A married woman without children, remarks a character in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, is the “very best preserver of furniture in the world.”
We might never state our feelings so clearly, but ELCA congregations can fall into similarly obtuse and narrow attitudes toward single adults or couples without children. We might not think of them at all on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, or any given Sunday. In our yearning for the elusive “young families” demographic, we often focus our programming on youth or, out of necessity, older adults. Indeed, when I was a younger adult (single, and later married without children), I often found myself wondering what place I would have in the congregations I served if I weren’t the pastor.
Now I find myself almost envious of a married, childless couple in my neighborhood who are leaders in climate activism. They are active members of another ELCA congregation, and I know our values align. They keep my spouse and me informed about crucial climate activism meetings and events without making us feel guilty, they value our access and perspective as parents, and they’re gracious about our need to float in and out sometimes. They’re doing what I might be doing for climate justice if I weren’t overseeing bedtime, and it feels like we’re on a team. We gladly bring our kids to public actions—where we always see this couple—because we know the power little ones have to draw media attention. But these neighbors and friends are carrying the flag for us, and we truly appreciate it. I thank God for them.
“Any of us can nurture children. Any familial status can glorify God. We in the church can certainly do a better job of asserting that value.”
Meanwhile, my daughters talk about all adult women as “moms.” They say things such as, “When I’m a mom, I don’t know if I’ll have children or not.” I have tried correcting this terminology, but either my raised eyebrow (at how entertaining this is) negates my efforts or this distinction just doesn’t matter to them.
This word choice feeds my growing awareness and appreciation of the adult women who—though not technically moms—are part of their lives. We relate to kids differently. When I was quite young, I was always delighted to play with my aunt, who did not yet have children. She got down on the floor with us, was deeply interested in what we were interested in and lavished her attention on my older brother and me, holding us on her lap. We also had a fun single uncle who goofed around with us in a way most adults rarely did.
Our younger siblings and friends without kids now do the same for our daughters. They aren’t distracted by the sort of household tasks that take my attention away from snuggling or playing. They don’t try to teach our kids anything or monitor their developmental milestones, as I catch myself doing. That faithful way of just being, of taking pleasure in each other’s company, is something I grudgingly recognize I could use more of when interacting with my children (or even their peers).
Perhaps when my daughters are “moms,” they won’t have children, or even spouses. I want to plant the seeds early that every way of being can be faithful, life-giving and fruitful as part of what God does in the world. It’s important for them to see examples of faithful engagement inside and outside of congregational life. Although the current trend in the U.S. is for work to become all-consuming, all our kids need to experience parents and others as people with multiple value commitments. Any of us can nurture children. Any familial status can glorify God. We in the church can certainly do a better job of asserting that value.