Anyone who knew me when I was young would agree that I had definite ideas about how the world worked. By definite I mean strange and completely disconnected from reality. Just ask me what I thought the lyrics to the early 70s love ballad “Torn Between Two Lovers” meant. I had quite an imagination!
Here’s another one: I have no idea where this all came from, but I thought it was the law – an actual, written set of legal documents – that a girl had to start dating at age 16. At 20, according to law, she needed to marry. When she reached 25, the law stipulated that she have her first baby. There was nothing in this legal document about how many children she could have, but she must stop having babies at age 30.
These were the laws that ruled my childhood.
Talk about pressure!
The pressure was short-lived, though, when I broke the first law by dating at age 15. I hit 20 and never married: second law broken. And at 25, still unmarried, I had no desire for children.
Thirty came and went; still no children. Then I was 35, and then I hit 40. I just turned 42 and still haven’t had a baby. At this point, the likelihood I’d have one is, well, at zero.
I’d broken every one of the laws I invented as a child. Well, I’d never been very fond of rules, I suppose.
But that doesn’t help when I am confronted with the confused look on the faces of strangers who ask about my family; and it certainly does nothing when friends or acquaintances look at me pityingly.
Worst of all is the knowledge that I get passed over regularly by men my age who are looking to start families. I’m simply too old, and these men are aware of that. They are right to do so, however. The idea of me, at age 60, attending a high-school graduation seems unnatural in my mind and unfair to a child.
Well, I’ve learned a few things recently.
One, regarding singlehood: Although this culture does everything it can to make singles feel like a pitiable minority, we’re actually about half the population. According to a recent poll, nearly half of the residents in the United States are unmarried. Of course, it’s a small comfort to know we’re not alone, but it doesn’t lessen the societal pressure to marry.
Regarding motherhood, I learned an interesting bit of information from a friend. She was reading a study on children all across the country. When asked, they attributed a large part of their feelings of positivity, hope, success and self-worth to the adults in their lives outside of their homes. My friend then took notice at how many adult people are in her teen daughter’s life and was both enlightened and comforted by this. While kids do, of course, need their parents, they also need adults who will be in loco parentis, non-biological parents. According to the study, the younger the children, the better off they are.
This idea is nothing new. From the early days of civilization, most professions had apprenticeships. The apprentice was more than an assistant, however. There was a definite sense of in loco parentis between master and apprentice. To this day, internships and other programs prove invaluable to shaping a student’s future. Research that analyzes success stories all points to the indispensable value placed on mentors, guides, teachers, religious or spiritual figures and community members.
For childless people like me, this leaves a tremendous opportunity to practice spiritual parenthood. I realized I’d been doing this since I was 21. And this is where the true comfort and consolation lies. A recent experience shed some light on this for me.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to a dear CatholicMatch friend about our backgrounds. I spoke about my unusual circumstances: I am the youngest of five siblings and only one of them is married. I am annulled, so I join my other three siblings in their singlehood. The big point of interest, though, is that none of us have any children. At our ages, it is now an impossibility to have our own. I’d long held onto the possibility of adoption but realized some time ago that it is not my calling.
Having listened carefully to all of this, my friend asked how I felt about that. I was honest: I’d have loved to have been a parent, but at my age, it’s too late. I then had some questions for him, as the father of a college-age child:
“Have I missed out on a meaningful, rich existence? On becoming a fully developed adult?
Did I miss the greatest joy in life?”
These questions had been nagging me for years, but I never felt comfortable enough to ask anyone else.
This friend of mine is not one to sugarcoat the truth. He also does not opt for comfort over confrontation. So he was honest right back to me. He thinks these are well-preserved myths about parenthood that the childless are wrongly led to believe. He believes it would be awfully limiting if children are what allowed us to become fully adult or give meaning and profound joy to our lives.
He also said something to me that I knew on some level already but had never fully articulated:
“I think sometimes you feel you’ve made no impact on your ‘children,’ but if you stop dwelling on what might have been, you will see you’ve been a mom to many – and without the dirty diapers, tantrums and teenage obnoxiousness. God was so good to you. I hope you believe that.”
I really examined this idea. At this point I’ve dedicated half of my life to spiritual motherhood. I’ve nurtured and developed thousands of children in countless ways. I’ve taught each of my students to see like an artist, think like an inventor, read like a writer and write like a pioneer. I’ve told them that they matter, that they are entitled to an informed opinion and that their thoughts are worth articulating. I’ve taught my students to use language as a tool to defy stereotypes and to gain personal empowerment.
I recounted some of the extraordinary moments I’d experienced with my “children” over the years. A handsome 23-year old boy (really more of a man), tall, with overdeveloped muscles, choked back tears as he told me I was the first person ever to tell him he is smart. A young woman took my picture and said, “I never want to forget you.”
Another young woman, an immigrant from West Africa, came to the U.S. at age 14, never having stepped foot in a classroom before. When I met her, she’d already caught up to her peers, graduated high school on time and enrolled in the community college where I taught. At the end of the semester, she said to me, “You are a gift. You saw inside my heart and taught me about the power of words.”
A young man emailed me: “You made me think things I never thought before. You made me see things within myself that I never knew were there. ‘Thank you’ isn’t enough.”
Another girl wrote me that I changed her life. I regularly get emails from former students informing me of their success and thanking me for teaching them.
These moments are what makes spiritual motherhood so meaningful, so powerful, and so satisfying. My dearest and oldest friend, a dissatisfied mother who is estranged from her only son, always tells me that I had the better deal. After thinking through my career, I am no longer inclined to disagree with her.
For all the childless men and women on CatholicMatch, I urge you to think about how often you’ve engaged in the practice of spiritual parenthood. Think of all the times you’d played with nieces or nephews, or coached a soccer team, or taught, or babysat, or helped a child who was lost in a store. If you haven’t done any of this, I urge you to do so. Join a community group that works with children. Volunteer at a local school or church. Look for opportunities to be around children. You will feel better immediately, and the spiritual rewards are immeasurable.
So the next time someone asks why you don’t have children, you have the perfect answer: You have been called to do the vital, powerful, necessary work of being a spiritual parent instead.
Who would argue with that?
Photo credit: Cory Marchand/Flickr