Jen Kirkman: Childfree by Choice

The Chelsea Lately comedian grew tired of people asking her why she didn’t have children. So she wrote a book about it.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Jen Kirkman was washing her hands in the women’s bathroom at a comedy club in Addison, Texas when an audience member walked out of the stall. She said she loved a joke Kirkman had just told. It goes: “My husband and I don’t want kids. We can’t have a third person running around who is more helpless than the two of us.”

While casually fixing her hair in the mirror the woman asked Kirkman, “But you want kids someday, right?”

No, Kirkman told her, we’re childfree by choice.

“Isn’t that selfish?” the woman replied.

“It was the way this woman cemented her bangs to her forehead while she coolly tossed off a judgment about my person that made me realize that whether she was even aware of it or not, somewhere in her core she just assumed that everyone wants to have children, and to not want children indicates some sort of factory malfunction,” Kirkman writes in her new book I Can Barely Take Care of Myself. “She made me feel like not wanting kids was a character flaw on my part.”

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself is Kirkman’s funny, spirited response to all of the women who have said to her, “But you want kids someday, right?”

No, she doesn’t.

“I think a lot of people are kind of tormented by (choosing to be childfree),” Kirkman said. “Hopefully this will be a comfort to them, and maybe it will help other people who ask those kinds of questions to understand, ‘Hey I know you mean well, but this is how it affects us. We’re sitting here obsessing over what you said, long after you said it, and you’ve probably forgotten you said it.’”

Kirkman’s book has received the highest blessing—praise from her boss Chelsea Handler, who says, “Jen Kirkman has written an excellent–and very funny–guide to promote not having children. Thanks, girl, for saving me the time.”

I spoke with Kirkman a few hours before her first standup set of the night at the American Comedy Company in San Diego. As an established stand-up comic who is a writer and performer on Chelsea Lately and After Lately, she draws crowds all over the country. When we spoke she said she had just spent the afternoon napping—one of the perks of being childfree by choice.

I Can Barely Take Care of Myself (Simon & Schuster) hits shelves April 16, 2013.

I think you revealed something unintentional in the book – we have a small talk problem in America don’t we?

Yes, oh-my-gosh this is like my favorite topic. I hate small talk. “How’s your day going?” I don’t even know how to answer that. Let’s talk about religion or politics. I’m down for that. It just can’t be so personal. This happens at parties and weddings and the nail salon. The first thing people ask is about your marital status and your child status. Imagine if I wanted kids but couldn’t have them.

People probably ask with the best intentions. Like: “You seem like a good person. You would do well with kids.”

Maybe I’m better suited to head up a charity or give people hugs. It takes a lot more practical stuff than being a good person. Once you have something you created or even if you adopt, it’s your own. You really do just go into survival mode and love the shit out of it, but I think you need a certain kind of patience and a sense of humor that I don’t have about it.

Isn‘t it selfish to not have kids?

I have elderly parents now, and I am in the position where I can help them on different levels. I’m taking that responsibility seriously. I have nieces and nephews and sisters. I don’t think I’m selfish. I actually looked up the definition of selfish and all it means is “of the self.” I think people confuse narcissistic and selfish. Narcissism is like everything relates to you, and you have no empathy for others. I hope parents are selfish, too. I hope they don’t lose who they are.

You write that the thought of having children is “terrifying.”

It’s just a complete unknown. You are allowed, legally, to leave the hospital with a baby and nobody comes and makes sure you’re doing it right. That is terrifying.

But how does that make you different than anyone else?

It’s like horror movies. I have friends who watch a scary movie because they know it’s not real, and they can go to bed at night. I’m like, “No, I’m absolutely terrified. I don’t even want to see it.” I’m not willing to go into the haunted house because I already know how much it could scare me.

But who’s going to look after you when you get old?

I am protected by the wonderful people in my life, and I’m sure I will know younger people even though they aren’t my own kids. I can hire people because I didn’t have to pay for anyone to go to college.

You’ve built a community of people around you.

Unless they all die, too. I’ll need a boyfriend who is 30 years younger than me.

You say child-free career women get a pass because their devotion to career is seen as maternal. But then you say, “Women don’t have to have maternal urges to be women.”

That was my automatic response to people. But one day I checked in with myself, and I was like, “I actually don’t feel maternal about my career, either.” A lot of people say, “When you’re 55 and you’ve made enough money to retire, then what? Then you’ll regret it.” No. If I had three million dollars I would give up my career and travel the world and do all kinds of interesting things. I don’t feel maternal about anything. I wanted to make that OK, too.

What are the benefits of being 38 and not having kids?

I’m finally at the very beginning of doing what I want for a living and getting paid for it. I have a lot of energy. I feel like an on-call firefighter. I can help where I’m needed. If there is a charity that needs donating to, I’ve got extra money because I’m not taking care of a kid. I can babysit my friends’ kids. I can give advice to my niece and nephews. I can help my elderly parents. So, it’s like, “I’m there if anyone needs me.”

You were a 30-something temp filing in a windowless room at a law office when Chelsea hired you to write for Chelsea Lately.

She saved my life. She saved the quality of my life. I had gone back to temping because I had a couple of gigs here and there in showbiz that never lasted, and I went back to making 10 dollars an hour. I was just like, “Oh, I don’t know what to do.” I had heard that the Chelsea Lately show was looking for writers so I wrote a sample joke packet and got hired. Then of course she puts all of us on the show and lets us be ourselves. That changed my life.

What did Chelsea say about the book?

The biggest compliment she gave me was, “This sounds like you.” I think when you’re a comedian and you write a book, you’re not trying to be like Ernest Hemingway and change American literature.

You touched on your divorce in the book. Is that your next big topic?