The childfree community has been abuzz with the amazing new novel, The Age of the Child, by the equally amazing (and childfree, might I add) Kristen Tsetsi. I had the chance to speak with Kristen about her book, the motivation behind it, and about being a childfree woman in today’s society. Check out our conversation below
and don’t forget to enter for a chance to win your own SIGNED copy of The Age of the Child by Kristen Tsetsi (giveaway has ended!). If you don’t want to wait for the giveaway to end, you can purchase a copy here (affiliate link*).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the rinky-DINK life and/or the childfree community as a whole.
For those who don’t know, please explain what The Age of the Child is all about.
It’s about a near future in which the government has decided to protect the lives of all potential children, even at the risk of curtailing or eliminating the personal rights of existing citizens.
When the story begins, the administration has recently ratified the Citizen Amendment, which ensures a right to life for anyone not yet born (or, any potential citizens). This means no birth control of any kind, no abortion, etc. Katherine, who has never wanted children, learns she’s pregnant during this time and faces the challenge of trying to escape parenthood.
Many years later, the administration is forced to acknowledge the disastrous consequences of the birth control restrictions and implements parent licensing. This system, they believe, will not only preserve a right to life, but also offer the best possible quality of life to the children who are ultimately born. Any hopeful parents caught trying to circumvent the licensing process are sent to a secret, and much feared, facility known as Exile.
Millie, a questionable candidate who decides she wants to be pregnant during this time (pregnant people are highly regarded), is so determined to be what’s known as a “carrier” that she’ll do whatever it takes to become one.
As a childfree woman yourself, why did you feel it was important to highlight both extremes?
Well, the first extreme is one that some people – in real life – would actually welcome. It’s one most of us can imagine after so many years of attempts to restrict reproductive rights (for women, anyway—but in the end, just as many men can end up being unwilling fathers, no?). For example(s): Indiana GOP Senate candidate Richard Mourdock, by way of explaining why he wouldn’t approve of abortion for impregnated rape survivors, called a rape pregnancy a “gift.” A judge in Washington, D.C. who was determined to see a fetus survive ordered the critically ill mother to have a cesarean section, even while knowing it might kill the woman. (Both woman and fetus died.) An Arizona pharmacist denied a woman hormonal birth control, and this is legal in some states according to a conscience clause, “which allows pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for so-called abortifacient drugs, including birth control, if filling the prescriptions would conflict with their religious beliefs.” Miscarriages have been tried as murder. It’s hardly a far-fetched world to imagine.
The other extreme, questioning the right to parent, is simply a 180 flip on reproductive rights restrictions. I’m almost positive the same people who insist reproductive rights restrictions are “in the best interests of the children” haven’t considered what it might be like to have those restrictions expanded to include a limitation on their right to be parents. (And since it’s the welfare of children that’s at stake, I’d assume they would support such a measure.)
At its core, though, the parent licensing extreme is a reaction to the pro-creation crowd’s dedication to “saving the fetus” and their simultaneous inadequate (nonexistent?) concern for the actual people each fetus will become. Emma Klein writes in this succinct delineation of the pro-creation movement in Becoming a Mother Reinforced Why I’m Pro-Choice, “The preciousness of babies is a constant refrain in anti-abortion rhetoric — but the focus is almost entirely on making sure they’re born. […] For the anti-abortion movement, the quality of the life they purport to hold sacred is a non-issue.”
Very few books portray childfree women at all and, if they do, they are often assigned very stereotypical characteristics. You’ve written books prior to The Age of the Child that feature childfree characters (thank you for that, by the way!) but it wasn’t until this book that you decided to make the lifestyle choice a main focus. Why did you feel now was the right time?
I really enjoyed playing with childfree characters in this story more than in the others, because in The Age of the Child they begin as the oppressed demographic, much as some might say they are in real life. Anyone in this society who doesn’t want children, or more children, is forced into a sexually abstinent relationship, or is in constant fear of parenthood, or is pregnant and weighing whether it’s worth risking life in prison to find an illegal remedy, or is trying to figure out how to not keep the kids they already have, etc. But later, when the restrictions flip, it’s the people (not just women, but all people) who want children who experience some difficulty, who are questioned about their reproductive choices.
Now that you make me think about it, I must have always had a terrible fear of getting pregnant, because all of my childfree characters have ended up accidentally and unhappily pregnant (excluding Dan Palace in The Year of Dan Palace, but even if he could get pregnant, he—like many men—is more ambivalent than he is childfree*). Mia in Pretty Much True is in such denial about her undesired, accidental pregnancy that it’s only hinted at. In The Year of Dan Palace, Dan’s ex-wife, April, sneaks an abortion. And in The Age of the Child, Katherine is pregnant and desperate to remedy that—and one generation later, Lenny has no desire for kids, but various people insist on trying to turn her into a mother. Who needs psychoanalysis when you can use fiction to subconsciously address your phobias?
About timing—there wasn’t a timing calculation involved, really. I’d wanted to write about parent licensing for a while, and I started the first page as soon as I felt like I had enough of the story in my head to move it forward. But I think childfree characters are important, first in order to counter the ubiquitous people-as-parents narrative, and second, because most stories with reproductive rights as a component focus on a violation of women’s bodily integrity rather than on the emotional impact of any gender, any sex possibly being pushed into parenthood. The painful plight of people (I mean, women) who want children but can’t biologically have them is very well represented in both fiction and nonfiction, but those who don’t want children aren’t taken very seriously (which reflects the assumption that everyone does, or at least should, want children).
But please don’t misunderstand—I’m not presenting my childfree characters as representatives of the childfree community. That is to say, no one should read the book and expect to find a role model. They simply are who they are in their lives and their circumstances, and they also happen to not want children.
*Experts I’ve interviewed have said as much, that men are generally ambivalent about children, or don’t give parenthood quite as much weighty thought as do women.
There has been a lot of positive buzz about The Age of the Child in the childfree community but what has been your reaction, or what do you hope will be the reaction, from parents or others not involved in the childfree community?
I hope people coming of reproductive age in traditional households or cultures will be encouraged and empowered when they learn that parenting is not the only path; it’s a choice. I hope the parents of these kids will respect their children’s choice to not be parents, that they’ll show their unconditional parental love by not insisting their children live an undesirable life simply to fit into a mold, or to fulfill a desire for grandchildren. Most of all, I hope the way we talk about procreation will start to shift. “Why don’t you want kids?” should—seriously—become, “Why do you want kids?” That last hope more than anything else informed The Age of the Child. After years of writing childfree material to defend, and encourage understanding of, the childfree, I started thinking about what happens to the kids born as a consequence of unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.
According to the National Institutes of Health (and I’ll just let them say it), “Unintended pregnancy demonstrates predictive value as one of the earliest identifiable risk-factors for child maltreatment…Mothers’ reports of unintended pregnancy are associated with psychological aggression and neglect. Fathers’ reports of unintended pregnancy are associated with physical aggression.”
I think we assign detrimentally little importance to the emotional and psychological effects of unplanned/unintentional parenthood. The stubborn assumption—even in the face of admitted regretful parents and the five kids a day reported to die in the U.S. of abuse and neglect (and the rest of the abused aren’t dying of it)—is that everyone does or should want kids. Period. Those who “think” they don’t want kids will change their minds, because children are precious, they argue. And the abused kids…well, *sputter*stammer*…“Yeah, yeah, some kids get starved in cages, some babies get cooked in ovens, a toddler here or there might get thrown off a bridge to die, but EVERYONE SHOULD HAVE BABIES!”
Somehow, empathy and basic human compassion for these real, live people—those who can have children and the children, themselves—is completely absent within the “have children” mandate. Children shouldn’t be a universal foregone conclusion. Being a parent should only and always—for the sake of the people having them, and for the kids, themselves—be a “maybe” option, something given serious thought and involving deep personal exploration. It shouldn’t be considered the automatic conclusion to a romantic relationship. It shouldn’t be something people feel the need to do by X age or because “everyone I know is already doing it” (what unimaginable pressure), to prove adulthood, or to satisfy any other arbitrary time marker. A thirteen-year-old can have a child—reproducing doesn’t signify anything but a biological, animal-kingdom ability to create offspring. It shouldn’t be something someone does to strengthen a relationship or save a marriage. That’s what therapy is for.
And, finally, that anyone would “trick” someone into pregnancy or fatherhood should be considered one of the worst possible excuses of human behavior imaginable. It means someone is using a brand new life—someone’s very existence—as manipulation, as a game piece, and is simultaneously forcing someone into parenthood (in whatever way that person’s role as a parent ends up being handled, mishandled, or not handled). It’s beyond reprehensible.
I recently watched your interview with Good Morning Connecticut when you were promoting No Children, No Guilt and you brought up something so important. You said that childfree women are entitled to live a perfectly average life if that’s what they desire. Even in 2018, there are a lot of societal pressures on childless women — not even just to have kids but also to make the most of their childless years. Or, if people can wrap their heads around a woman not having children, there’s often an expectation for those women to have an extravagant lifestyle. In The Age of the Child, both main characters, Katherine and Millie, are faced with even stronger societal pressures that seem to go against their core beliefs. How much of your experience as a childfree woman in a society that is very pro-motherhood affect the way you shaped your characters?
I never felt the need to be exceptional to make up for having not used my uterus in a way that was expected. (Or, at all. What else would I use it for?) But it’s interesting that people do feel that way. It makes parenthood sound like the Hunger Games or the military draft. “Whew! You really got lucky this year. Better take advantage, because you never know when it’ll be your number they pull.” Having or not having kids is just one many options. Keyword: option.
Like Katherine, though, I did feel pressured to have a baby. Before getting married for the first time (at 19, to a man I’ll call Frank), my emerging awareness that because I was a woman I would be expected to someday have a child—and my discomfort with that—manifested as me asking the cashiers I bagged groceries for whether they’d have kids again if they could go back in time (90% said no). I didn’t have to think about it seriously until about a year into that first marriage, when Frank said something about it being time to talk about when to have kids. I had one of those “I think I heard a noise in the basement” panic freezes. “Really?” I said. “Like, for real?” Yes, he said. He’d always wanted “a nice house, a nice car, kids, and a wife,” he said in that order.
While the prioritization alone was enough to make me blink, it was the “kids” that made me want to run. It hit me in a heavy, real way that motherhood was expected, and when I imagined it, my future suddenly felt suffocating and dark. A few months later, a woman whose groceries I was bringing to her car asked me if I had children. I said no, that I didn’t want them. “Good for you,” she said, “Don’t let them make you change your mind. Stay strong.” She was the first person I’d met who made me feel like I wasn’t crazy. It’s been many years since that moment, and I’ve never forgotten her.
As you can imagine, the first marriage ended, and my second marriage ended, too, when I discovered my second husband—who’d said after we got engaged that he was fine, perfectly fine! without kids—was not fine without kids, after all, and never had been. He’d simply expected me to “come around” to having them.
The pressure to be a parent—and the “wrongness” I felt for not wanting to—made me angry for a long time. It was a sickening weight, thinking I was supposed to live an entire life I didn’t want to live. Dread. Dread, dread, dread. And that everyone else was doing it, that they seemed to actively want to do it, made me feel like I must be cold, or selfish, or rebellious without a cause. A bad woman. It was only when I was single, with no external prodding, that I embraced the choice without guilt. I started writing about being childfree because it pained me to think of anyone else feeling so wrong about something so natural and healthy—worse was to imagine them caving—and I wanted to do for them what that woman in the parking lot had done for me.
Note on societal gender expectations and choosing your own way: If you haven’t seen it, watch the movie Mona Lisa Smile. It’s old, but I think it holds up.
In The Age of the Child, Millie somewhat quickly decides she wants to become pregnant but that would be nearly impossible without a parent license and governmental approval. While it may be an idea confined to fiction at this time, do you think parent licenses could have a positive impact if they were required in the real world?
I know I’m supposed to say “no.” (My current, and final, husband tells me I don’t have to be honest all the time…) But, if it were possible—which it isn’t, because we, humans, are the imperfect, sometimes lovely, often cruel creatures we are—to develop a parent licensing system that were truly, objectively fair and that couldn’t be manipulated by racists, sexists, classists, or any other insecurity-driven, power-hungry –ist, I can’t see how it wouldn’t benefit children.
Do you think we’ll ever see a day when either extremes in reproductive rights become a reality?
If we do, it will be the former—we don’t like to give up our right “to have” for ‘nothin, not even kids’ safety, as the ongoing gun conversation is making clear. Realistically, I don’t see it getting that far because my generation and younger are pretty attached to our bodily integrity. But I didn’t think I’d see a day when Donald Trump would occupy the White House, so what do I know?
Would you like to share anything else about The Age of the Child?
The subject matter sounds heavy, and it is—but because of the weight of the topic, I was able to have a lot of fun with it in a dark-humor, absurdist, irreverent kind of way. The reproductive issue is just the catalyst; the characters and their desires and conflicts are the story. Buy a copy for yourself, but don’t forget your pronatalist friends on their birthdays and Christmas.
How can the rinky-DINK life readers learn more about you and your writing?
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Have you read The Age of the Child or would you like to? Let me know in the comment section below!