I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: An Interview with Child-Free Comedian Jen Kirkman
Traditional family life has long been fodder for stand-up comedy—but jokes about life as a child-free woman are a less-charted terrain.
Luckily, we have comedian Jen Kirkman to lead the way. Kirkman, a writer and regular performer on E!'s "Chelsea Lately" and "After Lately," recently released a New York Times best-selling memoir, I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales from a Happy Life Without Kids.
Though I Can Barely Take Care of Myself covers Kirkman's entire life—including her Boston childhood and long comedy career—and zeroes in with especially sharp wit on the experience of being an adult without children.
Kirkman took a moment out of her current tour in support of the book to discuss what inspired her book, why some people think child-free women will change their minds, and what happens when an elementary schooler attends a sleepover party while dressed like Groucho Marx.
Being child-free is just one of many subjects that you cover in your comedy act—how did you decide to make it the focus of your book?
I have always wanted to write a book ever since I was a kid in fifth grade who spent her spare time writing short stories about zombies who wear Calvin Klein jeans. Subsequently, my fifth grade teacher told me that references to pop culture and things about zombies are not timeless, and if I ever wanted to be a writer, to drop that. Hmm. Bad advice.
Anyway, all books from unknowns like me need a hook. And I figured, I have enough stories about being an unconventional kid and feeling like a "not-like-everyone-else" adult, that a good angle might be that one of the reasons I don't fit in is that I am not baby-crazy. I knew there were other women like me, and my manager and agent felt like this could be a really good topic that (at the time of the book deal) people were starting to talk about, but wasn't oversaturated yet.
In the years since you first started talking about being child-free in your act, have reactions from the audience or from other comedians changed at all?
I started talking about being child-free since day one in my act, which was 1997 when I was just 22 years old, but there's nothing funny about some young "kid" talking about their "life" and how they see it going. It's impossible to take seriously.
But as I got older—I hit 30, then 35, then I got married, then divorced, all these adult rites of passage—audiences have seemed to be EVEN MORE nosy about my "not having kids" status. People come up to me all the time and show me pictures of their kids, and say, "I know you hate this, but I just have to show you. My husband and I used to think we didn't want kids either."
The implication is that my mind hasn't caught up to where they know my mind is going. And just to be clear, like 10% of my act is discussing how I don't want kids. And it's not anti-kid or anti-mom. It's anti-me. I talk about how literally overwhelmed I would be at having to be responsible for a life that I created. It's the equivalent of the "Woody Allen renting a car in Los Angeles" scene in "Annie Hall." It's supposed to be funny and illustrate, "This person should not be doing THIS." That's all I wanted my jokes to come off as.
Other comedians—some male ones—have changed their minds, and one old friend of mine told me that he doesn't believe that I get as harassed as much as I do about not wanting kids. He went so far as to say "Child-free by Choice" people are the new vegans—they're "preachy." I don't think my book is preachy. I have nothing to preach! Because unlike some people with children, I don't WANT or CARE if everyone does what I do. But as I always say to male comedians who changed their minds: congratulations. I notice that you still go on the road and do what you want for the most part, while your wife handles the kid. I CANNOT DO BOTH (not that I'm lamenting that, just pointing out the different plumbing we're made of).
Your book is, first and foremost, a hilarious memoir. But I thought it also functioned as a bit of an expose about the frequent (and very personal!) bullying that child-free people are often subjected to. I'm child-free myself, and have heard some dumb comments about it, but I was shocked by some of the stories in the book. Was drawing attention to this problem one of your goals when writing this book?
I just want to stay away from the word "bullying." I used it in my book in a very specific way. I was bullied as a kid. Quite badly in fifth grade—by BOYS, believe it or not. I had rocks stuffed in snowballs and thrown at my head. I was teased and pushed into puddles. I was told I was ugly, and people prank-called my house and smashed pumpkins on my doorstep. In my book, I reference one slumber party I went to as a ten-year-old-girl, where I was sent home for being weird (which, admittedly, I was: I showed up to a popular girl's party dressed like Groucho Marx).
But [in the book] I reference an adult party I went to where three mommies surrounded me and kept asking me, "But WHY don't you want kids?" They called me selfish and said that it was because I fear gaining weight, etc. And I had this flashback to being a kid in that Groucho Marx costume and thought, "Why do people care if I am doing something that seems weird? How does it affect them?"
So I said, "The bullying from breeders must stop." I said that for a little bit of a dramatic edge-y moment in the book, but it's not how I feel. I don't feel bullied. I feel more that people have nothing better to talk about, and in a way, I feel smug—like at least I have some life experience to talk about at parties.
Honestly, when writing the book, I just wanted it to be good, funny, and long enough. So I chose stories like this to illustrate how sometimes a sensitive person like me is made to feel, and that, in general, if we can avoid it, let's not badger people at parties about their life choices. And to me, asking someone three times why I don't want kids is badgering. Someone else might laugh it off, but I'm a big believer in just wondering, "WHY? Why is this important to them?"
Why do you think people are fine with comedians joking about lots of very dark topics--like alcoholism or suicide--but freak out about a subject as innocuous as not having children?
I can't claim that people are freaking out more about being child-free by choice than any other topic. As a comedian, what I notice—and I think I can speak for all comedians—what we notice is that people sometimes take comedy very personally. A person with kids might take my jokes about being child-free and loving it, or how I would be a terrible mom, to mean that I am judging their lifestyle. This can lead to some women extending the conversation they are having with me in their head as I perform comedy into the bathroom of a comedy club after a show.
I had one woman pull me aside in the bathroom to tell me that she thinks I am funny but that she once felt the way I did, that she and her husband didn't want kids, but realized that to not have kids would be too selfish. She told me that I couldn't do comedy forever, and at some point I would need to settle down. When I discuss being child-free on stage, some people take it as a cry for help, or a personal challenge to convince me to take a microphone out of my hand and replace it with a baby.
Photo of Jen Kirkman (c) Robyn Von Swank
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