There's so much discussion now about whether or not women should have kids, whether they need to, whether they will regret it or be overjoyed with their decision. It's a surely complex issue and now Jackie Shannon Hollis has written a fabulous book about it ( "A childless love story") called THIS PARTICULAR HAPPINESS. When she falls in love with a man who doesn't want kids, her own yearnings for them begin to loom, as they both search for ways to both live with and satisfy those longings. It's such a great, great sure-to-be-talked about book! Thank you so much, Jackie for being here!
I always want to know what was the Why Now moment for you writing this memoir? What surprised you about it?
Thank you, Caroline. I’m honored that I get to have this conversation with you.
This Particular Happiness Through my thirties and early forties, I struggled with my decision to not have children; the longing in me was powerful but it also sat side-by-side with the freedom and unexpected paths that came of not having children. By the time I hit fifty, I thought I’d settled with being childless. The space had filled in with so many fulfilling things, including many nieces and nephews. Then, in my mid-fifties, when the physical possibility of having a child was clearly no longer on the table, I discovered a new, and unanticipated, layer to my decision. My mother’s health was rapidly declining. Her death would change my sense of family. My nieces and nephews were marrying, and my sisters were soon to become grandmothers. I felt a shifting in these family units, a kind of closing in. I was invited into them but they weren’t mine. I wasn’t sure where my place would be.
I started to write an essay about this, but soon realized this essay was part of a bigger context. About being raised in a generation and a place where having children was seen as inevitable, and what it is like to take a path different than the expected one. I wanted to write about how we choose and how the consequences of our choices unfold and unfold and unfold over time. And I wanted to write about love and identity, with childlessness as the framework for this exploration.
Everything about the writing process surprises me. In the case of This Particular Happiness, when I told people what I was writing about, they seemed excited to talk about their own decision to have or not have children. Parents and non-parents alike. Everyone has their unique perspective on what led them to make the decision they made, and yet there are common threads of searching for identity, and the many ways of loving that we can all relate to.
It fascinated me that you talked about a life you’ve been raised to want. I remember being told that what I wanted was to marry, stay home and have a hobby (um, yeah.) And when I told my mother that I didn’t want to have children, I was told, “Don't ever let anyone hear you say that because they’ll think there’s something wrong with you.” And when years later, I suddenly did want one, and went on to have my son, I was admonished for waiting so long. Can women ever win?
We are given so many mixed messages. I see women struggle with the judgements of others if they choose to not have a child (the common refrain being, “Oh just wait, you will change your mind someday.”). Women experience judgement if they have a child “too young” or if they wait “too long,” judgement for desperately wanting a child and pursuing the sometimes heartbreaking process of fertility treatment, judgement for how they express their grief about infertility, judgement for having only one child or more than two children, for adopting or fostering. And then of course the endless judgement about the parenting choices: too permissive, not permissive enough, how to feed, how to wean, working mom or stay-at-home mom. Good lord.
We have endless possibilities in our lives. Choosing one thing means not choosing something else. The people who love and care about us often make the misstep of calling out what we are not choosing, rather than embracing what we do choose. And sometimes we do that to ourselves, which is why I think the exploration of the source of our own longings is so important. This exploration is a thru-line of This Particular Happiness. Where did my longing come from? The heart? Biology? Or was it a response to outside expectations? What did I truly want? How did I know what I wanted?
Although times have certainly changed, I think there still is a dividing line between women who don’t want to be told they made the wrong choice. But in reality, how can we ever know that? We change all the time, right?
Yes! We change constantly. Look at the number of marriages that end in divorce. Somehow people think they will marry, and all will stay the same. But I don’t know anyone (unless they have lived a very static life) who hasn’t gone through a major transformation of sorts in their forties or fifties. We knew what we wanted when we were twenty but didn’t know who we would be at 45.
Unless we hold firm in apathy and rigidity, we are growing and changing. Those around us will change. Our needs will change. If we don’t recognize this consciously, we will have a lot of turmoil in our relationships (parent/child, sibling, friends, primary partners), and in our careers. I hope we can own our transitions, speak about them, normalize them, so they are less damaging. The ideal would be to notice when we are changing and longing for something new or different. To talk about it and see if we can shift things in the existing structure of our lives. Or find a way to move out of that without damage and wrong-making. That doesn’t mean there won’t be conflict and tumult…but we can approach it more consciously.
I also have to know what kind of writer you are. Any rituals?
Much of the time, I am a very undisciplined writer. When I’m working on a project I schedule out two (and if I’m lucky, three) full days each week. But then I have to get through all the life duty/throat clearing (exercise, garden, house, social media, organize a drawer that is really just fine), before I get myself settled in. I have finally learned this IS my ritual. Work is going on in the background when I am doing the other things. I call it “composting” and by the time I open my laptop, I am ready to go.
I also loved the short lyrical chapters you have. Did you know the book was going to be like that when you began it?
I didn’t and, until I started printing out some of the chapters, I didn’t “see” how short many of them were. As I edited and braided and shaped the manuscript, I saw that the shape of the chapters fit the narrative. Many of the shortest chapters are scenes and memories from my childhood and young adulthood, or memory pieces I’ve taken from what my husband has told me of his childhood. These are what I’d call sense-making scenes, trying to understand who that younger version (him, me, those around us) was and how it led to now.
As the book progresses, the chapters become longer, especially when it comes to where I meet Bill, the man who would become my husband. These scenes are longer, more detailed, and reflect my own intentionality at the time. I wanted to be present. To choose differently, so there are more details, and deeper dive into my inner self. And from this point, the chapters are, for the most part, a bit longer.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Well it’s impossible to pick just one thing.
I am always obsessed with people, how we think and process and engage with each other. Showtime’s Couples’ Therapy has me completely entranced. I think it is a wonderful series for couples to watch together and then talk about what they see of themselves in the real life people who make up the couples. It is brilliant.
Two books on communication and relationship seem relevant here. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Love, by Marshall Rosenberg, has me twisted sideway in paying attention to the judgements carried in the words I choose. And a book by Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell called, The Beauty of Conflict for Couples, offers very specific actions for moving through difficult conversations and maintaining the passion through embracing the conflicts rather than avoiding them.
Podcasts are a constant when I drive (and when I vacuum!). I’m a big fan of Terrible, Thanks for Asking. Nora McInerny delves tells the stories of regular people, complicated and honest and beautiful. I also am obsessed with Beyond Well with Sheila Hamilton. She interviews a variety of creative people, covering many topics related to mental wellness. I love Sheila’s voice and the two therapists who join her in conversation.
Memoirs always obsess me such as Liz Prato’s essay collection: Volcanoes, Palm Trees & Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i; and Huda Al-Marashi’s First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story. These books explore relationship in various forms: place, family, primary partner and self.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
This Particular Happiness is published by Forest Avenue Press, an independent publishing company run by Laura Stanfill. I feel incredibly lucky to be with a publisher who supports her authors long after publication date. I’m looking forward to conversations with readers about topics I explore in my memoir: the roles of childless or childfree or parent, love, how a relationship can navigate difficult terrain, mothers and daughters, friendship, the long term impact of sexual assault, how to be present with another through grief, and how to find your own particular happiness. If any of your readers would like me to come their way for a conversation, they can let their local bookseller know, or reach out to me. Here’s a link to my website. https://www.jackieshannonhollis.com.