As of this writing, I am 41 years old and have never been pregnant—though I've longed for years to become a mother. I am not comfortable pursuing further fertility treatment, and our hopes to adopt become slimmer as the months trudge forward. In the next breath, however, I must tell you that I am in a season of great growth and newness, a season in which possibilities stretch before me. I do not view my current lot in life as a dead end. And if I do become a mother, I don't believe my calling in life will change; instead, my life and schedule will change as my role does.
I've been writing on what it's like to navigate childlessness in the church lately. I've been listening to heartrending stories from mothers, non-mothers, those whose children are flying the coop, and those who have finally realized their dream of parenthood after a long struggle. Frankly, the responses overflow, as women have begun to speak of what is often seen as unmentionable in the church: Can a Christian woman find her identity outside of motherhood?
From a childless single woman: "As a divorced woman with no kids, I don't always fit in at church. 'Are you married?' 'Do you have kids?' Both of these are difficult questions to answer, as all I have ever wanted in life was to be a wife and mom."
From a childless married woman: "We have always had a clear and strong sense of where God was moving us [without children] that we never second guessed what he wasn't calling us to."
From an adoptive mom: "Being childless is definitely a legitimate choice. I often wondered if I truly wanted children, or if I was just 'supposed' to want children. There's so much societal pressure, and pressure within the church, to take the traditional path. Let me tell you—it's hard! Good, but hard."
From a young mom: "Someday my kids will leave me and I will be on my own again with new tasks to do for the kingdom. In the end my relationship with God is only mediated through Christ—not my children or my spouse—the same as anyone who remained childless or single."
Surely there are many other perspectives out there, one of which you hold. Undoubtedly, the questions we women ask each other in the quietest of conversations get even more raw and personal. Questions like: Why am I crying about closing my womb and my fertility through surgery? Where do I go with this grief? Who am I now that my kids are leaving the nest? Will my heart ever recover so I feel normal—and needed—again?
Womanhood vs. motherhood
Our deepest joys and hurts surrounding motherhood tend to come up in hushed conversations, in urgent telephone calls, in fits and starts. First of all, we need someone to tell us that our struggles and questions surrounding motherhood are legitimate. We need to know that our stories matter—and that the stories of others, however different from our own—matter too. We long for safe places and spaces to explore what for many are deep instincts to bring forth and nurture life. I believe most of us hope for someone to say: "I admire your heart. I see God working through your circumstances. You are fruitful, no matter your parenting status, and God is pleased with you."
This may be what we long for, but for most women, I'm afraid this is not what we receive. Our hearts scan for safe places in the church to pour out our feelings and emotions, but instead, we often feel judged and misunderstood. We wonder what people think of us, even as a recent Time magazine article reported: "The decision to have a child or not is a private one, but it takes place, in America at least, in a culture that often equates womanhood with motherhood."
So does womanhood equal motherhood? And if so, what about the single childless woman? The infertile married woman? The woman whose children have left the nest? The young mom who feels like a failure at mothering? Those who weep over children from whom they are estranged? Where can we go to find our identity then? Perhaps for some time now we have been making assumptions that are dictated by our culture and not by Scripture.
If I'm right, going to God's Word will change our thinking, our perceived value, and the core of our identity. We will begin to see that our calling as disciple describes our identity; being a mother or a non-mother describes a role that might be fulfilled within that calling. In fact, as I read through Scripture, mining it for bedrock truth, I see Jesus leaving both his male and female followers with definite marching orders. He said:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." Mark 12:30-31, NIV [emphasis mine]
"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." Matthew 28:19-20, NIV
A mother cannot abandon this calling because she is knee-deep in diapers or busy parenting a teenager; rather, she fulfills the calling through her current roles, loving and making disciples of those closest to her. When children leave the nest, her calling continues, unhindered: she loves God, loves others, and seeks to make disciples. She simply fulfills her calling in different ways.
Likewise, Jesus never pressured any woman to become a wife or a mother, but he did commend those who chose to devote themselves to spreading his love and the good news of his kingdom. In this, every woman alive has the potential to be fruitful and hear "well done" from her Savior. Your calling in life cannot change, though your roles probably will. And in these moments of yearning and change and transition and eventual acceptance, we pray for God's grace. We ground our identity firmly in his words, and we find a sure and certain hope that cannot be displaced, mother or not.
Suzanne Burden holds an MA in Theological Studies and can be found blogging at the intersection of beauty and theology at suzanneburden.com. She writes and edits for a variety of organizations and coauthored the upcoming book Reclaiming Eve: the Identity and Calling of Women in the Kingdom of God (Beacon Hill Press, March 2014).