The One and Only Lauren Sandler

Lauren Sandler is the author of the recent Time cover story, The Childfree Life. Amy and I were fortunate to meet Lauren on the set of the the Katie Couric show a couple of weeks ago. We hit it off with her right away…we think we’re best friends now but Lauren doesn’t know this yet.

In the course of talking with her, we learned some interesting tidbits about how the article developed. For example, did you know it wasn’t exactly about the childfree initially? Or that it took over a year to get to print?

We were curious about the story behind the story so we asked Lauren to answer a few questions and we’re happy to say she obliged. Here we go!

Q & A

w{n}hab!: Let’s start with the burning question everyone wants answered: why was w{n}hab! not included in the Time article? I mean, Come On!

L.S.: To tell you the truth, when I reported the story last summer (it took that long to run!) I simply didn’t know about you! That said, it does point to how varied and extensive the childfree world has become–how many meet up groups, blogs, and perspectives abound, that I encountered a rich landscape out there. Despite the fact that I talked to so many people, there were so many more I didn’t.

w{n}hab!: As a mother it’s interesting that you chose to write a piece on being childfree. What inspired you to take this topic on?

L.S.: I’m really interested in what it means to choose a life that doesn’t put mothering first. I weighed those choices in considering what it means to have one child. And I’ve deeply encountered the stigma of selfishness that comes with stopping at one. I wanted to consider the choice, and the stigma, associated with opting out of parenthood entirely.

w{n}hab!: Speaking of being a mother, the fact that you are one has caused a few ripples in the childfree community, mostly in the vein of people wishing it was a childfree person out front and not a mother. Have you gotten this feedback? How do you respond to it?

L.S.: I haven’t gotten this feedback, actually, but it doesn’t surprise me. What can I say, I’m the one who pitched the story. I’m a journalist who reports mainly on experiences which are not my personal ones–that’s the nature of this business. Time isn’t a publication that was going to run a long personal essay on the cover, but still, I was surprised that a childfree journalist hadn’t made a case for a big story about not having kids before I did. My editor is a married woman who isn’t a mother, if that reassures anyone. She thought it was actually a good thing to have a mother write the story–that it would come off as less defensive, more fairly reported. I have yet to hear that I got it wrong. The story was a catalyst for Meghan Daum to write a terrific personal essay for the LA Times about choosing not to be a mother. Marci Alboher is a childfree writer who was chagrined that she didn’t pitch the piece first, after thinking about it for years–I hope she ends up writing her story. There’s so much more to be said about the topic–I barely had room to scratch the surface!

w{n}hab!: Outside of childfree circles what has the response to the article been like?

L.S.: It’s been largely positive. I’ve done a lot of radio interviews, and of course there have been callers offering the same old selfish line, or talking about how enriched their lives are by parenthood, but for the most part, I think it’s led to a really positive, respectful conversation.

w{n}hab! (Lance): As a guy I noticed that the article was pretty lacking on the male viewpoint. Did you try to incorporate men? Are we that hard to find? Did Time snip the boys out?

L.S.: I actually pitched, reported, and wrote the story as a look at what it means to not be a mother in a culture that continues to mandate motherhood for women. I was very surprised to see “The Childfree Life” on the cover. If I had written a story to go with the title, it would have been a very different one, which would have been much more about men, instead of narrowly focusing on the motherhood mandate after feminism. But I did interview some men, and I talked to many sociologists about why the research tends to be so strictly focused on women. (Amy’s research is so necessary!) Not all of those quotes made the cut, though there still is a short paragraph discussing the absence of men on the scholarship, but that’s the tragedy of journalism when it has to fit on the page.

w{n}hab! (Lance): I’m in the middle of reading your book One and Only. For those that don’t know, you’re both an only-child and the mother of an only-child. I don’t think there’s much point in comparing the experience of an only-child to the experience of a non-existent child. However, I’m really struck by the similarities between your experience as a mother of an only-child and the experience of childfree women. Can you talk about that?

L.S.: I love that a childfree dude is reading a book often shelved in the parenting section! You’re right: there are great similarities. We are the selfish ones. We are the ones who are asked to explain ourselves. We are the ones who are presumed not to love children, to put our own needs first at all times, to be egregiously committed to careers, or superficial desires. And like the stereotypes of childfree women, the myths about parents of only children simply don’t bear up. And yet these myths seems eternal.

w{n}hab!: As you were conducting research for the article, what did you learn that most surprised you? What questions do you think remain unanswered?

L.S.: I was surprised to learn some commonalities I haven’t seen research establishing. So many of the early adopters I interviewed weren’t interested in dolls as kids, nor were they keen to play “family” with their friends. (I really related to this, myself.) It would be great to see some scholarly work on the behaviors and tastes of kids who are already forming childfree preferences and identities. I was also amazed at how many people I interview work with kids, or on behalf of kids–as teachers, caregivers, at not-for-profits related to education and child welfare. I didn’t go looking for them but they appeared everywhere. I wish there was a greater awareness of how some people live out their deep caring about kids and their future without raising one themselves.

w{n}hab!: What’s next? Do you think you’ll revisit this topic?

L.S.: It’s been a few years now of reporting and writing on people’s fertility choices, the structural and personal elements that inform these choices, and our cultural baggage about it all. I think it’s time for other people to run with the story for now, though there is so much related material from my reporting that I’m loathe to hide away in my hard drive. I’m excited to see what you two do with the topic, as well as other writers. Then maybe I’ll rejoin the conversation.

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