A ViewPoint by Rev. Shawna R. B. Atteberry
This year I experienced something I thought I would never experience: empty nest syndrome. I never thought I would feel the emptiness that comes from a child leaving the nest for one simple reason: 10 years ago I decided that I did not want to have children.
What I didn’t know was that a few years later I would fall in love with a young British man who started coming to church when he started college in Chicago. Taylor and I bonded over being writers and our mutual obsession with Dr. Who. For three years we read each other’s writings and talked about everything. Somewhere along the way I realized Taylor was my kid; I had “adopted” him. In June he and his girlfriend moved to Seattle, and I became an empty nester. I can’t believe how much I miss my kid.
This week’s TIME Magazine cover story reports on women who have made the same decision I have: to not have children. There were two huge reasons I was not impressed with the article. First they only covered one reason why women are not having children: for the freedom and the additional time and money that comes with being childfree. The article made this choice seem like an arbitrary decision, one made in order to be able to take more vacations and buy more stuff. The Time writer did not consider the complex life situations that lead a woman or a man to decide not to have children.
The second reason I wasn’t impressed with the article is that, as a Christian, I found their definition of family too narrow.
For me the decision not to have children was a combination of factors. The foremost factor is that I did not marry until I was 36. Right behind that is reason #2: health problems. I have a 20 degree curvature in my lower back due to scoliosis, and orthopedists have been telling me since my early 20s that pregnancy would not be a good thing for me. The older I got and the more problems I had with both my lower back and hips led me to the same conclusion.
What about adoption? I considered that, but the more I thought about it the more it didn’t appeal to me. After doing some soul searching on what I wanted (as opposed to what I was told I wanted all my life), I came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to adopt because I did not want to be a mother. I love children. I adore my nieces and nephews, but I did not want kids of my own. Once I made that decision I started to wonder if I’d get married as most of the men I knew wanted children. As it turned out my best friend was fine with not having children, making us one of the couples who have chosen not to have children.
I have to admit that part of the reason for not wanting children is selfish. I’ve watched many friends have families, and I have no delusions about motherhood or parenthood: raising kids is hard work. It takes a lot of time and a lot money. I’m a writer, and at this stage in my life I want time to write.
Like any creative work, writing takes a lot of time. I’m now in my mid-40s and if I want to write all of the books I have floating around in my head, my time has to be spent writing. So yes, part of my reason for not having children is due to selfishness. But not all of it. I’m honest enough with myself to know I would not make a good mother. It would be just as selfish for me to have children only because that’s what I’m supposed to do—my children would suffer for it. I would resent them and what they kept me from doing. No kid should have to grow up in a home like that. Sometimes selfish is a good thing, especially if it means not warping a kid for life.
As I’ve discovered in the last few years, motherhood comes in many shapes and forms. In both American society and the church, family is a far more nebulous concept than our nuclear-famildolatry culture wants to admit. It shouldn’t surprise me that I wound up adopting a college kid.
The same thing happened to me when I was in college, and in seminary, and throughout most of my adult life. For most of my adult life I have lived away from my family, and I’ve had to depend on the families that God has placed me in. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Psalm 68:6: “God sets the solitary in families” (NKJV). God set me in many different families during the solitary travels of my life, and now I am part of a family who God is using to set other solitary people in.
Taylor may be my first kid, but something tells me he’s not the last. I have a feeling he’s just my oldest. And I love the idea. Where I live in Chicago is one big college campus, and I love the idea that many, many more college kids may be coming into my life so I can be their college mom. With the mobility of our society, and the fact that more and more of us choose to live away from our families of birth means that “family” becomes more about the families we choose than the ones we’re born into.
For me family is a much broader and expansive concept than the nuclear family. Jesus said that anyone who obeyed God was his mother, brothers, and sisters. I see no reason to limit my family to those I am biologically related to, and I think part of our responsibilities as Christians is to cast a much larger definition of what a family is. For me my children will never be my own flesh and blood: they will be kids who need a mother for this time in their life, and I hope they will continue to be my kids after they’ve moved on.