To be clear, having spiritual children isn’t the same as having biological or adoptive children. But just because it isn’t the same doesn’t mean it can’t satisfy. The family of God is expansive—uniting the old and the young, the black and the white, the orphan and the widow, the single and the married. When I look upon the families who have brought me into their homes, loving me and giving me children to love, I realize I am already a single mother by choice—even if our only bond is one of faith and love.
I was 28 years old the first time someone called me “barren.” At a book club hosted by one of my friends, I met a 22-year-old graduate student who had just moved to the city. After our group discussion, she and I ended up in the kitchen talking about food, life, and expectations. As I shared with her the story of my recent broken engagement, I confessed, “I thought I’d be married by now.”
Later that week, she emailed to say she enjoyed our conversation and that she, too, thought she’d be “married by now.” Then she said I reminded her of “the barren woman” from the Hebrew Scriptures, of whom it is said in Isaiah, “Sing, O barren one, for the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married” (Isa. 54:1).
Did she just call me “barren”?
Thankfully, some girlfriends came over for dinner that night. All single. All gorgeous. All in their late 20s. I read the email to them, and we laughed. I wasn’t alone. I was like most women in Manhattan—single and successful, and with plenty of time to get married and have kids.
But perhaps that young woman was prophetic. Four weeks shy of turning 40, I’m still single and childless. “Barren”—a description that was laughable to my 28-year-old self—may turn out to be true.
It’s common, if not nearly universal, for a woman to long for children—to bring new life into the world; to put her hand on her belly as her baby grows; to wonder whether the newborn will have her or her beloved’s eyes; to hear “Mom” not as a word uttered by her own voice to her own mother but as a call from her child’s voice for her. (As I write this, I’m sitting on the subway next to a teenage girl trying to get her mom’s attention: “Mom? Mom? Do you want my seat?”)
Childlessness isn’t just a married couple’s grief. I’ve never heard that call of “Mom.” Never felt that baby in my belly. Never seen my features in the face of a child. Never experienced hearing a baby’s first word or taking a toddler to his first haircut. Never been “the preferred one” to the child who only wants her mom when she’s sad, scared, or sick. When a new mother shares how her heart unimaginably expanded when she first held her baby, I can understand what she means only in theory, not by experience.
Some think that, by grieving not having children while still single, I’m putting the cart before the horse. Can’t she just get married and have kids? they wonder. Doesn’t she understand her biological clock is ticking? Is she being too picky, or not trying hard enough?
These questions are common—from both strangers and loved ones. But the answers are complex and particularized. And for every single woman you think has a fatal flaw making her unmarriageable, you can probably think of another woman with that same fatal flaw and is happily married.
But no matter why a woman remains single, she’s reminded every month—in pain and in blood—that she was made, at least in part, to bear children. Her body doesn’t let her mind and heart forget.
Melanie Notkin, author of Savvy Auntie, calls this type of grief—grief that’s unaccepted, unobvious, or silent—disenfranchised grief. “It’s the grief you don’t feel allowed to mourn, because your loss isn’t clear or understood. But losses that others don’t recognize can be as powerful as the kind that are socially acceptable.”