So I bared my soul on national radio today.
Okay, so I
didn’t completely bare my soul. But I did get a lot more personal than
I usually would in the context of my own work.
The forum was
the Dennis Prager show, and I was a caller. (Which I suppose
technically made me anonymous to anyone who didn’t recognize “Mary
Beth, the single woman from Denver.”) I felt compelled to call because
he was discussing an issue which is very near to my heart. It’s an
issue I’ve been meaning to address with all of you, and my conversation
with Mr. Prager today gave me just the push I needed.
is childlessness. Specifically, the question was “can people who have
no children of their own find happiness through involvement in other
It’s a very good question. In a world where
people (rightly) rave about the happiness and fulfillment they find in
parenting, it can be scary to face a future without children.
know this isn’t an issue for those of you who are single parents. Nor
is it an issue (yet, and perhaps never will be) for those of you who
are still young, fertility-wise, and have your “prime childbearing
years” (as my friend Erick used to say) ahead of you.
an issue for many of you who have reached a certain age – both male and
female. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Mister “50-year old male seeks
25-year old female.”) It is an issue that is rarely if every addressed.
And it’s an issue we really, really need to face and to deal with
I know, because I am one of those people.
a well-known fact of the dating world that the “biological clock”
begins to tick rather loudly when a single, childless person –
especially (but not exclusively) a woman — starts to inch into the
late 30’s. Different people handle it different ways. Some panic and
resolve to marry the next marginally acceptable candidate who comes
along. Others exercise a generous amount of denial. Some just pray and
hope for the best.
I spent my thirties in the third category,
with maybe a little of the second thrown in for good measure. I was
traveling the country speaking on chastity, dating occasionally, but
never finding the “right” person. I knew my time was limited, and I
knew that there was a chance I wouldn’t have children. But I don’t know
if I really knew it.
Around my 40th birthday (a difficult
transition period for many single women, I’ve discovered), my spiritual
director told me that I probably needed to “grieve” the possibility of
having children. That door wasn’t completely closed (it still isn’t),
but it was getting awfully narrow. And so I “grieved.” I adjusted my
thinking. You know how it is when you see kids doing something, or you
have a particularly profound insight about childrearing, and you think
“When I have kids . . .” Well, I forced myself to stop doing that. I
started picturing my future without my own children.
And it was really, really hard.
of course, God is good. My niece Anna was born three months before my
40th birthday — which makes me a bit of an expert on the question of
“can we find happiness through involvement in other children’s lives?”
One of my fellow Dennis Prager callers was adamant that we can’t. “It’s not the same, Dennis, and you know it.”
course it’s not the same. They aren’t our children. We don’t get to be
with them all the time. We don’t get to “call the shots,” to make
decisions about their lives. This is the first and most important point
we need to understand. If we try to make it “the same” – co-opting
other people’s children and trying to usurp their parental role –
nobody is going to find any happiness. It’s a recipe for disaster.
happiness we find in being an aunt or uncle (biological or “honorary”)
is a different kind of happiness. In order to grasp it, we need to let
go of our desire to “play the parent.” We need to grieve the role we
wish we had – in this child’s or any child’s life – so that we can
embrace the role we do have.
Anna and her little brother Brian
are a huge part of my life. They fill my heart and bring me so much
joy, just by their very existence. But it’s “aunt joy,” not “parent
joy.” The two are related, but different.
The “aunt” role has
its difficulties. It can be hard to love children with all your heart
and have no real say in their upbringing. I’m fortunate, in that my
sister and her husband are really great parents, so I’m not in any kind
of constant torment over the kids’ environment or anything. But I can
see where there would be a strong temptation for any involved aunt or
uncle to say “Look at all I do for these kids. I deserve a say in this
or that decision.” Nope. We don’t. We can certainly share our opinions
when we’re asked (emphasis on “when we’re asked”), but offering a
constant barrage of unsolicited parenting advice is really not such a
Nor do I subscribe to the “this is better because
we can play with them and then send them home” school of thought. Being
involved in a child’s life doesn’t mean we get the rewards without the
difficulties. It just means we get a smaller version of the same pie.
Fewer difficulties, fewer rewards – but the ratio is probably about the
same. My sister’s kids have a bedroom in my house. They stay here when
their parents are out of town, or when they’re in town but we want to
have a slumber party. I’ve spent more than one sleepless night with a
sick child. I’ve endured more than one prolonged toddler temper tantrum
because giving in would just encourage more tantrums. It’s not all fun
and games, but I do believe that the hard parts just make my bond with
the kids deeper.
I don’t know what God has planned for my
future. I do know that there are a lot of ways my future could possibly
involve being a parent somehow – to adopted children, step-children,
maybe even some miraculous, late-life “Abraham and Sarah” type
pregnancy. But maybe it won’t. The only role that is certain right now
is the role of “Aunt Bop.” And that brings a happiness all its own.
months ago I was driving with Anna, and explaining to her that, when I
was a little girl, her grandma and grandpa were my mommy and daddy. She
thought for a while and then asked, “And who was your aunt?”
Yeah, being involved in a child’s life can bring us happiness — lots and lots of happiness. Trust me, I know.