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Otherhood: Essays on being childless, childfree and child-adjacent
ed. Alie Benge, Lil O’Brien & Kathryn Van Beek

A 'kaleidoscopic' collection of essays and 'a testament to the various connections that shape our lives'.

By June 5, 2024No Comments

It makes sense that an essay collection about feeling ‘on the outside looking in’ on traditional experiences of parenthood opens with a quote from Sheila Heti’s Motherhood – a book once hailed as the ‘defining work’ on ‘voluntary childlessness’. Published in 2018, Heti’s book follows a nameless narrator ruminating on whether or not to have a child. Slowly, agonisingly, Heti peels back the layers of her protagonist, her desires, and the many ways in which society has pushed women into the moulds of compulsive motherhood. ‘There is,’ Heti writes, ‘something threatening about a woman who is not occupied with children. […] What is she going to do instead? What sort of trouble will she make?’

Otherhood sets out to answer this question through a kaleidoscopic offering of 36 essays. Conceptualised by the editor trio Alie Benge, Lil O’Brien, and Kathryn van Beek, the book aims ‘to reduce stigma’ and provide ‘a counter argument’ to common myths around childlessness, infertility, and choosing other forms of caretaking. The introduction presents the driving force of these myths and a possible reason why Heti’s narrator – and, in reality, the majority of people socialised as women – might face pressures about having children: ‘pronatalism’ or ‘the taken-for-granted worldview that having children is something you should do, and will bring life fulfilment and happiness.’  In the book’s introduction, the editors quote Dr Tracy Morison, a specialist in ‘reproductive decision-making’:

Nobody questions why people want to have children – it’s just taken for granted […]. But if you don’t have children, the three stigma positions are that you’re sad, you’re mad or you’re bad. If you can’t have children, that’s very sad. If you’re deliberately not having children, there’s an assumption of deviance – of being mad. Or that you’re bad – you’re incredibly selfish and materialistic.

More than ever, this societal pressure clashes with sinking birth rates, both in Aotearoa and globally, a society that allows for more diverse life plans, and various circumstances that might leave people on the outside of traditional parenting roles. Otherhood is topical, and it resonates – as evidenced by the highly successful crowdfunding campaign that helped pay its contributors.

The essays here make for diverse reading that transcends a simple summary of ‘writers without children’. Some of the contributors speak of IVF treatments that do not end with a ‘miracle baby’ (an earlier publication of Kate Camp’s essay about her IVF journey sparked the inspiration for this collection). There are stories about taking care of step children, foster children, relatives, and other people’s babies. Some share the happiness and fulfilment they have found being childfree and following their passions through jobs, creative projects, and extensive holidays; others delve into trauma, shame, and loss. The titular ‘otherhood’ repeatedly intersects with and is complicated by questions of gender, sexuality, race, religion, and disability.

This emotional diversity is also reflected in stylistic and formal variation. Some of the pieces incorporate lists, diary entries, dreams, or poems. Others break with the essay format altogether: Sam Orchard’s ‘Trunclehood’, for one, takes the form of an educational comic, guiding the reader through the intricacies of queer caretaking and his own chosen trans unclehood. The sheer variety of approaches, both thematic and stylistic, is the primary strength of this collection, making it one of the most thorough and varied personal approaches to this topic to date, both in Aotearoa and elsewhere. It is to the credit of the editors that, despite its polyphony and the vast span of emotions, the collection flows gracefully and the pieces are arranged to complement, contrast, and enrich each other.

Tender conversations develop from the ways in which experiences, sentiments, and thoughts echo through the essays. ‘I hope I don’t appear to others as a selfish person,’ writes Helen Rickerby when she tells the story of her fulfilled life, ‘but I have arranged my life so I can be.’ As if in reply, Lucy O’Connor relates an episode in her early teens where this sentiment was directed at her almost verbatim by the father of one of her friends. Later, O’Connor compiles a list of all the complications both pregnancy and birth can entail and concludes that ‘growing and birthing children is dangerous work.’ Disability advocate Henrietta Bollinger recounts invasive questions by health professionals.

It turns out that our Adoption Act is a relic of the 1950s. Children are treated as the chattels of their parents and in some cases, doctors can determine who has the physical and mental capacity to parent. I’m thinking about the disabled people I know who have been called selfish for becoming parents, or questioned about whether they really wanted their pregnancies, if their partners did. I have heard of people asked to confirm if the kids are really theirs.

It is in such moments that the collection shines brightest: when the sheer act of telling personal stories unmasks dominant narratives as both nonsensical and harmful.

What, Otherhood asks, makes a mother anyway? Already on a semantic level the term is malleable, porous, and limited. ‘Am I a mother?’ van Beek asks, writing of the children she lost to miscarriage. ‘Can I still call myself a mother?’ asks Iona Winter after the death of her adult son. ‘I wasn’t a mother,’ writes Melanie Newfield in ‘Send her back’, describing her equally taxing and fulfilling years of fostering children, ‘but I was something.’

This was one of the thousand ways I knew I was not a real mother when I fostered. In fact, I wasn’t any type of mother. These days, the term ‘foster mother’ isn’t used. The official terminology is ‘caregiver’. I was always watching my words, conscious I wasn’t supposed to be talking about the children I cared for, protecting their privacy, their dignity, their safety. […] Quite often, people said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ as if they needed to emphasise the difference between them and me.

Not only are there no words to describe their roles – in many ways, our shared understandings, cultural markers, and even laws don’t accommodate life paths outside the commonly lauded milestones. In Newfield’s case, there were no baby showers and no congratulations to mark the beginning of her role. Instead, her employer viewed her caretaking as secondary employment that might interfere with her productivity. ‘I made sure,’ she writes, ‘to never mention fostering in front of anyone from HR ever again.’

Otherhood is a vibrant antithesis to the assumption that only biological motherhood can fulfil a life and a testament to the various connections that shape our lives. ‘My family’, writes O’Brien, ‘is those I’ve found, and those who’ve found me, and it’s a joy to think that there’s more family out there that I just haven’t met yet.’ Perceptively, Carolijn Guytonbeck describes herself as a ‘thread that weaves horizontally, but not vertically’: she has spent her life taking care of her niece and her parents, mentoring and teaching, and she writes of sharing her lives with animals and planting trees – her legacy for generations to come. And Paula Morris shares the stories of her childless aunties and their possessions with warmth and humour, because ‘memories can’t be inherited. But stories can.’ Made up of many such individual stories, each of them a challenge to dominant assumptions, Otherhood is both gift and resource for those looking for ‘other’ experiences.

Otherhood: Essays on being childless, childfree and child-adjacent

ed. Alie Benge, Lil O’Brien & Kathryn Van Beek

Massey University Press

ISBN: 9781991016744

Published: May 2024

Format: Paperback, 308 pages

Sara Bucher

Sara Bucher is a fiction writer from Zurich, Switzerland, now based in Pōneke. She has a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Auckland.