’s what convinced me that I really needed to read this book.

One last quote I’ll be keeping in my back pocket in case I find myself facing boorish folks at a cocktail party thinking I just rolled out of bed at noon: “I get up at seven on weekends because I love my free time. Not every childfree person sleeps late and parties all the time. I am still a grown-up.” Preach it.

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