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 me to say she enjoyed our conversation and that she, too, thought she'd be “married by now.” Then she said that 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.’”
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 people think that by grieving not having children while still single, I’m putting the cart before the horse. They wonder, Can’t she just get married and have kids? Doesn’t she understand her biological clock is ticking? Is she being too picky, or not trying hard enough?
No matter why a woman remains single, she’s reminded every month that she was made, at least in part, to bear children.
These questions are common—from both strangers and loved ones. But the answers are complex and particularized. And for every single woman you meet who you think has a fatal flaw making her unmarriageable, you can probably think of another woman with that same fatal flaw who 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, the 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,” she writes. “But losses that others don’t recognize can be as powerful as the kind that are socially acceptable.”
Going It Alone
These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn't need marriage—or even a man.
Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent, according to one survey) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick, author of Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire. She writes:
Again and again, the [choice moms] I spoke with described how they'd wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I've concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.
Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says that her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses that she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”
My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment, and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.
While working with high schoolers through a faith-based nonprofit called Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That's when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.
It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425 square foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says that she didn’t stumble into motherhood. “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child," she explains. "When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”
My Own Choices
With the rise of SMBCs, single women like me face new questions. You say you want children, but do you really? Then why aren’t you adopting or using a sperm donor? Which do you lack—desire or courage? Again, though, responses are complex and particularized.
I’m open to becoming an SMBC through adoption or foster care. My situation isn’t ideal: I work full-time for a nonprofit and live in a 4th floor walk-up in Manhattan. But giving an orphan a home is making the best of a harsh reality. After all, one parent is better than none.
I'm not, however, open to becoming a single mother by sperm donation. Perhaps I lack courage: I can't imagine facing pregnancy alone with all its potential complications, and I fear that I'm ill-equipped to handle parenting responsibilities without a husband.
But I'm also cautious. Knowing that many sperm-donor kids struggle with the deliberate loss of their biological fathers, I don’t want to intentionally bring a fatherless child into the world. Despite what the movie title boasts, sperm-donor kids are not all right, according to a 2010 study, My Daddy’s Name Is Donor.
“As a group,” write the lead researchers, “the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families.”
Although I’m not open to sperm donation, I sympathize with single women who go this route. Like me, they’re looking for a family, and for children to love.
Beyond the Biological
Yet I believe family is beyond the biological. Seven years ago, my brother and sister-in-law adopted my nephew, Khai, from Vietnam. He doesn’t look like them, but there’s no doubt that he is ours. He laughs at the same jokes his dad does, never withholds a kindness just like his mom, and fights with his sister like any other sibling. Family resemblance isn’t merely physical.
I also think “family” is more than formal adoptive relationships. As a Christian, I find comfort and security in the knowledge that I am part of a spiritual family. In Christian theology, when someone comes to trust in Christ, she becomes a member of the household of faith as an adopted child of God. Other Christians become her brothers and sisters, and she is to love them in deeply significant ways.
The faith family of which I am a part is expansive—uniting the old and the young, the black and the white, the orphan and the widow, and the single and the married.
Such relationships are often more precious, and more permanent than relationships in families. In The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, the narrator and his guide visit heaven and encounter a ghost named Sarah Smith. The narrator immediately recognizes that Sarah is “a person of particular importance” because she’s surrounded by young men and women. Describing them as her sons and daughters, the guide explains,
Every young man or boy that met her became her son—even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to her back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter...Her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more.
Sarah Smith’s motherhood wasn’t biological but spiritual. Her children were born through faith, not through sex.
As a Christian, I worship a man who was a biologically childless parent. Jesus Christ never married, never had kids, and yet he said, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Jesus never held a son or daughter in his arms, but he nonetheless came to bear children, to give birth to a people, like me, who bear his family resemblance.
A Bond of Love
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 faith family of which I am a part is expansive—uniting the old and the young, the black and the white, the orphan and the widow, and the single and the married. When I look upon the families that have brought me into their homes, loving me and giving me children to love, I realize that I am already a single mother by choice—even if our only bond is one of faith and love.
This summer, I went with my friend from church, Bekah, and her two daughters, Ellie and Claire, to an amusement park in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Although her girls are now 5 and 3, I’ve known them since they were born. They are precious to me. I bring them gifts, and we play Go Fish using extra large Frozen playing cards.
At the park, Ellie desperately wanted to ride a rollercoaster for the first time. Since Bekah was 8 months pregnant, she couldn’t go on any of the rides with her. So I went in her place. As we got on the ride, Ellie was excited. But once we starting climbing the hill, she got scared. Her eyes grew wide as she grabbed my hand to feel safe. When we got off the rollercoaster and reconnected with Bekah, I said to her, "I know you, as a mom, get to experience lots of ‘firsts’ with your kids. First tooth. First laugh. First taste of ice cream. First day of school. But I don’t. I almost never get to see a kid’s first anything. But you gave me that gift today. And it’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever received."
Bethany Jenkins is a writer and editor with The Gospel Coalition and the director of vocational and career development at The King's College in New York City.