As a longtime fan of comedian Jen Kirkman’s stand-up and Pod F. Tompcast appearances, I was eager to read her new quasi-memoir, I Can Barely Take Care Of Myself. The fact that it’s about how her life experiences informed her choice to be child-free—hence the title—was something of an added bonus. Personally, I also don’t have kids, but it’s due less to an active choice and more to pure ambivalence; I’m not really driven to get married or make a family, but even if I’m more childless-by-inattention, rather than by -choice, I still sometimes find myself forced to defend my status to strangers who think it’s totally OK to go from learning my first name to lecturing me on how I’m obliged to enter into motherhood. It’s in that spirit that Kirkman wrote this book, as a response to all the cab drivers, manicurists, and random mothers at dinner parties who ask her if she wants kids, finds out she doesn’t, and then become determined to convince her she’s wrong.
For the first half of the book, there’s a nice balance between depicting these confrontations and anecdotes from her own life that explain the reasoning behind her choice, and, given Kirkman’s talents as a comedian, there’s no lack of humor. There’s also no shame when it comes to describing her more embarrassing moments, like when she was rejected by a goth ex-boyfriend after trying to win him back with a copy of Judy Blume’s Superfudge (as an adult!) or got fired from a babysitting job as a teen by telling the small child in her care that murder didn’t exist, thus prompting him to constantly wonder allowed if he could try to kill someone. Both stories contribute to her case against becoming a mother in their own small way.
The only problem with this book is that I would’ve prefered more about Kirkman’s life and less about her anti-motherhood stance, especially since it’s purely reactionary and entirely personal. Again, on this point, I feel her pain, because when you tell people with kids that you don’t have them yourself and don’t care if you ever do, many jump to the conclusion that you think less of them for choosing to have a family, even if you could give less of a shit about their decision to have kids than your own.
As such, the amount of time the book dedicates to railing against pushy, pro-child people, while funny, seems overly-aggressive, especially given how conciliatory Kirkman is to other people’s personal choices. When a woman with a cranky toddler takes too much time in front of Kirkman at Starbucks and misinterprets Kirkman’s joke about being late for work by sniping at her that, “it must be nice not to be responsible for anyone,” Kirkman readily admits, “I’m well aware that I don’t know the first thing about how to parent a toddler, but it did seem kind of selfish for this mom to hold up the ever-increasing line.”
So many of the points Kirkman makes—about how you can be selfless without having a child, and how she’d rather have a trained staff than her bitter offspring take care of her in her old age—are funny and valid, but that she’s writing this not because she can’t understand other people’s choices, but because they can’t understand hers, gives this book an agenda it doesn’t really need.
Kirkman’s stories about growing up in suburban Massachusetts and being a weirdo are funny enough on their own to require couching in a grander argument about being child-free, but I’m just glad they’re getting out there. I hope people can appreciate this book as a humorous defense of her personal choice, not an angry indictment of the personal choices of others.