Never before in history has parenthood been able to be such a choice. Throughout history one could choose marriage with children or celibacy without. The only ones who differed from this norm were those who had fertility issues. They would be without children and without many options. With current technologies it has become possible for many to become parents outside of traditional marriage. It is no longer necessary for a man and a woman to be intimate to be a parent. Now women can become pregnant through donors and men can hire surrogates. The state of adoption has also changed to be more open to nontraditional family structures. Now more than ever people find themselves with options and decisions to be made. Children are not needed to provide for old age. With proper retirement investments and senior care, extended families are not needed to care for the physical needs of people in old age.
Parenthood is now a choice and a calling. It can be chosen and decided as an individual or as part of a couple or extended family. This is one of the biggest decisions of most younger adults. As a priest doing premarital counseling, the issue of whether to have children has started to come up more each year. How does Christian faith shape the decision to become a parent? Many people are familiar with the call of God in Genesis to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. However, there are many scriptures that warn against young parents with children. In the New Testament Christians have an example of Jesus who chose his ministry, witness, and teaching over having children. At the same time he provides a wonderful example of being a father figure without fatherhood. He frequently called the children to come to him and used them as his examples in teaching.
The call to be a parent does not necessarily follow a love of children or desire to nurture them through life. The greatest example of this in my own life is presenting how my great aunts, whom I have never met, never had children of their own. They cared for and supported my grandmother and her sister throughout their lives including supporting my grandmother to receive a Master’s degree long before it was acceptable for women to receive degrees much less master’s degrees. Their influence on her life shaped her independence and desire to learn which has in turn had a great impact on my own life.
I hope the larger church would be more open to discuss how to be a person of faith in today’s society without assuming parenthood is the only option. It is possible to choose how and when to become a parent, but there are equally valid reasons to choose not to be a parent. How does the church support and encourage all expressions of parenthood and adulthood?
Societal influences bring their own challenge to making this personal decision. Many older people assume that as soon as you are married you should immediately start to try to have children. Personally, from the day I returned from my honeymoon I was asked if I was pregnant and watched to see if I would have a drink of alcohol. They knew I would not drink if I was pregnant.
Popular culture also plays a role in encouraging people to follow their dreams or work harder to have a career. This pressure leads many people to put off considering children until much later and sometimes it is too late biologically before a conscious decision is made. (My husband calls this decision by default.)
Many faith communities also pressure members to have children. Many traditional churches imply that the biblical ideal is marriage and children.
Genesis is probably the most often quoted scripture in support of having children. I think it is important to note that Adam and Eve did not procreate in the garden. It is after God “punished” Adam by forcing him out of the garden and “punished” Eve by saying she had to go with him.
Genesis 3: 23-4:2
“therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, ‘I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.’ Next she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground.”
Many Christians look to the time in the garden as the “perfect” time when Adam and Eve walked with God. It is important to point out that this “perfect” time did not include children-either their birth or parenting. When debating God’s “ideal” for us, many look back to our earliest faith stories. If we look to this story, it seems that children were not part of it. Unless you see Adam and Eve as the “children” created and parented by God.
Jesus holds in tension the reality of loving children, but not being called to be a biological parent. Many people assume that if you love children it means you should be a parent. In actuality the two are not necessarily inclusive of each other. We do not have any evidence in the canonical books of the Bible that Jesus had biological children of his own. However, Jesus clearly highly valued their presence in his midst. In each of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is a story of Jesus’ disciples not getting him again.
Each account tells of people bringing young/little children and infants to Jesus so that he would lay his hands on them. Jesus’ disciples tried to get people to stop. Jesus was way too important in deal with little kids. He had much more important things to do. In each account Jesus stops them “sternly,” saying “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” The kingdom of God, that elusive thing that Jesus’ disciples were called to seek first belonged to those they were pushing away.
Mark and Luke go further and have Jesus telling his disciples, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Not only did Jesus call us to welcome children in our midst, but to use them as an example of how we should act in order to enter his kingdom. Jesus is calling each of us to find ways to welcome children and to learn from them.
For some we do this by welcoming them into our families. For others we follow Jesus’ example of creating time and place to nurture and bless to children. To learn from them how to seek God’s kingdom. One does not exclude the other. We too can set aside time to be with children to bless them, pray for them, and learn from them. Jesus does not specify that this must take place through being a parent for he was not a parent himself. Loving children as Jesus does requires making the conscious effort to welcome them in our midst it does not require that we parent them in our homes.
Mother and Father of us all help us to see your will for our lives. Make clear to us your callings so that we may live faithfully for you throughout our days.
Almighty, we are your children. Teach us how to grow into your image that we may nurture others as you have nurtured us.