Dear Church: "What is a woman if she is not a mother?"

g9510.20_Childfree.Cover A few weeks ago, Time Magazine featured a cover heralding “The childfree life: when having it all means not having children.” The news circuit lit up with the topic, dishing about why one in five women today lives childfree, a trend that is obviously growing: after all, only one in ten women in 1970 remained childless. The writer of the article, Lauren Sandler, had this to say on CBS News This Morning:

“A lot of women just don’t have the jones for it. And they’re frankly feeling a little bit more empowered to stand up for that right now.” 

The child-free movement is picking up steam as the birthrate in America has hit its lowest point since the Great Depression. But frankly, I’m not so concerned about the social and financial repercussions of a reduced birthrate. I’m much more concerned with how the Church will respond to the question Sandler posed on live television, even as she admitted women are still being judged for living child-free:

“What is an adult woman if she is not a mother?”

Society at large may not be able to answer this question, though some women are trying. Up till now, most of the answers have revolved around self-interest. But the Church? One would think that the Church would be ready with an answer that grounds every woman’s identity firmly in Christ alone.

As you may have guessed, my question is not merely a theoretical one, but a personal one. After a later-in-life marriage, five years of infertility, and a year and half invested in an adoption agency that has failed to produce even a single match, I’m beginning to wonder about my childless state. Does God mean for me to follow every possible route in order to find a child? Or might my heavenly Father want to use all this brokenness and my childless state for the advancement of His Kingdom? And if so, will I be able to accept this? More to the point, will the Body of Christ accept my child-free status?

I’m wondering what our theology says to the growing number of childless women among us. Do they know that according to the Bible and the ministry of Jesus himself, they are not second-class citizens of the Kingdom?

  • To the woman who has chosen to remain child-free, you are an imagebearer of the living God. As such, you serve as his representative, and you have a job to do, bringing his love and justice to your work, your home and your world.
  • To the tired one classified as “infertile,” you are not a reflection of how hard you try to conceive. You were created as an ezer, the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2 referring to the creation of Eve—a strong power who rescues others from isolation. This Hebrew word is used to identify our Creator himself throughout the Old Testament and how he comes through for his people in times of great need. And this is your soul-identity, mother or not.
  • To anyone who is not child-free by choice—whether single or married—your tears are recorded by God, and your heavenly Father sees you not as a statistic or a failure, but as a woman whose broken places he longs to and intends to fully redeem as your story and lifeprint touch others in healing ways.

And now, a few questions the Church must wrestle with if we are to offer a robust theology for both women and men, some of whom may have already left the Church:

  • Does the Old Testament/Old Covenant command to be fruitful and multiply still apply today, as parts of the Earth struggle with a lack of resources to provide for the population it contains?
  • Can a married couple choose to be child-free, with great joy, for the sake of the Kingdom?
  • Should believers in Jesus exhaust their emotional and financial resources, even going into significant debt, to get pregnant or pursue adoption costs that may or may not bring them a child? In other words, is it possible that we have, however well-intentioned, erected an idol out of parenthood?

Even as I type these hard questions, I also affirm that children are a blessing from God.

Bearing them, adopting them and nurturing them can be an act of faith and trust in what God has done, is doing, and will do. The ability to procreate and nurture young life are wonderful gifts from our Creator, and they should be celebrated. But hear me well: they are not the reason we exist. We exist, as the whole of Scripture tells us, to glorify God.

Beyond the statistics and the theological questions we must ask, my greatest concern is that the Church of Jesus would provide a more welcoming place for the childless in their midst. Speaking as one of those who is childless by circumstance, I often feel invisible in church. Knowing that someone sees me, makes room for me—and is willing to think through what it means for someone like me to advance God’s Kingdom on earth—is a priceless gift. A gift, in fact, that keeps on giving, whether I become a mother or not.

See also: Loving the child-free people in your church Dear Mentor: Can a Christian couple choose not to have children?, Susan Bruch, Intervarsity, The Well

Your turn: How will you answer the question"What is a woman if she is not a mother?"

Loving the child-free people in your church

Silence on my blog may or may not indicate a personal meltdown on this end of the computer screen. In this case, however, it does. There are many reasons a menagerie of losses have piled high and deep, making me imagine myself lying on the ground, loss after loss pressing down in a heap upon my chest, stealing the air I breathe. There are reasons, I tell you. Do you have a few hours?

But rather than dive into all of them, I'd like to highlight one that has laid me flat of late.

In the last several weeks,  the husband and I have begun to ask ourselves if we are being led to live a child-free existence.

We are wondering, as devoted followers of Jesus and passionate lovers of His Kingdom, can we be content with living without children? Should we be? Can we be? Will we be?   

[A moment of silence, please.]

Can we possibly let those questions sit for a minute without judgment, without comment, without somebody trying to rescue us from this deep pain? Can we, Church?

Because here is the reality, my friends: as far as I know, in 4 1/2 years of trying, I have never been pregnant. We are not comfortable with pursuing chemical fertility options. We have knocked on the domestic adoption door, we are waiting, but our agency doubts we will ever find a placement through them as we have entered year #2 on the list. We have been through the wringer, my friend, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

Before you say it, I am aware that there are other options; I'm just not sure we're meant to try all of them to find a child. I'm not sure this is the best use of our time and money and energy in God's Kingdom. I think it could easily become an idol (and has been one), a way of grasping for control, of forcing God's hand. And we are just so very tired, to be honest. We are wondering at what point do we release this desire and trust that God will take care of us if we never have a child of our own?

In terms of Kingdom-gains, what might be on the other side of a child-free existence? 

Meanwhile, as it has become so painful for friends and family to walk with us through this, I offer these suggestions for those who want to be Jesus to people like us. I offer them humbly, as a gift, realizing they may not hit the target for every child-free individual you know. Still, I feel they could be a beautiful start.

Ways to love the child-free people in your church:

  • Assume nothing. Whether single or married, don't assume a person does or does not have children. (Or that they do or do not desire them.) Above all, do not approach them and ask first: "So, do you have kids?" Instead, "tell me about yourself" or "what brought you to our church?" or "what are your interests and hobbies?" or "how can I help welcome you into our church?" You assume these are awkward ways to get started, no? They are much less awkward than asking the kids question up front and having someone who has struggled with infertility and adoption for five years hear that you are most concerned not about her, but her parenting status. Because Jesus is not so concerned about parenting status, my friends. And neither should we be.
  • Let them know you see them. Child-free people often feel invisible, especially in the Church. In what can only be described as an odd theological leap, churches often glorify marriage and parenthood as the greatest Calling in life. Clearly, Jesus disagrees (as does Paul). The big, beautiful body of Christ is supposed to be our first family, and it's time we started acting like it. Take time to sit with those without children and ask them to tell their stories; honor their journey (and their anger or sadness, if they are experiencing it); include them in your body life; bear their burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Some of the kindest things ever said to me include these: "This is so hard, and I don't know how things will turn out, but I am standing with you in this. You can count on me." "How can I encourage you in this?" "This desire you have is a good desire from God. And I will faithfully pray for you in this."
  • Make room for them. Do you know how I felt when I went to a new church in a new city and was asked if I wanted to attend "Mom's Night Out"? As it was the only social opportunity for women at the time, I believe the woman who asked me was trying to include the newcomer. When I informed her I was not a mom and I asked if they had considered calling it "Ladies' Night Out" to include the childless women in the church, I was eventually told: "Sorry, that's just what we call it." I never attended—I did, however, immediately feel marginalized. Does your programming immediately ostracize the childless person in your midst? How about the weight of your Mother's Day and Father's Day observances? How does your Church observe community in a way that makes everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, the family with the quiver-full and the person who attends Church by themselves, feel that they are essential to the functioning of the big, beautiful body of Christ? In my humble opinion, how you answer that question can be a great indicator of the health of your church.

Meanwhile, we are still wondering, as devoted followers of Jesus and passionate lovers of His Kingdom, can we be content with living without children? Can we be? Will we be?

In this, will you pray for us, my friends? And, above all, if you pass us in Church or on facebook or the like, will you simply remind us that the Lord is here with us in this space, that you are here for us in this space, and that you aren't going anywhere?

This will be balm for the soul of this childless woman, I assure you.

It will be like drops of rain after a dry and dusty season.

It may even feel like sheer grace.

Barren guilt by association

Welcome to barren Mondays, the place where our places of greatest barrenness—physically, emotionally or spiritually—provide fertile ground for the beauty of the Kingdom to break through. Two weeks ago my post titled  "Where does every infertile woman get a child?" revealed my grief in finding that in the Bible, the infertile woman always appears to get a child. This week, I discover the one exception. And in the next and final installment, I reveal how I am surprised to finally find comfort in the first chapters of Genesis.

***

Last week's post included this prayer, a cry of lament: Seriously, Lord, the women you trumpet as barren and dried up, depressed and despairing, the ones with no fruit on the vine, always get a baby in your Book? Seriously? And this is supposed to bring me comfort how? Could not one of them remain barren, could not one of them find a way to joy beyond childlessness, could not one of them be the poster child for a kind of spiritual fertility that makes the dried-up womb bearable somehow, redeem-able somehow?

After my initial discovery that every well-known barren woman in the Bible ended up with a baby (In Hannah's case, six of them!), I made another less-than-pleasing discovery. There was indeed a woman declared permanently barren in the Bible: Michal, the "obstinate" first wife of King David. 

Do you see where this is going?

2 Samuel 6:16, 20, 23, NRSV As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart . . . David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” . . . And Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.

(Note: 2 Samuel 21:8 is used by some to say she did indeed have children, but today's translations believe this reference was to her sister, Merab.)

David, the "man after God's own heart" was mistreated by his first wife, or so the story goes. I had always placed Michal in the category of Scripture's "bad girls of the Bible," believing from early Sunday School lessons that she dampened the praise David willingly offered to God, and obviously paid for it. She is the villain; David is the hero. End of story. So she gets no baby.

In this scenario, barrenness *appears* to be a punishment from God, making a barren woman like me feel a sort of "guilt by association."

If Michal is barren because she did something wrong, than I am barren because I've done something wrong, too. It is not hard to see how one might draw this conclusion, considering that every other woman in the Bible who mourned her barrenness received a baby!

Unless...we have misread our Bibles. (Say it isn't so!)

A closer look at the above passage has me asking, Where does it say God punished Michal by making her barren?

It does not. Perhaps instead of casting stones at Michal, we ought to look at the desperateness of her situation:

As for Michal, who can guess her emotions? She had loved David dearly during the short time she had been his wife in the rustic simplicity of her father's court. But to discover, on her arrival at Hebron, that she was only one of a number of wives in the royal harem would have been a bitter pill to swallow and cause her to wonder whether her return was an affair of the heart or a matter of politics. To have the daughter of Saul as wife would undoubtedly be a point in David's favor when he appealed to the men to change their allegiance. - The IVP Women's Bible Commentary

Oh, dear. This woman, whose name means "who is like God?" seems to have been played like a royal pawn between her father and her husband. She has returned to find David dancing after her father Saul had given her marriage for political favor to another until David demanded her back. She may not have been so opposed to David's dancing before the Lord as she was to being treated like a pawn rather than a person.

And here is where reality bites: it's quite possible that "Michal the daughter of Saul had no children until the day of her death" because a) David refused to be with her again; hey, he had options; and b) David wanted the lineage of Saul extinguished that he might gain favor with the people. Who is the victim in the story, then? Is it David—or Michal?

Let me just say it outright: polygamy never ends well in the Old Testament. 

As I've read the story of Michal through to its conclusion, my attitude on her barrenness has changed from one of anger at feeling lumped in with the Bible's well-known "praise-basher" to a wistful sadness. I wish her story would have played out differently, I wish she would have been treated as an image-bearer of the living God, I wish she would have had the agency and options in her life that I take for granted.

Michal and I are still in the same boat, of course, as far as childlessness goes. But I have the power of a resurrected Savior in front of me, surrounding me, promising me that there is new life in Christ, no matter how dried up the womb. For this, I find it hard to express my thanks. But I will try; yes, I will try.

How about you? How has reading someone's story helped you through a time of physical, emotional or spiritual barrenness?

Where Does Every Infertile Woman Get a Child?

Welcome to barren Mondays, the place where our places of greatest barrenness—physically, emotionally or spiritually—provide fertile ground for the beauty of the Kingdom to break through. Where does every barren woman break forth with child? In what place might every infertile be granted fruit and multiplication in her household? Where might this happy-clappy place of fertile abundance be reality?

The Bible.

Yes, the Holy Scriptures. And trust me, God and I have had conversations about this. 

genesis1Seriously, Lord, the women you trumpet as barren and dried up, depressed and despairing, the ones with no fruit on the vine, always get a baby in your Book? Seriously? And this is supposed to bring me comfort how? Could not one of them remain barren, could not one of them find a way to joy beyond childlessness, could not one of them be the poster child for a kind of spiritual fertility that makes the dried-up womb bearable somehow, redeem-able somehow?

Not a one that I could see.

The Bible's most popular fertility stories include those of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Elisabeth and Ruth. And each story has a turning point, a climax, a solution to their terrible pain. The solution is a baby. A bonafide, viable-sperm-meets-egg-after-ovulation miracle pregnancy. But then, in my mind, every pregnancy ever conceived is a miracle.

For Sarah, the babe came after searing infertility, menopause, and old age had already arrived. In Genesis 25:21, after 20 years of Rebekah's barrenness, Isaac pleaded with Yahweh to open up her womb—and out popped Jacob and Esau. Admittedly, Rachel died in childbirth, after she had given birth to the long-awaited Joseph and Benjamin. Hannah's womb, once void, produced five more children after Samuel was born, the angel announced Elisabeth's treasure in her golden years, and Ruth's infertility dried up when her kinsman-Redeemer helped her conceive a child that would rescue her mother-in-law's family name from disgrace.

In a patriarchal culture where a person's seed symbolized their salvation, each of the women above were dramatically rescued from one of the worst fates that might befall them: barrenness.

"For nothing will be impossible with God," the angel said to Mary the mother of Jesus, after announcing cousin Elisabeth's miracle baby.

Allow me to be blunt. After years of childlessness, my monthly cry has often been this: nothing is impossible for God except for me to have a child. Only this.  

If hope deferred makes the heart sick, hope denied is worse. 

So how might one find any kind of hope again when they are not promised a child, when their arms remain empty and their heart lies bruised and questioning?

This Book I love, the one that contains the truth that lights my way, may not offer up the permanently barren woman with whom I can commiserate. I wish it did. But it does winsomely point the way to my suffering Savior, those bloody teardrops in the garden, arms outstretched, nails pummeled through his broken flesh, redemption and the future secured, anchor-sure. Human body, he had, human disappointments, betrayal, angst, loneliness, and yes, despair. Jesus may not have had a uterus, but he is somehow acquainted with my sorrow.

This is hope, and it will be enough.

***

What about you? Describe how hope does—or doesn't break through—in an area of barrenness.

Next week: Another "barren Mondays: Guilt by Association," as I discover the one woman declared barren in the Bible and what it might have to do with me.