Last year, I wrote a controversial article in the New York Post about the fact that I didn’t ever want to have children. While some people supported my decision, I also got a lot of hate mail from people who told me that I would have been better off asking not to be born. If only I had known then about Molly Peacock’s memoir Paradise, Piece By Piece – the book is both an autobiography and an explanation of Peacock’s thorough and increadibly reasoned choice not to have kids. Peacock, who is a poet by training, handles herself quite capably in prose, sprawling through years and histories with ease. She chronicles her difficult childhood – her alcoholic father, her mother who never missed a chance to express her envy of people who didn’t have kids – without seeming bitter or hurt. Rather, each memory is a building block, giving another example of why Peacock had enough people in her life who cared for her and whom she cared for, showing how full her life was without any need for a child.
Peacock’s memoir is a mix of professional accomplishments, personal drama, and, of course, stories about her relationship (or lack thereof) to motherhood. At the age of 38, while eking out a living from grants and teaching, she becomes pregnant by her Hungarian lover. After a lot of back and forth, during which her lover admits he doesn’t plan to be a good father, she decides to get an abortion. Her coverage of the abortion is not graphic, but the descriptions of her complicated emotions are.
Decisions to abort children do not come from a hatred of children, but from the opposite: the desire to want them. My wish to be a good mother competed with the despair of coping with Tilla as a father, a father who was already imagining the fetus as a threat to his life.
After leaving the man who got her pregnant, she reconnects and finds love with her high school boyfriend, who is now a literature professor at a college in Ontario. They get married and both agree not to have children. Neither finds their life incomplete or “not good enough” in some way.
We had been born one month apart. We had married and divorced in exactly the same years. We had gone out into the wildernesses of our lives. We had not wanted to express ourselves through children, though we expressed ourselves through scholarship and through art – we were only the parents of texts. Though plenty of writers have both children and texts, producing books for us was a matter of our gifts being exercised against great odds.
Paradise, Piece by Piece could be misread as a book about not having a family. But instead, it’s the exact opposite. Peacock has a family – a motley family of a man she lost her virginity to and then married forty years later, a mother who gave up on life, and college friends who became lifelong ones. And words. Lots and lots of words.