Jen Kirkman has emerged from Chelsea Handler’s posse of comics as one of its smartest members; unlike Josh Wolf, Heather McDonald, Ross Matthews or Handler herself, Kirkman’s humor and comedic style seems more suited to the hipster-smart Portlandia humor of alternative comics; and despite her being an Angelino, her brand of comedy wouldn’t feel out of place in a Brooklyn comedy club. But like Wolf, McDonald, Matthews and Handler, Kirkman is willing to mine her private life for her art. In her memoir I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life without Kids, Kirkman shares her experience being a woman in a society that elevates motherhood to near mythic status; the deification of mothers make childless-by-choice women like Kirkman often a target for pity, derision, contempt – all of which can stem from a sense of holier-than-thou morality, or envy. Either way, Kirkman’s funny tale has her examine her life and just how her choices make her feel – especially when she’s relating to her peers.
A few days ago, I wrote about W. F. Price’s article condemning a transwoman who penned an op-ed piece about transgender parents – specifically mothers. In his awful screed, Price managed not only to knock transfolks, but women too by minimizing sexism by asserting that women are allowed to indulge in their “selfish” desires without being judged; Price should pick up Kirkman’s book, because it’s a great primer on just how difficult it can be for women like Kirkman who don’t feel it necessary to have children to complete their lives.
It’s important to mention that Kirkman doesn’t attempt to manipulate her readers with whining; it doesn’t mean she doesn’t suffer from self-pity at times – but she owns it. And her general message is that women like Kirkman would be fine if people just let them get on with their lives without interference.
Kirkman’s story has moments that recall her standup act. There are two stories in particular that stuck with me – both for her delivery, but also because of their message. In one she shares a story of her childhood when she attended a slumber party as an adolescent. The party was touted as a celebrity costume party – what celebrity did Kirkman ape? Groucho Marx. And what makes this all even funnier is that Kirkman wasn’t a fan of Marx, but thought the comedian was the Vlassic Pickle stork (although on her comedy album, she referred to the stork as a “duck”). The party doesn’t go well because what tween will curry favor among mean girls by dressing up as a third of a 1930s vaudevillian comic trio. It’s a poignant, but hilariously cringy tale, of a kid happy to be different, and having that impulse judged; the story runs parallel to her troubles as an adult woman facing societal expectations of women and motherhood.
The other story is equally funny: Kirkman must verbally tussle with a nearly-comatose teenaged video clerk who is ignorant of The Golden Girls (“The Golden Globes?”), which prompts the comedienne to rant about how teens are unaware and unappreciative of what came before them (and yes, she knows that this rant was inspired by something innocuous as a 80s sitcom).
These two stories were what brought me to Kirkman – and they translate very well onto paper, which is a great sign: Kirkman’s unmistakable vocal inflection is great, but she’s also able to impart her exasperation and fed-up bewilderment on print – not an easy task, especially when one looks at comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres or Wanda Sykes, whose distinct voices add as much to their work as do the jokes. With Kirkman, her comedy doesn’t lose anything when it’s written down. But none of this is surprising to fans of Kirkman who has been heralded by many publications for her hilarious Tweets.
So, what’s the moral of Kirkman’s story? Does she regret not having kids? Does she wish she was like all those women who harass her at baby showers and teas? Nope. Kirkman’s happy not having kids, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy for her to navigate through her world when everyone thinks it’s imperative that a woman should have kids. She’s resentful that often she’s bullied into defending her life choices by smug mothers, who feel that being a parent is some sort of divine or mystical thing that is a requirement for someone to truly call herself an adult woman. She wisely disabuses those who think that her work is her “child” or that she’s transferring her maternal feelings toward her career – there is no need to anthropomorphize her work, despite the tendency for many who try to figure out and understand just what childless women think.
I Can Barely Take Care of Myself is a consistent hoot, despite the somewhat serious topic Kirkman takes on. Hopefully it’s the first in what should be a long series of books.
Click here to buy I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life without Kids by Jen Kirkman on amazon.com.