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?"