Life doesn’t always unfold the way we expect. We all have dreams. I was once referred to as ‘the white picket fence girl’. It’s true, I always wanted a family. It wasn’t my only dream, I had many others too. But daring to dream for a family is high on the priority list for many of us. However this dream is an especially tender one, and for an increasing number of women, much heartbreak surrounds this. Tying the knot may be a case of ‘knot yet’.
While many people I know met their life partner or married in their early twenties, I was mid twenties. And I was in my late twenties when I married. I had my first child in my late twenties and two more in my early thirties. Pretty normal these days, especially amoung professional people. And some people wait even longer. But if I had had a choice, I would have married younger and therefore had children slightly younger. But I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t something that I couldn’t have engineered any earlier. Waiting is hard. And many young people today have an especially difficult time as they are waiting much longer to have a family. They may feel like they are in ‘a waiting room’.
I once listened to a radio broadcast on the topic of why so many women are ‘delaying childbirth’. And I really wanted to call or write in, because no one mentioned the one obvious factor. That it really wasn’t a choice. It was assumed that childbearing was something that women were choosing to delay, but in many cases, it is outside their realm of control because they don’t have a partner. This trend has been referred to as ‘the delayer boom’. It’s not that women are necessarily more focussed on their career or on earning money to buy a house, although those are factors that do come into play, as does the reality that many young people have rather large student loans. I recall that we had been married only a month or two, when people started asking when we were going to have children. It seems to be culturally sanctioned to ask people all manner of personal questions these days. It is something that I have learned not to ask people, as for many the dream is delayed.
One school of thought suggests that young adults should be as deliberative about having children as they are about becoming married. But for many folks, they simply haven’t met the right person. Perhaps discussions about ‘the delayer boom’ need to sensitively acknowledge that choice doesn’t come into it for many women. People can be very insensitive about the trend for women to become mothers later in life. Obviously women need to be aware that perhaps it is optimal to avoid delaying childbearing if one has the choice. However research shows that for parents who are a little older for whatever reason, there are many psychological and economic advantages. And many young parents do a fabulous job of parenting too.
It seems to be harder to meet a marriage partner today. No there doesn’t have to be an explanation for why someone is single, not is there is anything wrong with someone for being single. There are many reasons for delayed marriage, but it would be fair to say that there is alot of brokenness around today. It is wise to be careful and (prayerful!) about who you marry as this decision has the potential to affect your life positively or negatively more than any other decision. Many young people seem to be taking marriage more seriously and deliberately than generations past, which is perhaps a good thing. But many have witnessed a common trend for men to fear commitment and for women to panic because they see no potential spouse in sight.
There can also be significant pressure in Christian culture to marry and to have children, with some congregations wishing to encourage and advocate for younger marriage. I can see the merit in this although some younger marriages may have more struggles. It really depends on the couple. I wonder whether the tendency of churches to encourage younger marriage just adds to the pressure that single people often feel to marry. Yes marriage and family need to be upheld in church but perhaps we need to be careful about the messages that this sends to single people.
The Many Colours of Childlessness
While many women eventually marry and have children, there are also some women who may never have children. For some, this is heartbreaking. And in Christian communities where there is an abundance of children, the pain may run especially deep. But there are many colours of childlessness, and there are women who don’t wish to have children. I read of one blogger who has never wished for children. She writes that she always felt the need to explain and defend the choice of childlessness. Personally I don’t think it is selfish to not want to have kids, as it’s not for everyone. Some people just know from an early age that they never wanted children. The desire just isn’t there. For others it is more complicated. Consider that ‘The room called childlessness has many doors, not just ‘didn’t want’ or ‘couldn’t have’. Perhaps we need to respect childlessness as a choice, a concept that may be somewhat contraversial in Christian circles. Because have we in the Christian church turned marriage and parenting into idols? Women should not be made to feel they are failures or “second class” if they never marry or never have children, but this is too often what happens in many churches – and this is not what Christ intended. Our identity is not in our ability to breed.
The author of a website called ‘Savy Aunty’ has written in the Huffington Post of her ‘secret grief’ of being over 35, single and childless. She writes that while grief for couples who struggle with infertility is accepted, grief for women (or men) who are single and childless in their thirties and forties is not so widely acknowledged.
It’s assumed that women just don’t understand that their fertility has a limited lifespan or that they are being reckless with chance. Women are labeled “career women” ‘as if we graduated college, burned our bras and got jobs to exhibit some sort of feminist muscle’. Or, it’s assumed we’re not ‘trying hard enough,’ or we’re ‘being too picky.’ This silent grief is often referred to as disenfranchized grief.
People may assume that the person never wanted any children. These assumptions of others can be difficult to cope with. And even remarks by well-meaning friends and family members can make them feel “less than” for not being mothers. In heartbreaking stories, Notkin reveals why “circumstantial infertility” can be as devastating as biological infertility.
She notes that “the rise of childless women may be one of the most overlooked and underappreciated social issues of our time.” Melanie Notkin (Savvy Auntie) coined the term “otherhood” to describe “the misunderstood group of women doing our best to live full and meaningful lives despite the frustrations of some of the most cherished longings’. Otherhood gives voice to a growing sector of society of society: women who are still waiting for love, marriage and children. ‘Otherhood’ has been described by one reviewer as ‘heartbreaking, insightful and ultimately affirming by one reviewer, and by another reviewer as an ‘anguished but undefeated post-feminist battle cry on behalf of childless women of a certain age who refuse to settle for a lesser love.’ Melanie Notkin gives a ‘giant comforting hug’ to the millions of women who don’t fit neatly onto the traditional timeline of marriage and motherhood. She compassionately and gently suggests that there are many paths to fulfillment and happiness in otherhood where women embrace love, commitment and mothering at different times and in different ways than they had ever imagined.
SAVVY AUNTIE: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE FOR COOL AUNTS, GREAT-AUNTS, GODMOTHERS AND ALL WOMEN WHO LOVE KIDS
I have endeavoured to deliver this topic delicately, because there can be so much pain in people regarding these issues, and any discussion of singleness and childlessness is guaranteed to encourage some and offend some.There are no easy answers when one feels as if they are in a waiting room. It can be really difficult to trust God when hope is deferred. The Bible says that hope deferred makes the heart sick. We in the church need to be considerate of the feelings of single women who are childless. Perhaps the two most overlooked and forgotten groups in Christendom are singles and married couples who have not chosen to be childless. How often do we overlook the people who are single but strongly desire to be married with children? Do we ignore the agony of couples who desperately desire a child but have not been able to conceive or adopt? And how have we shunned couples who have prayerfully chosen to remain childless in a culture that prioritizes having a family? Ministry to these individuals ought to be compassionate yet not condescending, and there is a fine line. We need to mourn with those who mourn, and bear one anothers burdens. One of the bloggers I follow has written a lovely post titled: 11 Ways Married Women Can Serve Single Women. She talks about the invisible wall that often exists between the two groups, and suggests ways that women in two different walks of life can grow together. While married women and single women may often struggle to be friends, we must try, so that we can minister life and hope into one another’s lives.