When I told people I was reading Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids , the reactions inevitably fell into two camps. Those who exclaimed, “How interesting,” and wanted to get their hands on a copy. And those who tut-tutted, “What a stupid topic for a book.” It is not surprising that the unmarried and the childfree made up the former camp. And that parents squatted in the latter. This is the kind of book that will serve as a rally call for those foregoing parenthood, while the parented might see it as idle chatter. This divisiveness underlines the loneliness of the childfree.

In the era of ‘modern love’, when relationships obey personal preferences and don’t heed norms, not having children is still stigmatised. Through deeply personal (ranging from the tender to the smug) and often political essays, this book enervates that ignominy.

The problem with a discussion on having children or not is that parents have experienced a pre-child existence, they know a life without kids. But those who are yet to spawn, or have no wish to, have only an approximate idea of parenthood. This advantage of knowledge bestows upon the parent camp an air of superiority, nay condescension, which the childfree must constantly rage against. Also, a parent expressing reservations on parenthood is probably considered more blasphemous than having no children at all. We should laud this collection for underscoring the legitimacy of the childfree existence and deeming it worthy of exploration and literature. As Meghan Daum, the editor, writes in the introduction, “It is about time”. It is about time that we realised that we can live fulfilled and creative lives without children. It is about time the decision to not have children be deemed okay. That is all the childfree ask for — the freedom to choose and an acceptance (not a celebration) of their choice. Yes, perfectly happy couples might never have children, and some adults are content in their roles of aunts and uncles, godmothers and godfathers. Acronyms like PANK and PUNK (Professional Aunt No Kids and Professional Uncle No Kids) show that popular vocabulary is finally catching up with the times.

While any ole’ bloke or busybody dares to ask couples why they don’t have children, the reasons, as always, are complicated and personal. Writers here tell of damaged childhoods, descents into depression and discordant relationships. Or simply how the decision snuck up on them. But whatever the path, eventually they all arrive at the ‘place of choosing’.

Society tells us that maternal and childbearing instincts are ‘natural’. Cultural critic and author of Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation , Laura Kipnis writes, “It is not that I think these things [maternal instinct, mother-child bonds] don’t exist; they certainly do. They exist as social conventions of womanhood at this moment in history, not as eternal conditions, because what is social is also malleable… What we’re calling biological instinct is a historical artifact — a culturally specific development not a fact of nature…” Kipnis’ essay ‘Maternal Instincts’ forces readers to question simplistic assumptions: Do we mistake social arrangements for natural order of things? Isn’t what is natural, susceptible to change and thus reinterpretation?

The charge most often levied against the childfree is that they are selfish and shallow. And the one quality that binds these authors is the love for autonomy. Yes, they appreciate the unencumbered life, the uninterrupted conversation and the unlimited possibilities of travel and adventure. But unlike the Hollywood story (think While We’re Young ) where happily ever afters are posited on procreation, the authors invent plots beyond clichés. A meaningful life can be one of work and writing, friends and family, and not of children.

As a society, we often mistake a desire for autonomy as a selfish choice. Pam Houston writes with eloquence that motherhood is no guarantee against selfishness and generosity cannot be ‘relegated to particular life choices’. Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin , and often accused of being the Antimom, reiterates that being childfree does not ordain a lazy and lumpen path. Quoting a friend, Shriver offers advice, “I certainly don’t see my purpose being to perpetuate the human race. What makes my life worth living for me and also what, I think, redeems my life is my relationships and interactions with others, be they family, friends, lovers, colleagues, total strangers… What redeems individuals is their acts of humanity.” Andre Gide denounced families as “those misers of love”. To not have children is to not concentrate your attentions and energies on the one but to enlarge and dissipate them on the many.

The other two leitmotivs of the book are the possibility of regret and the question of legacy. Legacy is easy to resolve in the case of writers (not representative of the general population) as they leave behind a body of work, their words, their books. Of course, it is not a child, but it is their child. Regret does not oppress them, as they realise that regret is inevitable, whatever you choose to do or not do. And ‘having it all’ is the biggest and most dangerous lie of all. Nobody has it all and nobody can. Kate Christensen writes in ‘A Thousand Other Things’, “Into every void rushes something. Nature abhors a vacuum.” This book tells us that being childfree is about finding and making peace with that something else.