Friday, October 2, 2015
Book Review: Heads or Tails
What kind of woman doesn’t want children?
Even in 2015, with the cost of raising a child to the age of 18 approaches $250,000, married couples – women in particular – are assumed to have something wrong with them if they don’t want kids. Or they’re called selfish or immature. If a young woman says she plans to remain childless, often she’ll get a waggling finger in her face and a warning: Just wait; your friends will start having kids and then you’ll change your mind.
Women who don’t want children are not frequent characters in women’s fiction. With the genre centering around relationships, most female protagonists either have children, want children, are thwarted in their desire to have children, or are looking for the man who will father them. Even Bridget Jones, the personification of 1990s chick lit hedonism, was a mother by the time the current decade rolled around. In women’s fiction, for a woman to not want children, it can’t just be a minor character trait, like left-handedness or a fondness for Jaguar convertibles. It is the trait that defines her. In Baby Proof, Emily Giffin managed to get an entire novel out of it.
The current volley in the what kind of woman contest is Leslie A. Gordon’s Heads or Tails. A terrific follow-up to the author’s absorbing Cheer, Gordon once again (albeit indirectly) explores the consequences for a child when the mother gets into emotionally sticky territory. In this novel, though, the protagonist isn’t the mother, but the woman who declared that children were not for her.
San Francisco marrieds Hillary and Jesse love their jobs, their sports teams, and their new hobby of training for a triathlon. One thing they do not love is children. Early on, they agreed having kids was not for them. But when Hillary’s best friend Margot develops severe post-partum depression and can’t care for her baby daughter Gretchen, Hillary is really the only one who can. Margot, a high-powered executive who conceived Gretchen via sperm donation and IVF, is the only child of Jean, a widowed older woman with severe Parkinson’s disease. Hillary flies out to New York City expecting to feed the baby while Margot takes a shower and thinking she’ll still have time for a run or two around Central Park. Instead, so wiped out from depression she’s barely conscious, Margot grabs Hillary and begs, “Take my baby.” Jean agrees – Hillary is the closest thing to family they’ve got. And Gretchen needs family, not a 24-hour nanny. With the only other choice being Child Protective Services, Hillary packs up the baby and flies her back to San Francisco – a harrowing flight that emphasizes to Hillary that she’s not cut out for this mom stuff. And back at home isn’t any less harrowing, as Jesse whines that Hillary “never asked him,” and that Margot is her friend, not his.
Gordon really hits it out of the park in the pages that detail Hillary’s early efforts at taking care of Gretchen. Although my son is 21, those scenes brought back very clear memories of the first diaper change, the first bath, struggling with the car seat – all those things that eventually get easier with time but initially seem so overwhelming. And it’s even more so for Hillary, who is trying to keep Jesse pacified at the same time. As Hillary finds herself falling for Gretchen and losing patience with Jesse, a mysterious neighbor – Abe – and his cute dog catch her eye … and maybe more.
It’s also to Gordon’s credit that Hillary remains just as sympathetic even while she’s contemplating adultery. She’s a very well-drawn character, who never delves into self-pity even while her husband pouts and the days she thought she’d be taking care of Gretchen turn into weeks. And that’s why I found it frustrating that Gordon fell into the “what kind of woman” trap. She gives Hillary an elaborate back story to explain why she didn’t want children, and Jesse as well has a tragedy in his past to explain his reluctance to pro-create. In fact, the only real flaw I found in the writing is that Gordon spends several pages in the beginning of the book telling Hillary’s back story and explaining her connection to Margot and Jean that presumably prompted her to agree to take Gretchen. The implication is that it’s so unusual for people not to want to have children, that something must have gone terribly wrong during their childhood to create this abnormality. (And I’m not just picking on Gordon here. Giffin does the same thing in Baby Proof.)
Why is this back story gymnastics even necessary? Why can’t women with terrific childhoods and trauma-free backgrounds not want children without being labeled selfish or short-sighted? Personally, I know many women – most of them single, but some of them married – normal, happy women with strong relationships with their mothers and nothing traumatic in their pasts who didn’t want to have children and perfectly happy with their child-free lives. (I also know several women who wanted to have kids, and did have them, despite messed-up childhoods and fraught relationships with their mothers. But that’s beside the point.) Yet this societal message of “something has to be wrong with a woman who doesn’t want children” goes so deep that supposedly readers won’t like a female character if she doesn’t have a good reason for not wanting them.
Heads or Tails is a terrific book, and it would have been just as good if Hillary had had a wonderful childhood. As more and more women these days are making the choice to go child-free, I hope the “what kind of woman” question is regulated to historical fiction.
Thanks to Leslie A. Gordon for the book in exchange for an honest review.