Post Author: Emily Mitchell
Not long ago, I was making small talk with a new acquaintance before a board meeting began, and we were sharing about our recent respective vacations. I said, “I went to Chicago with my parents, and we had a lot of fun exploring the many museums, restaurants, and Frank Lloyd Wright houses.” She made some affirming listening noises, but then she paused. “So …you don’t have a family?”
I felt trapped by the limitations of her question. I had said that I had been traveling with my parents, but obviously they didn’t constitute a family in this woman’s mind. I could say that I’m a thoroughly invested aunt to my sister’s children, but that seemed to circumvent the intent of her question. So, resignedly, I gave her the answer she sought, “No, I do not have children; I’m not married.”
This happens to me more often than I’d like in my Midwestern context. I’ll meet a new female acquaintance and one of the first questions she’ll ask is, “Do you have children?” When I reply in the negative, I sense that she pulls back emotionally. Since we don’t have that common point of connection, I assume, she decides I am not someone with whom she can relate. One woman persevered and questioned, “Do you have a dog?” I do not. I am not a dog person. At that point, she gave up. I felt deemed to have a boring and pitiable existence.
It is difficult for me because this place of greatest scrutiny is also the place of my current greatest pain. I would love to be married and to have children. But that has not been my narrative up to this point.
The tenth commandment is, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” More often than not, I do not covet my neighbor’s house but rather my neighbor’s narrative. I covet the common narrative of adulthood, which is that you grow up, get married, and have kids.
Some years ago, I received a birth announcement from a woman in our young adult small group. She said that she would be quitting her job so that she could be at home with her infant son full-time. I felt immediate envy, and then I had to ask myself, “Why am I envious?” I find my work to be meaningful and intellectually stimulating. Did I really want to trade places with this woman? In truth, I didn’t, but I coveted her narrative, a narrative lived by her and by countless other women in our society. I wanted my life to follow a script that was comprehensible to the outside world.
Generally, the outside world does not seek to comprehend single people. I emailed a mentor of mine, telling her that I longed for another narrative rather than the one I feel assigned to me by the larger culture: that I am pathetic and uninteresting because I am 33 and unattached. She wrote back, “I have to say that the words ‘pathetic and uninteresting’ are so far from my experience of you as to be laughable. I know you know it is a lie of Satan, but I just want to call it out as such. When I think of you, I think of adjectives such as fascinating, deep, fun-loving, gracious; someone whose inquiring mind and embracing heart uniquely equips them in ministry and in life.” I so needed to hear these words of affirmation. Yes, it was a laughable narrative, and yet it was essential for her to point it out to me. I sometimes take myself too seriously and I don’t always take God’s grace as seriously.
You see, it’s God’s grace that has brought me this far by faith. It is a grace that I am single instead of married to any of the people I have dated (or have wanted to date) in the past. It’s God’s grace that I get to serve Christ and his church, to pastor and to preach and to administer the sacraments. It’s God’s grace that I have mentors who have walked this path before me and single colleagues who are walking with me still. It’s God’s grace that I come from a particular place and belong to a particular people. It’s God’s grace that there are multiple narratives from which I can choose my story rather than conform to the one that I previously thought was prescribed to me.
I am wondering what it would look like for me to flourish when I continue to lack a common narrative as a mother or as a wife that other women have. What I have concluded is that coveting my neighbor’s narrative is not good. Yet conforming to the narrative I thought had to be mine is not good either.
To the limiting trap of the question, “So …you don’t have a family?” I have some options. I can say, “Not yet.” I can say, “It is my desire to have a family, but it hasn’t been in the cards for me.” Or I can say, “Let me tell you about my family: my parents live in Seattle; my nieces and nephew live in Kenya…” But I do not need to say, “No, I don’t have a family,” while internally saying, “Yes, you may dismiss me and define me.” I do not need to take their assessment of me and internalize it, making it my ultimate narrative truth.
I hope that the story I will tell about myself honors the truth that my mentor saw in me: that I am fascinating, deep, fun-loving, and gracious. I am comprehensible. I belong. I am a recipient of God’s amazing grace.
Emily began as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Maumee, Ohio, in 2015. She previously served as a pastoral resident at Bellevue Presbyterian in Washington State. She holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Whitman College.
Emily grew up in Seattle; therefore, she recycles, makes her own granola and enjoys spending time outdoors. She averages reading over 25 books a year.
Image by: Pascal Maramis
Used with permission
I have only known you to be faithful, sincere, honest, fun, smart, and God-seeking. And you are not constrained in where you live and serve others. How cool is that?
For me, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on all that at all. I just wish I had more people in my situation to have fun, travel, and explore with. I want more people around in my life to be like me, rather than wishing I was more like the people around me who aren’t if that makes sense. I don’t want to change my situation, I don’t feel I am missing out on children, in fact I wish the people I know who have children weren’t missing out on the fun of MY situation.
Emily, Kathy C here, formerly if BPC. Lynne Baab shared this on FB. Being a couple decades ahead of you, I can totally relate, and then some! ( I get the follow up, “Were you EVER married?) PLUS I get the bonus of *professional* “narrative envy” ever since 2011 when my time in missions ended after 18 years –taking away what I considered to be a fundamental part of my personal identity/narrative. Elisabeth Elliot speaks to these issues in a way that has been such a balm to my soul. Too late for quotes so I’ll just leave it at that for now. Blessings to you as you live out God’s narrative for your life!
PS I am embarrassed that I had not known you had gone into the ministry…let alone that you were on staff at Bell Pres…where I spent my high school years and college summers!
Emily great article. I’m neither single nor a woman but I very much relate to narrative envy.
“I wanted my life to follow a script that was comprehensible to the outside world.”
Thank you for this. I relate so strongly to this. I too don’t have a narrative that makes sense to the average mainline Midwestern churchgoer, and it does hurt when my own narrative is used against me to prove my unworthiness to live my call. “You are not relatable to us”…well maybe God is calling people who relate to other narratives.
And the church isn’t friendly to single people (clergy or lay), especially single people who aren’t trying to use church as a dating service, but that’s probably a different discussion.