When I was 12 or 13, I spent a few weeks one summer helping to run a nursery at a local Presbyterian conference. Among the children our youth group watched was a little, chubby girl with curls. I cannot remember her name now, but I can remember the weight of her in my arms, the way she laughed when I made goofy faces, and the absolute wrenching process it was for me to leave her the last night, knowing I would never see her again.
Of course, I was a hormonal nightmare at that age, and a great deal of the pain of parting from that child came from my own struggles with loneliness and an awkward physicality that I allowed to isolate me. But there was also something else at work there – my desire to have a child.
To this day, more than 25 years later, that desire has not been fulfilled. My first husband and I had planned to adopt, but he left before that was possible. (And I’m grateful that a child was not a part of the divorce.) Then, I spent several years single or in dating relationships that didn’t turn into marriages. By the time I met the gift of my lifetime in Philip, I was already 37 – far past the risk-free years of child-bearing – and I still didn’t know if I was capable of having a child.
Now, in year two of our marriage, Philip and I are still childless – and I’m 40. I’m not sure I’m ready to own the term “infertility” yet, but I certainly am childless. And that is heart-breaking in many ways, even as I realize it may be our way of being in the world for the rest of our lives. I hope not, but I must realize that this may be the case.
I just finished reading Matt and Cheri Appling’s powerful book Plus or Minus: Keeping Your Life, Faith, and Love Together Through Infertility, and honestly, I’m pretty stunned by how applicable the book was in my life. In particular, their way of breaking down the pain of childlessness at a time when almost all of your friends are having children sounded a resounding gong in my chest.
They say, and I wholeheartedly agree, that children are now status symbols. They signal a certain level of “fulfillment” or “adulthood” to people who have them, and sadly, often those people judge the lives of childless people to be of less value or to be less fulfilling. I’ve heard women say that they understand the plight of children in a richer way because they are mothers. I’ve heard people say that the most fulfilling thing a person can do is be a mother. I’ve had people imply that the way I spend my days has little to no value because I don’t spend it raising children. In all manner of ways, people place parenting at the pinnacle of human existence.
So when I read Matt and Cheri’s book, I felt myself soothed because they see these things, too, because they also felt left out of a big portion of their friends’ lives because their friends had children and they did not, because like me, they have carried guilt and responsibility and burden for not having children.
This book lifted some of that weight, and it gave me greater compassion for people struggling through the hard days of infertility while also reminding me of the way that parents’ struggle with judgment, with unreasonable culpability for the choices of their autonomous children, with guilt and shame I cannot understand. The book is rich with insight and lessons.
I don’t know where life may take Philip and I. We hope for children, but we will come to peace if we cannot have them. Our lives will be rich and fulfilling and meaningful with children or without because as Matt and Cheri reminded me, children are not about creating meaning for their parents. They exist to build their own meaning and purpose in our world.
Sometimes, I think of that little chubby girl – who may be old enough now to have her own chubby baby. I am grateful that she opened this ache in me because, no matter if the ache is assuaged or simply settled into part of the shape of my heart, she taught me that the richness of love for children is not limited to those who parent them.
If you’ve walked this hard road of wanting children but not having any, of having chosen to remain childless, or of having been gifted with children, I welcome your stories here.
Note – please do not post advice or suggestions about alternatives to giving birth to children. Those of us who want children know those options more than we might like, and those of us who have chosen to live without children have made informed choices that are best for us. Thanks. Out of a desire to respect and spare the feelings of childless people, I will delete those types of comments.