I recently turned 35. Since I’m single (and have been for almost a decade), I realized I was running out of time to have a family if I wanted one. So I started visiting some Christian singles’ groups to give God/opportunity a chance to show me someone to fall in love with me. But nothing came of it.
As I pondered the question more, I realized that I’m okay with my life as it is. I do not dislike children but I have no enthusiasm to be around them either.
I’m still adjusting to a new job in a new city and am still recovering from depression, so I’m also afraid that the energy needed to raise children would be more than I have.
Moreover, I have baggage from my own upbringing. My mother is lovely person but she used to go on how society was not validating her enough for her choice to be a homemaker, and being exposed to her insecurities has not given me a very positive image of motherhood.
Furthermore, I live in an environment where having children is often painted as a political duty. You have to contribute to the future of society by bearing and raising the next generation.
The church talks more positively about children as a gift from God, but I realized the person who is childless for personal reasons does not exist in the narrative. There are families, those unlucky people who cannot find a spouse or are unable to have children for medical reasons / tragic life circumstances, and people who choose singleness for God (mostly missionaries and clergy). And there are those selfish non-Christians who do not want children because it would curtail their leisure time. (Not my opinion but a quote)
It seems there is no room for people in the church who simply do not want a family. How do I deal with this both emotionally and scripturally?
This past spring, on the way to Colorado for a speaking engagement, I had a conversation about this very thing with a young guy on a plane.
I mostly don’t talk to strangers on planes, but in celebration of managing to sneak away from my kids mid-week – even if it was for work – I’d had a mid-afternoon glass of wine at the airport Surdyks, and I was feeling buoyant and chatty.
Baseball Hat Guy slunk down next to me at the back of our 747 and spent the first part of the flight gospel-preaching to me about the benefits of legalized marijuana and trying to convince me to go out for some pot while in Denver. (“It’s a work trip. At a Christian college,” I explained over and over. “It’s legal,” he repeated over and over. “LEGAL.”)
But as the plane rose to elevation and the clouds parted clear around us, Baseball Hat Guy got more introspective. He was about to move to Colorado to be with his girlfriend, he told me. He was going to have to find a new job. Legal pot aside, I got the feeling that Baseball Hat Guy wasn’t entirely sure about all of this starting over.
When I asked him if he planned to propose anytime soon, he turned squirmy and uncomfortable, adjusting his hat again and again like a nervous tic. “I probably should,” he said. “I keep thinking I should probably start a family. I’m kind of a selfish bastard, and I think having kids will make me a better person.”
I suppose I’d been aware that this assumption existed and defined the ways that American society has learned to think about becoming a parent: that it is some kind of sure path to selflessness and meaning. But I’d never heard it spoken so starkly, and it sounded like a dissonant note there in that airplane.
I shook my head, looked out the window, thought about my own kids at home, these wild boys whom I love with a kind of deep howling desperation…but who consistently leech away all my patience and self-control until I am screaming at them about something crazy and trivial, like the toothpaste splatters on the bathroom mirror.
“Kids don’t make you a better person,” I said. And then I spent the next several minutes trying to explain what I meant. Trying to explain to this kid in his baseball cap who was possibly even a little bit high right then, how a screaming little ball of baby bursts into your world, and all of the sudden your needs and desires get forcibly pushed to second place, and that doesn’t make you selfless. It makes you tired.
For the last seven years, I have been a stay-at-home mom, and I am still just as selfish as ever. Sure, I drive the forgotten snow pants to school instead of working out. I dutifully leave whatever I’m doing to go wipe someone’s butt. I make the lunches and pick up the toys and wash the clothes, but I’m not usually doing it from some sense of overflowing love and joy and selflessness. To be honest, I’m usually thinking about how put-upon I am, how my husband never has to take a break in the middle of his work to wipe a poopy butt, how no one ever thanks me for packing their school lunch.
What I was trying to say to Baseball Hat Guy is that it’s possible to do things for others while still being filled to the brim with your own self-interest. It’s possible to drive your kids to every sporting event, but to be driven by a sense of neediness that is more about you than them. It’s possible to live a selfish life that is utterly disguised as a selfless one.
It’s possible to do things for others while still being filled to the brim with your own self-interest.
Parenthood can be refining, but only if you choose to let it refine you. Your kids are not magic portkeys to a Better You. They won’t take you anywhere you’re not willing to hike to yourself.
But you’d never know this by walking into most American churches, would you, Exploring?
So often, they feel more like family resource centers than anything, filled as they are with family nights and play times and mom-focused Bible studies and primary-colored kids areas that take up entire building wings.
In some ways, I get it. I’m the mom of young kids, the daughter of a kids’ pastor. If I’m going to commit myself to a group of believers, I need it to be a safe, life-giving place for my children. I am deeply and profoundly grateful for the ways my church communicated love to me as a kid in ways that I could hear it. The ways our current church family does that for my boys now.
But I also remember what it was like to be young and barely married and desperate for community…and to find that all the women’s Bible studies were during the day – when I was working.
I remember being 22 and lonely and falling apart, reading church bulletins that read more like want ads for young families, thinking, what the hell?
So let’s talk about this narrative. Let’s talk about church and families.
Let’s talk about how in the New Testament accounts of the Early Church, the idea of a self-contained, nuclear family as we understand it is absent.
The first century family was not so much a unit as a sprawling root system, extending through generations and held tightly together, bonded by commitment. It’s this version of “family” that the Early Church mirrored in those first, Spirit-filled days. They were all family – brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers to one another. They belonged to each other.
I’m not sure when the narrative shifted, but it’s fairly obvious that it did. The family unit in American culture shrank small enough to mean the people living in your home. Mom and Dad and those 2.5 kids and that dog.
In the 1960s, the first wave of young “Jesus Freaks” ballooned out of the hippie culture, and the church zeroed in on them, becoming increasingly youth focused. Then, as the kids of the Jesus movement had kids of their own, the church followed suit, becoming more “family-focused” than ever before. (Not surprisingly, it was around this time – 1977 – that Focus on the Family was founded. By the early ‘80s, it was a Thing.)
Somewhere along the way, the narrative has gone off track, hasn’t it? Where the church is meant to be a story about cultivating God’s family, we’ve zoned in on cultivating our own tiny little nuclear households instead.
The conversation has unspooled. Instead of talking about how we can best love and support one another as members of one body and one faith, we are talking about who’s being selfish with their time and resources – those with kids or those without.
Spoiler alert: we’re all selfish.
And it’s not kids or a nuclear family or a fulfilling and service-focused single life that forms us into decent and selfless human beings.
The truth about church and family, dear Exploring, is that whatever you decide to do, you belong. You belong to a Kingdom that is not built through a biological, nuclear family. Rather, Jesus cracked that family wide open, pulling each of us into it. We belong to the Kingdom not because we are natural heirs but because we have been pulled in by love.
But the other side of that truth is that it won’t always feel this way.
We are making small steps in the contemporary church. Conversations are happening. Thanks to the Internet, the voices of those who are childless by choice and those who are single are being heard in new ways. But there is still such a long ways to go, and if you choose this beautiful life of singleness and childlessness, you will often feel the pinch of this – the constraints of a narrative that is so small that sometimes you feel like you don’t have a place in it.
But, oh, you do.
You are so integral to the life of whatever church you plant yourself in. Your journey through depression has much to say to others; your soul is invaluable; your insights as you let God’s love make you more open, more authentic, and yes, even more selfless – will be water to others.
There will be a thousand “family days,” I’m sure, during that journey, and they will probably make you feel isolated at times. Well-meaning church people will ask you personal, pinchy questions about your marital status. You probably will have the sudden urge to rip up church bulletins that offer yet another new opportunity for families with young children while skimping, as usual, on ministries for adults.
You will have every reason to want to leave at points during this journey. Every right to leave. But I hope you stay.
I hope you walk through those primary-colored halls and love, and as you do, I hope you feel yourself loved by this motley, broken kingdom of the adopted.
I hope you feel yourself pulled into the narrative, even as your beautiful voice helps to change it.
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