A call for honesty about childlessness
“Choice” is not the right category
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Virtue signals are always annoying, but I have a least favorite: It’s claiming you’re not having kids to save the environment. Somehow saying this has become fashionable. I don’t believe it for a minute.
I think many people, including Christians, are scared to have children. I sympathize with that. But we’re facing a population crisis. Global fertility is falling below replacement rates. Christian couples are having more children than non-Christian couples, but just barely.
Driving this crisis is the unspoken belief that having children is an optional extracurricular for otherwise healthy, fertile married couples. Contraception, abortion, and “assisted reproduction” have enabled and normalized this view, even inside the church.
Not only does this deny God’s design for marriage and our bodies, but it also promotes the lie that childless married couples “considering” having kids can actually make an informed decision.
Anecdotally, I’ve encountered Christian couples at church and on social media who claim they’ve “considered” it, really sat down and thought long and hard, and decided they just don’t “want” kids.
But this isn’t the kind of “decision” pragmatism can make. There is no pros-and-cons list that will serve here. To say “I can imagine what it would be like to have children” and to mean not much more than “I'll probably have to find a babysitter if I want to go to a restaurant” is like saying “I can imagine what it will be like when I lose my parents because they went on a trip once.”
People without children cannot imagine what having children is like. This is not a statement about anyone’s character. This does not pit parents against non-parents in a bid for human value. It does not even mean people without kids are less intelligent or wise or important to the Kingdom of God. It is simply a biological and spiritual fact. People without children cannot imagine what having children is like.
I believe God made the procreative process a mysterious one—at the same time as it is the perfectly natural fruit of married life—in part because He meant for it not to be up to us. This is a mercy.
I find parenting to be the most joyful and consequential thing I have done or will do. But becoming a mom has also devastated me. I didn’t know it was possible to feel this kind of crushing love for someone, or to be this desperately afraid of losing them. It’s uncomfortable. The novelist (and father) Jonathan Safran Foer calls parenthood “too much love for happiness.”
Had I known beforehand that loving my daughters like this would make me so inescapably vulnerable, I don’t know if I would have been strong enough to “choose” to have them. (And that’s to say nothing of the far less significant, but very real, inconveniences of parenting—including the intense discomfort of pregnancy and, yes, having to find a babysitter if you want to go to a restaurant). Telling a person that “whether” to have kids is their “choice” is to saddle them with a heavy and needless burden. Hard things are usually the best things, but not many of us have the strength to choose, on our own, the hard things.
A few weeks ago, an Israeli mom named Sofie Berzon MacKie survived 14 hours with her 12-year-old and 3-year-old daughters in a safe room while Hamas burned her country. She described the experience in an interview with writer Max Raskin. At first, Sofie said, she did her best to keep her girls quiet and calm.
“And then at one point, when they were really on my house shooting at the window. … I was sure I was going to die, so I actually posted my goodbyes on Facebook, and I sent messages to my friends, family, that, “Know I love you, but I’m not going to survive this. This is the day I’m going to die.”
If this were a movie—if someone who is not a parent wrote this scene into a movie—what would Sofie do next? She would scheme for escape. She’d hope for a miracle until the end. She’d lift the proverbial car off her kids, because that’s what hero Moms do.
But this was real life, and that’s not what Sofie did. She covered her daughters’ eyes.
“As a mother, I think … seeing the terror on my children’s faces once [the terrorists] are in the safe room—that was a thought that absolutely broke my heart. So when they were really on our house trying to get in, I just sat. I held them and covered their eyes, because I just didn’t want to see the look on their faces when they see the people that are going to murder them.”
Sofie had accepted her daughters’ deaths and her powerlessness to prevent them. What she couldn’t accept was what it would feel like to see the looks on their faces. What it would feel like for her. This is the kind of deeply human reaction you can’t predict. There’s no imagining this ahead of time. This is a primal, biological, spiritual display of the unimaginable strangeness of being a mom.
Miraculously, God protected Sofie and her family, and they were rescued by the Israel Defense Forces. Raskin was asked how her life will change now: “It’s kind of hard to describe what happens to someone who faces their death and accepts it, really, with your whole being. I feel like nothing scares me anymore. … After we escaped from that thing, I was like, ‘Wow, I think we should just have another child.’”
Dear married Christians: Let the little children come to you.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.