But recently, as millennials are coming of age as both prospective parents and as authors, characters are questioning the status quo. “Fuck all those childbearers and their ‘fulfilling’ lives, never getting to have adventures like mine,” thinks the 38-year-old narrator of Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, for whom the prospect of children is “like something mildly distasteful: a piece of onion I would prefer not to put on my plate”. “Why bother having a kid when the world’s going to hell anyway?” wonders one character in Ottessa Moshfegh’s A Year of Rest and Relaxation. “Why do you want children?” the narrator of Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar asks her boyfriend. “He shrugs. ‘So we can be like everybody else.’” In Amina Cain’s Indelicacy, a woman objects to her husband’s expectation that they will someday have children. “Why is it necessary for everyone to think of it, as if there were no other choice?” she rages at a friend.
The climate crisis has presented an opportunity to rebrand being child-free, once the greatest taboo, into the ultimate altruistic act. At the same time, parenthood is framed as the ultimate investment in a better future. But choosing to have children is neither inherently good nor selfish, and the same goes for being child-free. We must challenge the orthodoxy that says choosing to live one way is a criticism of another. Just this week comes a new novel by Emma Gannon, Olive, which centres on a woman in her 30s who has chosen to be child-free; Gannon herself has spoken about being made to feel guilty for her choice. What we need instead is a quiet revolution, a complete reappraisal of what we deem to be a meaningful life. I, for one, will continue to turn to books, where I find reassurance in the strangest of places. In one tiny strand of The Overstory, Ray and Dorothy, a couple who have spent thousands on fertility treatments, finally decided to move on. “In place of children, then, books,” Powers writes. “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilisation ascending to its still-obscure destiny. He wants only to read on, late into the night, about the rising quality of life, the steady freeing of humanity by invention, the breakout of know-how that will finally save the race.”