A friend in college cooed over every stopped stroller. A group of women bemoaned the gender ratio overseas and researched freezing their eggs. I rolled my eyes at their talk of biological clocks. It sounded like they wanted to use a man to get what they really wanted: a baby.
I figured I’d follow God and the rest would follow. I pursued my call to ministry: enrolling in seminary, speaking at conferences about my book, and coaching authors in my dream job. But being an egalitarian woman in ministry overseas involves earning respect, downplaying difference, giving of yourself, navigating security concerns, and staying a step ahead of relational turnover; in other words, it has a way of making you long for stable intimate companionship . . . while also limiting your dating options.
What’s more, I was sheepishly surprised to hear my own biological clock start to tick. Suppose I’d like to have my last kid by a certain age to minimize the risks of infertility and genetic complications. Counting backwards, it hit me: I should have met someone . . . yesterday.
For women at any stage of life wanting children, mourning infertility, or wishing they could have had children, it’s easy to dismiss our desires by defaulting to Christian clichés: surrender your plans to God. You’re idolizing motherhood or marriage. Practice contentment.
But what if instead we listened to the quietly persistent ticking? What if it sounds like a time bomb because it’s an ominous reminder of our mortality? Maybe this isn’t about babies as much as a fear that our one real shot at significance is slipping away. Maybe pat answers don’t satisfy because what we’re really yearning for is eternal life.
Thirsty for Eternal Life
Children enable some part of you to live on into the next generation. African traditions took this quite literally. Kenyan theologian John Mbiti said, “marriage and childbearing are the medicines against death.”1 Since a single or childless woman could not pass on the family name through a son, she was considered cursed and useless in this life. After death, one’s spirit “lived on” only as long as one’s descendants continued to offer food or libations and consult the ancestor. If she went into the realm of the dead without male heirs, no one would venerate her as an ancestor; her death was eternal.
Women who couldn’t have children were as good as dead.
In many cultures today, women’s rising access to education and growing options for careers mean we are encouraged to have it all and pursue personal purpose in both our professional and domestic vocations. Some women try to juggle both. Others end up postponing one, then struggle to make up for lost time later.
Where I live in Kenya, women seem more willing to delay, forgo, or leave marriages, perhaps due to a combination of an increase in women’s earning potential, high rates of domestic violence, and rising expectations of a partner. But having children is still crucially important. Some even intentionally opt to get pregnant with a willing accomplice, because women often experience less shame in their families and societal stigma as single mothers than as childless singles.
Western women too are often socialized to expect ultimate fulfillment from marriage and motherhood. In her TEDx talk about her painful and expensive journey to becoming a mother in her forties, Reisa Pollard said that “any joy or accomplishment I had felt in business was nothing compared to [finally having a child].”2 Women hear this and worry, “What if she’s right? I need to have kids . . . before it’s too late.” Not to mention that in cultures all over the world, parents can’t wait to be grandparents, partially to cement their legacy. Worldwide, childbearing is often a subtle attempt to achieve immortality.
“Give Me Children, or I’ll Die!”
Whether due to infant mortality rates or late marriage, fighting death by birthing life has always been women’s struggle. Consider Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, Samson’s mother, Ruth and Naomi, Elizabeth . . . it’s hard to think of any women the Bible depicts in a happy marriage with no shame or struggle around fertility.
Infertility is the direct result of the fall. Man, who came from the ground, labors in pain to multiply its fruit. Woman, who came from man, labors in pain to multiply fruit from her womb (Gen. 3:16–19). Perhaps these struggles were God’s redemptive invitation to depend on him after we had rejected him in search of independence. The fall explains why so many people sacrifice to the gods in the quest for fertility of the field and the womb. In desperation and disobedience, Israel looked to Baal and Ashtoreth for power strong enough to reverse the curse of death.
When Rachel says, “Give me children, or I’ll die!” (Gen. 30:1), she is not so much exaggerating as articulating the stakes women who do not have children are up against. Like Job or the author of Ecclesiastes, she is facing down death and meaninglessness. Women are afraid not just of being alone but of being useless, a waste. This puts a desire for children in perspective. It is not frivolous or shameful. Throughout history, women have fought against death on this female front.
The Bible writes about, rather than writes off, these women’s concerns. Pastorally, this means the church should take women’s worries about having children seriously, too. Instead, we too easily brush them off with platitudes like, “There’s someone great out there for you,” “You’ve still got time,” or “There are other ways of having kids these days.” Sometimes we have no word at all for women who desired children but are past childbearing ability.
Like Elkanah telling Hannah, “Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” (1 Sam. 1:8), these responses often miss the heart of a woman’s cry. The ticking of the clock is part of the groans of creation in birth pangs, eager for renewed life.
But God hears. Right at the end of their own strength, women who are unable to have children in the Bible cry out in utter dependence: “Hosana!” God delivers them. They deliver a child who achieves significance, like Hannah, or their cherished son is resurrected, like the Shunammite woman (see examples in 1 Kings 17:7–24; 2 Kings 4:1–37; Luke 7:12–16). It might seem like they get their culturally-defined happy ending, but it’s more than that. Over and over, women as good as dead are resurrected.
Delivered by the Single Woman’s Child
It’s encouraging that our situations are not as desperate as Sarah’s or Elizabeth’s, and our powerful God is the same. Even so, placing our hope in variations of “someday my prince will come” or waiting for a “knight in shining armor” is a faulty crutch, and we know it. And it is simply a reality that some women won’t have children, even if they hoped to.
A better promise of salvation was planted right in the middle of the curse: the woman’s offspring would crush the head of the snake (Gen. 3:15). First Timothy 2:15 recalls Eve’s deception, concluding with a verse that has ironically been mistranslated, “women will be saved through childbearing.” A friend tells me in Sudan Christians use this verse to reinforce cultural messaging encouraging women to raise up godly children.
However, New Testament scholar Philip B. Payne argues that in the Greek, 1 Timothy 2:15 is a more specific and subtle wordplay: “women will be saved through the birth of the child.” A singular child, a single woman’s offspring, would redeem single and infertile women from the curse.3 Death would no longer destroy us. Mary sings the significance of the moment: “from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48)! Through an unprecedented virgin birth, a single woman gained a place in the genealogy of the Christ. She got to be part of the bigger story God had been working through her ancestors.
In his ministry, Jesus offers women a promise the snake couldn’t fulfill, a promise to the Rachels dying for children only to die in childbirth: “you will not surely die.” When Jesus encounters the “thirsty” Samaritan woman at the archetypical boy-meets-girl location, he offers her something that satisfies more than sex or marriage: eternal life.4 When Mary sits at her Teacher’s feet as a disciple, he affirms that she has chosen something better than playing her part in the gendered script (Luke 10:38–42). Martha, possibly single herself, believes Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11:25–27).
Birth Pangs of a New Creation
Unfortunately, the church often reinforces society’s message that women should find ultimate fulfillment in marriage and motherhood. Corporately and as individuals, we may need to check whether we elevate these good desires beyond their proper and helpful place. In reality, we can’t trust children to carry our name beyond the grave. If we expect them to give us significance, to succeed for our sake, we will hold them with such a tight grip that we choke the life out of them instead of loving and serving them freely.
What if the church witnessed to the fact that childlessness does not doom you to an unfulfilling life? I have been blessed by the example of single people showing what Jesus’s offer of abundant life looks like now. An unmarried theology professor whose passion has inspired students, equipped ministers, and elevated the voice of the church in Africa proclaims with her life: “We are not called to be fruitful and multiply biological offspring so much as to make disciples of all nations.”
As our fertility starts to decline, we may wrestle with questions like, “What if I can’t have kids—and grandkids? Who will take care of me in my old age? What will I do that will outlive me?” I think of a servant-hearted single woman who has taught immigrants and generations of school kids, sailed around the world on OM Ships International, and cares for her elderly parents—and she is loved by a huge community in return. Her life reminds me that the church is a loving intergenerational family of people who are committed to one another’s needs.
We need not dismiss good desires for God’s gifts. It is good to find some joy and fulfillment in raising children and in work. This is our calling as men and women, how we imitate our Creator at work. But when none of this fully satisfies, we can take comfort that the fruits of our labor are not ultimately what carries our name beyond the grave.
We don’t need to rely on bearing sons because we have eternal life and victory over death in the Son of God. Significance that will outlive us comes not from being homemakers nor how we earn a living but from the One who made his home among us and gave us life we could not earn.
If we miss out on having children or on a fulfilling professional career, if we can’t have it all, it’s the end of the world . . . that brings us hope. Single or married, baby-less or breastfeeding, men or women, we have a chance to be part of something that will last forever—the church. We all live in the hope that someday our King will come, riding on a white horse (Rev. 19:11–16). He will defeat the old dragon and our enemy, Death (Rev. 20:2, 3, 10, 14). He will save us who were damned in distress, throw a glorious wedding reception, and we will live happily ever after. When the cosmic clock runs out, it is not infertility we will face but the redemption of new bodies brought to life. This, and nothing less, is strong enough to build our hope upon.
1. John Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, 2nd ed. (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1991), 105.
2. Reisa Pollard, “The Surprising Truth About Making Babies Late,” filmed June 2018 at TEDxVancouver, Vancouver, video, 18:12.
3. Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 417–442.
4. Carissa Quinn, “Jesus Offers Living Water and . . . Marriage?,” Bible Project, April 7, 2020.