When Labels Create Division

by Kayla White | February 05, 2014

A summer issue of Time magazine caught my eye with the title: “The Childfree Life: When Having it All Means Not Having Children” by Lauren Sandler. The link will not provide you with the full article, so I encourage you to either purchase the issue online or run by your favorite local bookstore/library for some coffee and a relaxing read.

The article is interesting because it has a specific focus: couples (or just women) who have made the conscious decision to not have children (a status recently designated as “child-free”), the various reasons that have led them to this decision, and the still-very-present societal stigma attached to those without kids, regardless of how they ended up in their current situation.

As I read through the article a few times, I was struck by a number of comments and/or statistics:

  • The decline in childbirth in the US will likely cause the collapse of our economy (at least according to Jonathan West in his book What to Expect When No One’s Expecting). So, I’ve got that going for me…
  • The rise in infertility treatments/clinics not only mean that infertile women/couples have more options, but they also face more scrutiny when choosing not to pursue those avenues.
  • Childless women are smarter than their child-friendly counterparts (at least according to one study by an economist at the London School of Economics. I should probably mention here that none of his colleagues have embraced his findings, but am still very excited to tell my sisters that I’m smarter than they are.)
  • The loneliness that childless couples feel is triggered by the instability of their social circle, not the fear of aging/dying alone (as is often assumed). “It’s toughest in your 30s – early 40s….watching friends peel off into their small domestic worlds.” “You build strong relationships, and then they change.  It’s great for them, but it sucks for you.”

While I can’t relate completely to this article (Lance and I were involuntarily child-free), I would say we now fully reside in the camp of those “opting out” because we are consciously choosing not to pursue other methods. I would also say that what I can relate to is the awkward social experiences these women have had, trying to fit into a culture (you can also insert “church” here) that stresses motherhood and family as the defining characteristics of women. And while I am currently researching/writing about ancient cultural responses to barrenness, it is fascinating to me that the same societal expectations occur, regardless of the time and place.

And of course, all of this prompted me to think about the Church’s role in all of this.  How do we talk about “family” in our congregations? Does it always unconsciously connote “married with kids”? Do our ministries, small-groups, bible studies, community activities revolve around the “typical” life stages (i.e. college, young marrieds, married with children, empty nesters), all of which exclude (even if unintentionally) singles who are older than 25, married couples in their 30s+ w/out children, those who are divorced/widowed? Because, if so, I can promise you that we aren’t going to reach any of the women interviewed in this article. They won’t feel like they belong.

While I was struggling through my own response to this article and its possible implications for the Church, a friend referred me to an online response to the Time article, entitled “The Problem with the Childfree Life,” written by Kathleen Nielson, and posted on The Gospel Coalition‘s website. While I absolutely agree with her that the Bible teaches a “theology of children,” her overall post was discouraging. Not only because I am unable to have children, but because it also serves to support and reaffirm the unspoken belief I have experienced and heard from many of my single/infertile friends that the Church affirms raising children as the highest service you can perform in the Kingdom. And so, to many of us, whether we find ourselves voluntarily or involuntarily childless, we feel ashamed because we will never attain that level of devoted service.

As you read these articles, I encourage you to think beyond childless/childfree, and instead, consider those in our congregations who may feel excluded by the (hopefully unintentional) divisions we create in our churches by reducing people to the label of single, married, childless, divorced/widowed, career, college, empty-nesters, etc. What would our congregations look like if we were intentional about creating multi-lifestage ministries and small-group communities that allowed people to share their unique perspectives and faith journeys with each other? How might that help us be a more authentic representation of the body of Christ? These are the things floating through my mind as I continually process the life I’ve been given. If you have similar or totally opposite thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Peace,

k