“Lots of people want to be me now.” That’s the author Rebecca Solnit talking. She is mostly referring to her successful career. But what I love about that statement is that it refers to someone who is 56, has been single her whole life, and has no children.
First, for those not familiar with Solnit’s work, a word about her many successes. She is the author of 20 books. If you know of only one of them, it is probably Men Explain Things to Me, which inspired the now-popular term “mansplaining” (though she didn’t coin it).
She also writes great essays. If you know of just one of them (other than the mansplaining one), maybe it is the Harper’s piece about Donald Trump – it was viewed a million times in just three days. Or maybe it is “The mother of all questions,” her brilliant polemic on getting asked about why she didn’t have children. It became the title piece in a subsequent book of essays.
Now about the not-married and no-kids part. She gets asked about that a lot. Here’s what she told The Guardian:
“Yes, the having-children dilemma,” she says, giving the finger to an imaginary interlocutor. “It’s about what makes a worthwhile life. The person who asks you that question – why don’t you have children? – doesn’t want to know you more deeply. In fact, it’s not a question. It’s an accusation. What they’re saying is: I’ve judged you, and found you wrong, weird, insufficiently feminine. What’s so maddening is this assumption that children fulfil a woman – as though we’ve never seen an unhappy mother. It’s the same with marriage. Guess what? There are unhappy marriages: I even saw a movie about one, once. These people see love as a commodity that is there to be gathered. It’s a very aspirational, even capitalist, view of love.”
She’s probably been accused of hating children. That’s off the mark, too. She wants to expand our notion of relationships that count, and “de-nuclearlise” the family. The Guardian’s summary of what she means by that is: “in the 21st century, just as in centuries past, aunts and uncles, cousins and friends matter just as much.”
In “The mother of all questions,” Solnit did offer some of her reasons for not having kids, including, for example, “though I love children and adore aunthood, I also love solitude” and “I really wanted to write books, which as I’ve done it is a fairly consuming vocation.”
In the Q & A period of a talk she gave about Virginia Woolf, several audience members wanted to discuss whether Woolf should have had children:
“What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses…After all, many people have children; only one made To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and we were discussing Woolf because of the books, not the babies.”
Solnit never craved fame. She describes herself as “an introvert who loves staying home alone” and who still lives fairly frugally. Her golden age, she says, “was 20 years ago, a young woman with a pick-up truck, travelling across the American west, participating in land right struggles. There was no internet, which gave me a certain quality of time. The writing was going somewhere, and I was making a modest living. It was a great adventure.”
There are many different kinds of people who are single with no children. My guess is that, among those who live their single lives fully and unapologetically, a substantial chunk of them love their solitude, their work, or both.