“We’re not planning to have children.” It’s weird, the variety of responses this statement elicits: acceptance, disbelief, hostility, even condemnation — and sometimes from total strangers. Apparently, childlessness is not considered a valid option in our society. I know, because the reactions to the decision my fiancé and I made together have sent me spinning to understand why.
We all craft individual lives for ourselves, each of us fulfilling distinct roles in this world. We are different members, performing different tasks.My “favorite” response so far comes from a professional I’d just met: “Well, God might have a different plan for you.” Say what? For some reason, one of the most intimate areas of a couple’s life — one fraught with complications and any number of extenuating circumstances — has become fair game for public speculation.
Choosing childlessness may be one of the most misunderstood options adults face today. Statistics show 53.8% of women aged 25 to 29 are childless, and 30.8% of women aged 30 to 34. 7.4 million, or 12% of all women aged 15 to 44, struggle with infertility, which is defined as the inability to get pregnant after 12 months of trying without medical assistance. And there are various reasons women are choosing not to have children, from being environmentally conscious, to lack of resources, to putting careers first, to a disability making child-rearing difficult. There are many, many adults in our country who do not have children. So why is this choice seen as so uncommon and wrong? Why do so many outsiders feel the need to correct the childlessness they encounter?
Children Are Expected
The expectation to have kids is everywhere, even in beloved pop culture. In Jurassic World, Claire tells her sister she’s unlikely to have children, and her sister insists that she will, responding, “It’s worth it.” In The Big Bang Theory, Howard almost breaks up with Bernadette because she doesn’t want kids; after they’re married, Bernadette changes her mind, and they have a child. Robin in How I Met Your Mother openly dislikes kids and doesn’t want them. But this decision is taken away from her when she finds out she is physically incapable of having them; she’s distraught by the news. These stories perpetuate the idea that women don’t really know what they’re saying when they voice their disinterest in having children.
“The assumption of child-bearing as the default for all women is troubling because it allows them to bypass the critical question of why they truly want kids (terrible reasons do exist!) and not fully understand the sacrifices they must make,” writes JaJa Yang in RELEVANT Magazine. “Some of us don’t even pause to consider what a life without children could be like before hopping on the one-way train to motherhood, potentially leading to a resentful and broken relationship between mother and child.”
Lifestyle vlogger Jenny Mustard posted a video last year on her YouTube page titled, “Why I Don’t Want Kids,” citing minimalism, environmentalism, lifestyle, and simply not enjoying spending time with kids as her reasons. Among the 4,000+ comments (many by women saying they’re thankful they’re not alone in the stigma they’ve faced for remaining childless), are statements that criticize her for her decision — that she must be saying she has bad genes if she doesn’t want children; that she’d understand the value of children when she’s 80, frail, and dependent; that she shouldn’t have a partner if she doesn’t want kids; that she’s calling all children parasites (even though she stated at the beginning of the video this was a personal choice, best for her).
The assumption that everyone should have children is dangerous, because not everyone should. The argument that “Even if you don’t love kids now, you’ll love them once they’re yours” isn’t universally true. Britney Gil wrote a piece on Refinery21 about the abuse she’d experienced from her father and her reasons for remaining childless:
I have often heard people claim that not having children is selfish — that it’s a shirking of responsibility, based on petty desires to be comfortable and travel and sleep late on weekends. But mine is a choice between two possible outcomes: That I may have children and regret it, or that I may not have children and regret it. The latter would certainly be sad, a decision that I could never take back. But the first impacts another human being for the rest of their life, and the second impacts only me. If making the second choice is selfish, then I must be using a different definition of the term.
Personally, I didn’t consider that I might not actually want children until I was well into adulthood. For reasons involving my health and work as a missionary, I realized it may not be the best choice for me. I’m actually thankful I remained single so long, because if I had married young, I’d probably be living a life unfitting to my goals, personality, health issues, and biblical strengths. I get to impact a lot of people in my current position; I am able to help a fledgling ministry find its feet. I am also able to work when I can and rest when my body conks out. I know God has put me in this place, one that seems tailor-made for me, for a reason. Like Aabye-Gayle Francis-Favilla, who writes in The Body Is Not An Apology:
“My certainty hasn’t made my decision easy. It’s not one I’ve made flippantly. I’m not apathetic about the fact that my choice has an effect on others. I’ll admit to feeling small pangs of guilt and sadness — pinpricks in my conscience — for not giving my father or my in-laws their first grandchild. But I can’t have a child for someone else, to make another person happy.… I will not have a child just because that’s what others expect or hope.”
But Children Are Biblical!
In Shadow Puppets by Orson Scott Card, a scientist states that having children is the meaning of life and therefore it’s impossible to not want kids:
Here is the meaning of life: …to make babies with her, with him, or to find them some other way, but then to raise them up, and watch them do the same thing, generation after generation, so that when you die you know you are permanently a part of the great web of life. That you are not a loose thread, snipped off.
For some reason, many Christians have taken to heart this same ideology. In an article titled, “What If I Don’t Want Babies?” a 29-year-old female asks CBMW.org, “Is it right to go into marriage with no intention to have children?” The response appalled me. “While we are free in Christ to choose marriage or celibate service for His glory,” Candice Watters replied, “Christian marriage is a calling that includes an openness to the babies people around us say are optional.” She associates submitting to God with having children, saying, “Biological fruitfulness is the reward for obedience.” The former is grossly misinterpreting the Bible; the latter is prosperity gospel nonsense. Children are not God’s reward for our good works, and saying so diminishes the longing of men and women who want children but can’t have them, suggesting if they just had more faith they would be bouncing babies on their knees right now.
Adam and Eve were told by God to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28), a directive that has already been achieved. They were fruitful — the earth has been filled, as anyone looking at our population and its stress on our available resources can attest. “In the Bible, children are considered a blessing and the barren are made to feel less fortunate,” writes Susan Bruch in The Well. “None of these, however, is a statement of God’s dictating that all must have children if they are able to. Otherwise, Paul would have felt wrong choosing singleness.”
Viewing children as the meaning of life also ignores our actual purpose in existing — to be in relationship with God. We are not simply loose threads if we remain childless, and Jesus did not die on the cross so we could have children; he died to demonstrate his love for us, to redeem us (1 John 4:9–10).
We’re All Different Parts of the Body
The Avengers serve as a useful analogy for 1 Corinthians 12, which talks about different types of people contributing to the work of God: “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body” (v. 14–15). Every member of the superhero team brings different strengths to the table (and, you’ll note, only one of them, Hawkeye, has children — a reality that probably makes it more difficult for him to risk his life for the world’s sake).
I admire Hawkeye for choosing to save the world and have a family; I admire his family for dealing with the stress and worry that must entail. But I also love Thor, Hulk, Scarlet Witch, and the rest of the team for the different strengths they bring. And notably, Hawkeye doesn’t condemn the others because their lives look different from his.
Comparison may be part of the problem here. Many people who have children feel incredibly fulfilled and can’t imagine desiring a different life. They expect others to want the same, and thus respond in disrespectful ways, often without meaning to. They consider comments like, “God may have another plan for you,” as an encouragement towards the ideal life. But what if I had said, “We’re planning to buy a condo instead of a house,” and received that same response? “Well, God might not want that for you,” sounds ridiculous, as I’d expect a stranger to respect our decision. What if I had said, “We’re planning on having children”? That same reply would be downright disrespectful. But for some reason it’s deemed appropriate because having children is the norm.
We all craft individual lives for ourselves, each of us fulfilling distinct roles in this world. We are different members, performing different tasks. If you have children, I’m confident God will guide you in nurturing them to maturity with love. But if you are uninterested in having children, or unable to, there’s still a space for you in the church, and it’s not an identity that is “less than” those who have kids.
“Quite against my own personality and inclination, God kept calling me away from home — to travel, to speak, to write, to work — and blessing that work abundantly,” writes Karen Swallow Prior in ”Called to Childlessness: The Surprising Ways of God.” “Perhaps God thwarted my plans just to shatter my assumptions about my life and about him. He is, after all, as C. S. Lewis says in A Grief Observed, the great iconoclast. He shatters idols we don’t even know we’ve made.”
Like Prior, I question what the world would look like if childlessness was viewed, not as a problem to be solved, but an opportunity to serve God and people in other ways. A biblical response to childlessness starts with compassion (and I don’t mean pity), not laying down a perceived law or assumption. If you have no relationship with someone who is childless, there is really no reason to comment on their family status. And if you do have a relationship with them and are invited to discuss the topic, remembering that people have different skills, abilities, passions, and callings goes a long way.
If you have children, I celebrate with you. If you don’t but long for them, I mourn with you. If you desire marriage but don’t want kids, I understand, and I think God does too. There are many ways to have an impact on the world, to serve God and others. Having children is only one of them. We can’t all be Hawkeye, nor should we be.