The It’s-Not-Okay-To-Not-Have Children Act

I just finished reading The Children Act by Ian McEwan, this month’s selection for my lawyer book group. (More on the lawyer book group here.) The main character is a 59-year-old judge who never chose to have children. At the opening of the book, the marriage is rocky, to say the least, and the judge is troubled by two cases that have come before her in court involving children. One was a set of conjoined twins who would die if not separated, but only one could survive if they were. The other is a seventeen-year-old refusing a blood transfusion for religious reasons.

Despite a thoughtful and long career and good relationships with her nieces and nephews, when divorce threatens, the judge feels her life is empty and suddenly laments the lack of children. I say “suddenly” because that’s how it struck me. Perhaps it’s not how the author meant it, but I didn’t find any support for the longing being a more gradual realization or any indication the judge had ever felt particularly strongly about procreating. There was no discussion of whether the judge liked kids of any age or whether, growing up, she’d imagined herself having kids, or had a happy childhood herself, or had friends who enjoyed childrearing. I found myself checking the publication date, wondering if the book had been published in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, when it might be more likely a woman would feel the need to say she longed for children whether she did or not. But no, ironically, the publication date is 2014, the same year Time reported that “More women in the U.S. are childless than at any other time since the government began keeping track….”

Protagonist Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games

Certainly, a character can be believable who experiences sadness and loss over not having children or who has a deep connection with a child. Elizabeth George created such a character, Deborah St. James, in her series of novels about Detectives Barbara Havers and Thomas Lynley. Deb desperately wants a child and is unable to have one, and an undercurrent of sadness runs through her plot lines because of this regardless what else is happening in the books. I’m not a big fan of Deb, not because of the children issue, but because she wallows in her grief, and I become impatient her. (Which is the sign of great characterization, as I react to her as if she were a real person, not a creation of the author.)  But I believe in Deb’s angst, and it has a basis. Her backstory supports it, though I won’t detail it so as not to spoil it for those who might want to read the books and have not yet done so. Likewise, in The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins writes a moving portrait of a young woman whose love for her sister drives her to volunteer for what most believe is certain death and to fight others to the death. The feeling for her sister Prim doesn’t come from nowhere for Katniss. Years before the first book starts, her father has died, her mother has become a shell of a woman, and Katniss has been supporting her little sister in every way she can.

In contrast, the author tells us in The Children Act that the judge and her husband discussed and considered having kids over the years, but between both their careers and other life events it never seemed quite the right time. There’s no indication that as she neared an age when she might no longer physically be able to conceive that the judge gave the matter serious thought. And there’s no indication that over the years she felt anything missing in her life until the author needed her to feel bad about not having children. It felt to me like a default. Woman – kids = sad.

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Ian McEwan is not the only author who seems to believe that saying a woman lacks children is sufficient to show that she is depressed or lonely. I see this often, and it rarely rings true. It feels like lazy writing. One of my favorite suspense authors is Jonathan Kellerman, who writes the Alex Delaware mysteries. A side character in some of those is Petra Connor, a thirtyish (or maybe fortyish, I can’t recall now) woman who is distraught about not having kids yet. As a side character, I didn’t mind that being a quick item we learn about Petra, and I didn’t need more detail to buy it. But when I read Kellerman’s first book with her as protagonist, I found it hard to see her as three-dimensional. Aside from solving the crime, her driving need was to find a way to have a child. But, again, there was no particular reason for it other than, apparently, biology. It seemed like a shorthand for dealing with the need for the main character to have some sort of personal story to go along with the mystery.

Men are not the only ones who write women characters this way. Another suspense writer I enjoy is Lisa Gardiner. What I don’t like is that her single women characters tend to have no friends and spartan apartments, because apparently only married folk can shop at Ikea. (For a contrasting view of a single woman character, see Why I Love V.I.) And one of my favorite married characters plunges back into depression and alcoholism because she can’t have a child. Gardiner does more with her characters than is done for the judge to show why they, individually, feel these strong desires. But something I heard Gardiner say when she was speaking at a thriller writing conference made me wonder. She said when she gets to know someone, she first asks if they are married, then if they have kids, then if they have pets. If the answer is No to all three, she doesn’t know what to ask them because their lives seems empty to her. So perhaps authors who default to childless (or childfree, as some prefer) = sad and lonely are speaking from their own hearts. If what fills their lives and makes them happiest is a spouse and kids, then it might be easy for them to believe that anyone without one or the other of those must be terribly lonely.

Still, that’s not much of an excuse. Authors are supposed to use their imaginations. After all, some of these are writers who create complex, nuanced portraits of serial killers. Can they truly not imagine a happy woman without children?

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews on M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller), click here to join her email list.