From personal reflection about the Christian response to childlessness, I have learned two things. Firstly, in denominations where complementarianism or patriarchal values are upheld, a woman’s value is believed to be tied in to her role as a wife and a mother. I refer to a quote by Pastor Scott Douglas, a complementarian pastor at Westside Baptist Church in Kentucky in the USA, he writes the following: “for a complementarian woman, her primary responsibility and calling is to be a wife and mother. Everything else is secondary to that, including career goals and personal ambitions. Perhaps the best picture of this for me is after my wife received her PhD, her first act after that was to feed our 5 month old son and rock him to sleep. For her, it was all about being Mommy before being Dr Douglas.”
Complementarianism draws on the belief that a woman has a unique and distinct role, that is different from men, in this case women cannot preach or teach, lead men in congregational settings and have to submit to the headship or authority of a man. I have noticed that individuals, both men and women who hold to a complementarian view of life, react with disdain and aggression towards my husband and my choice not to have children. A well – known professor and complementarian theologian Jim Hamilton stated that “all women must embrace their role as women and bear children, and if they do so in faith they will be saved.” While a full investigation of complementarian doctrine and motherhood is beyond the full scope of my talk, I hope these brief quotations and explanations provide a backdrop for the discomfort that certain denominations feel towards childless individuals, and more particularly towards women. In conversations with new acquaintances, my husband is usually asked “so what do you do for a living?” While I am asked, “how many children do you have?” It is rare for someone to ask my husband that question, however the decision not to have children is a mutual decision, and most days my husband is quick to pipe up, “no we don’t have children!” (He recently made a pharmacist laugh while she was tagging my flu medication and she said “you’re not pregnant or breastfeeding are you?” Before she finished the breast word, he raised his eyebrows and his voice, “no, no she’s not pregnant!)
A number of our personal friends and acquaintances attend churches where women are excluded from leadership, and a doctrine of male headship is enforced. The majority of these individuals have married young and were encouraged to start families almost immediately, the wife herself in my experience has not gone on to pursue a career or further education. This way of life is celebrated as the ultimate destination of right living, marry, have children and settle down. For a couple to exercise joint decision – making and come to a decision not to have children, is seen as something wrong and out of the bounds of pure spirituality and biblical living.
Which leads me to my second observation, that of female functionality. If society in general views women as desiring motherhood, then this means that society has a subconscious belief that women find fulfilment or personal usefulness only once they are mothering. In the novel and TV series The Handmaids Tale, this futuristic and exaggerated society which is both hard to watch and hard to understand, can lend itself to question our own views on women and how society seeks to form and prescribe the function of women. While a number of themes run parallel in this novel, the theme of function and role is amplified and obvious. In this horrific society, women are valued for their ability to fulfil their respective assignments of birthing children. I have discussed the Handmaids Tale with a number of different women across different nations, from different walks of life and their responses towards the treatment of women in the story, are interpreted as both hard to watch and uncomfortable. Are we as women, only seen as useful once we nurse from our breasts and bring life in to the world from our womb? It’s a question I would like to leave up to the audience to answer. I am also of the conviction that as individuals we are often unaware of our own deep desire to protect our own lives, and often we see other individuals as a potential threat to our world. This is seen in the way first impressions and engagements play out at social gatherings. Besides the formal greeting of hello, we are almost always asked (or we ask), what job do you have, what do you do for a living? We ask these questions not to engage with the career or passion of a stranger, but to subconsciously determine whether the individual opposite us is considered a threat to our position in the room, or within our own minds. If a stranger answers by saying they are a brain surgeon or a professor, they are perceived as someone respectful and potentially as someone who is a threat in terms of having higher education, and a lot of money, as opposed to someone to simply states they are a waitress, homemaker or seamstress. So too, the same applies to children, somehow childless by choice couples are perceived by many as threatening as they do not fall in to a category that is easily understandable. In every way they appear to be outliers and are perceived as threatening on a social level as their lifestyle choice does not fit in to a neat box. They are in all aspects uncategorised and mysterious. This creates tension in the minds of onlookers, which offers some sort of explanation as to why childless by choice individuals are frequently attacked verbally and emotionally.
This sums up my experience as a childless by choice woman, and some of my own reflections and observations on the behaviour of others when it comes to this somewhat complex topic.
This post forms part of a 3 – part series on a speaking topic I addressed at Stellenbosch University. To read part 1 Click here, CBC Part 1