Friday, June 22, 2012

Choosing no is still a choice

Psalm 65:1-4 (NIV)

Praise awaits you, our God, in Zion;
   to you our vows will be fulfilled.
You who answer prayer,
   to you all people will come.
When we were overwhelmed by sins,
   you forgave our transgressions.
Blessed are those you choose
   and bring near to live in your courts!
We are filled with the good things of your house,
   of your holy temple.
We chose to have children. When we got married, we agreed to wait five years to have kids and took the appropriate measures. In five years of two full-time incomes, and living in an economically depressed area to boot, we reasoned five years would be plenty of time for us to get out of our rental house and into a starter home with some savings on the side. By our fifth anniversary we’d both 27 years old, which would be young enough for our best chance at a healthy pregnancy (with time for more kids if we so chose) and yet old enough to have the maturity needed to become parents.

Of course, on our fifth anniversary we also had one son and another on the way (though we didn’t know it yet) and we’d moved in and out of that starter home. All of those changes along the way happened by our choice. We bought a house way earlier than we thought possible, thanks in large part to an unbearable landlord. We (read: Kristie) reasoned that buying the house was the real hurdle, not the arbitrary five-year window. So we tried to have a baby. And it worked.

What followed was lots of career changes, big and small, plus moving, losing a bundle by buying a house right before the market tanked, moving again, et cetera. We also learned we are really, really good at making babies. Not to get too technical, but suffice it to say, our experience has been that if we want to “invent” a baby (my preferred euphemism), we can “invent” a baby.

I have mentioned before we have some friends who cannot so easily create life. Some have never been able. I imagine that although a few folks have shared their stories (I promise I am not writing about anyone specific — in fact, if you think it’s you inspiring this post, relax, it’s someone else) it is likely there are other people we know who have similar issues but have kept them private. This is completely acceptable and expected. If you decide to control the situation, the choice to have children is incredibly personal. Finding out it is difficult or impossible to conceive is understandably heartbreaking. I suppose choosing to cede control also is deeply personal. Aw heck, anything involving reproduction is about as intimate as it can get.

Consequently, if you are among those who have raised the subject with me in the first place, you will not be surprised to hear me vociferously defend the right of people to choose to not be parents. Usually these discussions are with people my age, typically married, who are frustrated by their parents constantly dropping hints about grandchildren, or their siblings wondering when cousins will be added to the family. I’ve also had the chance to speak with some folks about a dozen years older than me who opted to avoid parenthood and held firm past the point of biological practicality.

No matter who is on the other end of the discussion, I always feel bad to learn there is someone in their life — most likely a very close relative — who has made them feel incredibly uncomfortable about a decision they likely reached after no small amount of soul searching. Unsolicited advice in any arena is generally a bitter pill, but when it enters the intimate arena of family planning, it can be almost unbearable. Yet we all have heard enough horror stories to realize it happens far too often.

This subject comes to mind thanks to Wendy Hamilton, a college friend who this week shared a link to a Slate article titled, bluntly, “I Don’t Want To Have Children.” A few hours later, Wendy posted a moving personal anecdote along the same lines. I want to share her concluding paragraphs, which frame the issue as eloquently as I’ve ever seen:
My schooling and work has taken me all over the world, allowing me to come in contact with all sorts of people. In my late 20s, I started to worry that people were really judging me for being open about not wanting kids. It somehow seemed a negative mark on my character. “Oh that Wendy, she is too career-driven. Too bad she can’t get her personal life together and find a nice boy to settle down with. She’d be such a great mom.” And then I really started to panic that I was somehow offending my entire gender. What about the millions of women who want nothing more than to be a mother but can’t conceive? Who am I to discard such a miraculous gift?

Just recently, I was having this very conversation with a colleague who happens to be a new mom. We are mutually fascinated by each other’s strong decisions regarding motherhood. She would like to have at least two more kids, which I just can’t understand. When I describe my ultimate adoration of my pets and my nephew and yet I have no interest in having a child, she is baffled. She innocently remarked “I can understand how you’d want to have freedom in your life and be selfish for a while,” which was met with instant regret. “Oh gosh, I didn’t mean to say you are selfish! That came out wrong. I’m sorry!” she said. I assured her that I took no offense, and that it was actually an eye-opening moment for me.

For the past 35 years, I have felt guilty and selfish for not wanting to have kids. That I never wanted more than to be a loving pet owner and doting aunt made me feel damaged. Like I’m not a real woman. But with my colleague’s comment came enlightenment. Because I admit and accept that I do not have an instinctive urge to be a mother, I feel my choice is the most selfless of all.

I expect to still get a shocked reaction of “What? You don’t want kids?” and “But you’d be such a good mom!” and the ever-awkward, “You know that’s not a great way to find a man.” And let’s face it, at 35 my story is hardly over. I am not expired produce on the shelf.

While I am comfortable and secure with my choice, it is a priority for me to keep an open mind and welcoming heart for the chapters of my life that have yet to be written. I allow myself to someday change my mind, though I think it unlikely.

I’m 35, I choose to be childless, and that’s more than fine.
I love my children with every fiber of my being. I say now I would not have pursued a long-term relationship with a woman who had no intention of becoming a mother, though such matters of the heart are pretty easy to clearly define in retrospect. I am an intentional father, which I think is important to clarify because some folks end up on this path against their will — some without their knowledge — though we all ought to be responsible enough to make good choices.

But as much as I love my kids and as deeply defined as I am by my role as a father, I also acknowledge not everyone has the same feelings. Some people just don’t think they’re ready to be parents. And woe to the child born to people who don’t want to be parents. My heart aches for the people who want to be parents yet are denied the opportunity, biologically or otherwise. Such sadness deepens my understanding of my children as blessings, and it leaves me dumbstruck by my inability to rationalize why I was able to get what I wanted while they remain on the outside looking in.

I know God told us to be fruitful and multiply. But He also told us to make disciples of all the nations, and I can tell you from experience that inventing and raising babies is an entirely different ballgame from spreading the good news.

I’ve probably gone on too long here without coming to a remarkable conclusion. I’ve got no better way to wrap it up but to take it to the Lord in prayer. Hopefully if you’re reading this and in any way thinking about the choice to be a parent or not, or your ability to be a parent or not, you’ll take the time to pray as well. All of our children our God’s children, and though they’ll (hopefully) grow to be their own people, none of them were brought here of their own will. It falls to all of us, parents or otherwise, to shower them with love, encouragement and comfort, to teach them about the saving grace of Jesus and to help them live lives worthy of God.

A prayer for June 22:

Lord, I praise you for your goodness and mercy. I cannot thank you enough for all the blessings of my life. I pray for those who have children, that you might give them the strength to be good parents. I pray for those who cannot have children, that they might find peace. I pray for those who struggle with the decision, that they may discern your will. I pray for those who are not and do not wish to be parents, that they may be free of mental anguish. Lord, we all are your children, and we all are responsible for the safety and education of each other, especially the children. Please help us all come together in your name. Amen.

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