Childless by Choice
By Marita Littauer with Chuck
Noon, MA, LPCC
-- Prior to marrying, Dena and Brad agreed that they would not have children. Little did they imagine that this one choice would make them the target of intense pressure and severe censure from family and friends. In this two-part article, we'll explore the often unexpected consequences of a marriage that meets the needs of the two spouses involved – in this case, Dena and Brad – but defies the social expectations of those around them.
"Yes, I will marry you, but there will be no children." Dena can still remember saying those words more than twenty years ago. Her husband-to-be, Brad, was more than willing to agree to the "no children" clause. Both had been extremely hurt in their first marriages and had built major walls to protect themselves from any further pain.
The years have rolled on. They have a good marriage, not a great one, but still better than some. They love each other. Seven years into the marriage, Dena reached thirty. She began asking herself the very difficult question; "Do I want to remain childless for the rest of my life?" On one hand, they had become very selfish with their time and money and having a baby would really upset the apple cart. On the other hand, they were the only couple in both families to remain childless. Dena was not pressuring herself, but was feeling pressure from family members, friends, people with whom she worked, even members of their church. She has been amazed how cruel some people can be simply because she did not meet their expectations of how she should live her life.
While Brad and Dena are happy with their place in life and their decision, the pressure put on them by other well-meaning people has made Dena question her life. She is having trouble sleeping and roams the house at night with her mind playing the same old tune over and over again: "You are such a disappointment to everyone."
Both Brad and Dena have good jobs that they enjoy. However after twenty years of marriage they feel they are missing something.
Brad and Dena are indeed "missing something," but it's not a baby. They are missing the unconditional support of their family and friends. And they are missing absolute certainty that remaining childless is the right choice for them as a couple. Let's look at “The Insights”—from both peers and professionals—that will help them understand and deal with the consequences of this less-than-traditional choice.
While at first glance, it may seem that this situation applies to very few, the responses we received indicate that it is indeed an issue in need of some fresh insights. Laura wrote,
I know making a choice to not have children isn't a popular option, and I certainly don't expect many others to share it. Occasionally I run across a woman who is brave enough to express the same emotions. We connect instantly because most people think we are weird. I am responding because I've rarely seen anyone brave enough to address this topic.
Laura's words ring true for many couples, including us. Whether "brave" or foolish, if you are willing to say, "I made this choice, and I am okay with it," the response is emphatic. Most every childless couple has felt, at some time or another, shunned or misplaced by their status.
In discussing her childless status, Melody says,
I have felt like an outsider in society. I used to dread meeting new people who would invariably ask if we had children. In shaking my head, I felt like I was confessing to a crime or admitting I had a terrible deformity.
Some of those who offered their stories are like Laura, Dena, and me. We either knew all along that we did not want children. Or, biology ticked by and we never had any. Others, like Melody and her husband, Pride, and JoAnn and her husband, Brian, wanted children only to find that they were unable to conceive. JoAnn reported,
We have experienced society's condemning looks when we have told them we do not have children, especially when we have not explained why. We stopped explaining because it was actually easier to receive “the look” that condemned us as selfish than it was to explain everything we had gone through and have people say, "Don't worry it will happen."
When Amanda and Tony got married, they decided not to have children. Then after a few years of marriage they decided they did want children, but “try as we might, it didn't happen.” Of the pressure of meeting others’ expectations, she says,
No one has given me a hard time about not having children because I have found it easier to say, “We tried, and it didn't work.” I have a sense that if I hadn't used that line; people would have pushed harder.
In a magazine article entitled "Married Without Children, A Curse or a Call?" Jan Coleman writes,
A couple in their early forties was constantly asked, "“What if everybody decided not to have children?" The wife stated, "It bewilders most people and makes them uneasy. Somehow, they think we selfishly opted for fun and freedom over the love of a child. Rarely does anyone understand." (see Note 1 below)
Whew! It is not just me who has felt the pressure. I remember visiting with a noted Christian author. When the conversation came to the inevitable subject of children and he found out that I did not have any, he vowed to pray for me, stating, “Everyone I pray for gets pregnant!”
"Don't you dare," I ventured. Yes, my mother is disappointed that there are no "little Maritas." She finally quit asking about children when I quipped, "I will have them when you stay home and take care of them." Or perhaps it was around the time that Chuck and I had been married for eighteen years without children that she gave up.
The pressure Dena feels is real. First we'll look at dealing with the pressures and expectations of others and then we'll focus on living a full and happy life without children. Whether your situation matches Brad and Dena's—or like Melody, JoAnn, and Amanda you wanted children but never had them—you will find help in the following suggestions.
Determine God’s Leading
When we, as a couple, operate outside of what the rest of the world considers the norm, we will always have questions, or at least "the look," as JoAnn described. Melody addresses others’ expectations.
Like any lifestyle choice—especially one outside of the standard routine—not everyone will understand. For instance, several missionary friends of mine tell me their families reject the choice they have made to serve the Lord in a foreign country for little pay. They must constantly protect the choice they have made from criticism by others. However, they are able to do this because they have a firm commitment to their choice, they have a sense of inner peace about it, and they believe it is their appointed path from God. Remaining childless is a very valid choice that can be freeing and rewarding in many ways. However, because it is not the usual choice people make, couples need to feel very secure about their decision, or they will needlessly feel isolated and inferior.
While our case history does not give us the details of why Dena and Brad made the decision not to have children, we do know that it is a decision they agreed upon and we can assume, as Melody mentions, they feel secure in that choice.
Melody and Pride had postponed having children to deal with their own issues. Melody says,
For the first twelve years of our marriage, my husband and I were engrossed with completing our education and establishing our careers. We had many hurdles to cross before children could be considered. Like Dena, I brought many scars into my marriage, so I sought counseling in order to work through some of my "baggage." After really working through those issues and finally feeling ready to start a family, I found out I had fertility problems. After trying all kinds of medical intervention, we finally decided to give up. Although many people encouraged us to adopt, we felt we just were not ready for that. Many people looked down on us for not adopting immediately, as if our desire for a child wasn't sincere. However, we felt that we were being obedient to God's leading.
Like Melody, JoAnn and Brian feel that God has led them to the place of being a childless couple. JoAnne says,
After over seven years of infertility treatments—and failures—Brian and I also are seriously considering the choice of remaining childless. We believe that if it was God's will that we have children, one of the treatments would have worked. We have also concluded that if we do not have children He must have a path and purpose for our lives that could not be accomplished if we did have children. We find that prospect very exciting. We could still make the choice to defy His will and continue alternative ways to have a child and could even be successful. We believe that if we pursued that path we would not be living God's "best" life for us. Although we would not wish the pain of infertility on anyone, we have watched our faith grow in ways we know it would not have otherwise.
Free Yourself From Others’ Expectations
Addressing other's expectations in the decision to have children or not, Chuck says, "Each of us must strive to guide our lives with our own internal compass. It is always a mistake to live out the expectations or unfulfilled wishes of others—especially our parents. The role to produce grandchildren is perhaps the most common and powerful instance of inheriting a debt. If an individual can learn to deal with this issue successfully, all the others will be easy! To be free of the expectations of others and to live within God's will is free indeed."
While I never set out not to have children, I do believe, as do Melody and JoAnn, that remaining childless is the path God has for my life. There are many things that God has uniquely equipped me for and that I have accomplished that I could not have done if I had children. I did not have a burning desire to have children, although when I got married I assumed that I would, because that is what one did.
When Chuck and I got married, we agreed to wait three years before doing anything permanent to prevent pregnancy. Three years came and we still did not feel ready to make a decision either way. We agreed to wait five years, then ten. I trust that if God wanted me to be a mother, He would have placed that desire in me so strongly that I could not ignore it. My sister, raised the same as I was, knew from childhood that she wanted to be a mom. I was a tomboy. I played with cars, not dolls. I was entrepreneurial from the time I was four years old. Today, my sister has children and puppies. I have a business and cars.
Genetics Are A Consideration
In addition to my lack of maternal instincts and the true belief that I am walking the path God has set before me, I have other reasons for not pushing to have children. Many people have heard my mother's testimony and know that she lost two boys to brain damage. But few connect that story to me. Those boys were my younger brothers. Most people are unaware of the rest of our history. My grandmother, my mother's mother, lost a child in infancy. I remember talking about this with my grandmother's sister, "Aunt Jean." She was disappointed that I would choose not to have children. When I brought up the family history with her, she indignantly replied, “There was nothing the matter with Arthur.”
However, seventy-five years ago when Arthur was born, diagnostic tests were not available as they are today. There were not always labels for diseases or illnesses. He just died. So Aunt Jean clung to the belief that there was nothing wrong with her sister's baby. We do not know. There may not have been, but there may have been some problem as well. We do know that he died in infancy.
In my generation, my sister lost a child mid-term with Down’s syndrome. So, I have a family history of three generations of problem births. My sister has three beautiful, healthy boys. If I had felt the desire as strongly as she did to have children, I am sure that I would have—even with the history. But history confirmed my choice for me. As was stated by the wife in Jan Coleman's article, “Rarely does anyone understand.”
There Are Benefits
I encourage Dena and Brad to look at their choice and why they made it. When Amanda and her husband decided not to have children, they interviewed elderly couples who didn't have children. Amanda reports,
They are the ones who held hands and said "honey' a lot! They seemed to still be dating at 70!
Victoria Jackson, LCSW, adds,
It is healthier to enjoy a rich couple relationship than have children simply because it is "expected" and be resentful of the time and energy children take. Once you are a parent, you are in it for life!
Stand By Your Decision
Having the confidence that you have made the right choice for your life is a key to dealing with the projections and expectations others put upon you. Roseanne Elling, LPC, advises,
If the husband and the wife are both secure in the Lord about this decision, He is the foundation and peace that they can fall back on when confronted by hurtful people. Communicate the certainty of the choice to not have children with confident nonverbal cues such as looking the other person in the eye and speaking with a relaxed and confident tone of voice. Knowing you are doing God's will for your life is a huge confidence booster. People tend to accept what we say more readily if we believe it! If the husband and wife can both say "we" instead of "I" when responding, each partner will feel additional support—even in the absence of the other—and the hearer of their response will likely respect the strength of a united decision.
When a couple is confident that they've selected what's best for them—childless by choice or by acceptance—they can more easily deal with the pressures the world, the church, and the family put on them to fit into the norm. Laura says,
My not having children has been by choice, but it's not that way for every woman. I am satisfied with that decision, and now that I am 45 I don't look back and regret it.
Making the choice to remain childless is a private decision between husband and wife. But living this choice can be disconcertingly public, as well-meaning friends and family members freely ask personal questions, offer unsolicited advice, and even make judgmental comments. Brad and Dena need to prayerfully re-focus on their original decision. If they are staying true to God's leading, they don't owe explanations or apologies to anyone.
Read part two of this article which looks at ways Brad and Dena can focus on living a full and happy life as a childless-by-choice couple.
Tell us what you think: Are Christian couples obligated to have children if they are married and able to conceive?
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Marita Littauer is a professional speaker with more than twenty-five years experience. She is the author of 17 books Including Personality Puzzle, Communication Plus, The Praying Wives Club, Tailor-Made Marriage—from which this column is derived, and her newest, Wired That Way. Marita is the President of CLASServices Inc., an organization that provides resources, training and promotion for speakers and authors. Marita and her husband Chuck Noon have been married since 1983. For more information on Marita and/or CLASS, please visit www.classervices.com or call 800/433-6633.
Chuck Noon has worked as a professional counselor--licensed in two states. He holds a BA in Motion Picture Production from Brooks Institute and an MA in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling from the University of San Diego. He has worked with hundreds of families and couples in many varieties of settings. Currently, Chuck is working in mental healthcare management. Chuck and Marita live in the mountains outside of Albuquerque.
1. Article to be published in Light and Life, date undetermined.
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