Bookworm: Is being sorry ever enough? Choosing to be childfree

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Mrs. Everything: A Novel”

  • By Jennifer Weiner
  • c. 2019, Atria 
  • $28, $37 Canada; 466 pages

I’m sorry. Two words that you’ve heard all your life, say reflexively a dozen times a day, but don’t always believe. “I’m sorry, so sorry, I apologize,” whatever, what does it mean? Is saying it or hearing it helpful? As in the new novel “Mrs. Everything” by Jennifer Weiner, is being sorry ever enough?

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Jo Kaufman knew that the news wouldn’t be good. The second she picked up the call and heard her doctor’s voice, heard the news, she was afraid but not because she was going to die. Jo was afraid that there wouldn’t be enough time left for her to fix her family.

“Mrs. Everything: A Novel” by Jennifer Weiner

Ever since her sister, Bethie, was born, Jo had felt that Bethie was perfect. Bethie was cute and pert, their mother’s favorite, while Jo spent her childhood feeling awkward, sure that their mother hated her, blaming Bethie for it. It didn’t help that Jo was lanky and athletic at a time when that wasn’t acceptable.

The fact that she liked girls didn’t help, either.

And so, Jo was always her family’s wild child, until Bethie started college and, through action or accident, outdid everything Jo ever did. As the oldest, Jo had to come to the rescue at least once in a big manner, and it changed her life in ways that she felt she had to accept because not accepting them was too hard. And eventually, that led to a wilder Bethie, which led to a sister-fight and an estrangement that lasted too long.

They had patched things up, though, carefully and fragilely. Jo got married and had three children. Bethie dived into Summers of Love and joined a commune. Their mother was not pleased about that, or about the rift, but things had somehow gotten better over time between Bethie and Jo.

As for Jo’s daughters, though, well, that was a different matter, as though family fights were a poisonous legacy she’d unwittingly passed down.

Was there still time left to make things right?

Put “Mrs. Everything” in your hands. Crack open the cover, smell the pages, and then remember that exact moment. It’ll be the last time for a long time that you’ll be in this world instead of the one author Jennifer Weiner gives you.

From the end of the fifth sentence, little else will matter to you except what happens to Jo and Bethie, starting in 1950 in a small tract house for what looks like a perfect family of four. You, of course, will know that the only perfect thing in that scenario is the story to come, as Weiner takes readers forward on a wave of sisterly details, switches, love, and loss. Yes, you know how this novel ends but you don’t, really, because its sixty-year journey is a lot like real-life’s unfolding.

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Authentic characters, normal situations, great storytelling, what more do you want?  This book, that’s what, so take it to your reading group, on the airplane, to your bedside, or cabana chair. Just take “Mrs. Everything.”  You won’t be sorry.

“Childfree by Choice”

  • By Dr. Amy Blackstone
  • c. 2019, Dutton
  • $26, $35 Canada; 304 pages

Every woman, it seems, has the bump. You see them at the grocery store. You see them at work, at the gym, on the street, maybe even in your own family: it seems like everyone has a baby bump except you, and that’s okay. That’s your decision, and in “Childfree by Choice” by Dr. Amy Blackstone, you’ll see how you’re not changing diapers. You’re changing society.

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For months now, your parents have been asking when you’ll make them grands, the answer to which is “never” but nobody seems to believe you. They say you’ll change your mind or that it’s “unnatural.”

That, says Dr. Blackstone, is something everyone hears if they’ve come to the same decision. Here, she picks apart the arguments that are generally lobbed at those who’ve chosen to be “childfree.”

"Childfree by Choice" by Dr. Amy Blackstone

First, the distinction: childfree is when someone has opted not to have kids which, as polls show, describes nearly fifty percent of American women ages 15 to 44. “Childless” is when someone wants children but cannot have them. The latter often comes with regrets; the former rarely does, despite the unsolicited advice.

The childfree endure a lot of scolding, Blackstone says, and it’s largely based in culture and social mythology. Choosing not to have children is common, and pregnancy is not what makes a woman. Maternal behavior is not innate, and mothers and their biological children do not have mystical bonds; in fact, it really does take a village to raise a child in some cultures, and it works.

Indeed, everybody has an opinion about women (and it’s mostly women about whom Blackstone writes) who have opted not to give birth, even as there’s a lot of thought that goes into the decision. Taking a strong stance can mean becoming something of a pariah, not to mention constant explaining that no, you don’t hate kids; no, you’re not “selfish”; and no, it’s none of anybody else’s business…

Rant, affirmation, support, “Childfree by Choice” is all that and a pile of controversy, even as it lays out very valid reasons why it shouldn’t be. Author Dr. Amy Blackstone, childfree herself, methodically shows that choosing not to be a parent is normal and quite common, and the numbers of childfree Americans are growing.

So who’s the audience for this book, anyhow, then?

Anyone who’s already eschewed reproducing will devour it; it’s a book that’ll make the childfree feel like bobblehead dolls nod-nod-nodding in recognition. It’s calm and filled with validation and affirmation to counter the guilt-tripping. Statistics and case studies further offer a sense of affinity for like-minded readers but, they aren’t the only ones to benefit from reading this book: Blackstone found in her research that childfree adults are often happy to have kids in their lives.

That’s an important point in this treatise of understanding, both of self and of other viewpoints, and it’s rich in information for non-parents and parents alike. “Childfree by Choice” is for anyone concerned about today’s family life, so bump it to the top of your TBR list.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.