Post Author: Laura Stephens-Reed
1. “Where are you from?” This inquiry is straightforward enough.
2. “What exactly do you do?” This is the question many clergy dread in social situations, as we see our conversation partner begin to roll up, vertebra by vertebra, into a straighter posture. But we must award points for degree of difficulty when said acquaintance is doing so while holding a stein of tasty beverage behind his/her back.
3. [And, when my wedding rings are noticed,] “Do you have children?” Often a “yet” is added to the end. When I reply no—sometimes a little too enthusiastically—the asker often tilts her head quizzically, pats my hand, and assures me that “you have time, dear.” This is when I paste on my polite, Southern-lady smile and repress the urge to point out that some people manage to lead a full life without the pitter-patter of little feet.
You see, I’m not sure whether God will ever call me to be a mother, at least in the traditional sense. The truth is, I love children. I have served as a Pastor with Children and Families. I miss delivering a children’s message each week during worship, which is not part of my current job description. There’s nothing better than the feel of spindly arms wrapped around my waist in an expression of unabashed affection. I can’t wait to be “Aunt Laura,” which probably won’t happen anytime soon. And yet, I am so happy at the end of every day to return to my quiet, semi-organized sanctuary where I am greeted by my husband and our three precious DVRs.
I wonder too whether the bill-paying vocation God has led me to would even fit with the vocation of motherhood. I am an interim minister. On the practical end, that means I may never have the luxury of paid parental leave or family insurance. Churches usually don’t make those investments in intentional short-timers. On the emotional side, I am a professional anxiety sponge. I am called to congregations in the midst of major personal and corporate transition. I love this work. But because of the care and feeding involved, do I have enough nurture to give to a church and a child, not to mention a spouse, extended family, and friends? As an introvert, I’m tapped out at the end of the day as it is. I want a nap just thinking about that “second shift” of work that would await me at home. (Not that I’d be going it alone, of course. I have no doubt that my husband Matt would very willingly do his share of the diapering, comforting, and shuttling around of a munchkin.)
Several months ago, after we hit our five-year wedding anniversary, I very nervously brought up the subject of kids again with Matt. When we were engaged, we decided that we would know when the time was right to have children, and if it was never right, that was fine too. (Since we are pretty much always on the same page, sometimes eerily so, I felt good about leaving the kid question hanging.) In response to the five-year temperature check, Matt rather firmly said, “I’m not ready to be a t-ball dad.” I was a little surprised because I had always thought I was the real foot-dragger. But I agreed. I know I’m not prepared for pregnant belly photos, 3 am feedings, tons of baby gear, carseats, carpools, dance lessons, birthday parties, or mom jeans. Maybe I won’t ever be. And barring one of life’s big surprises, I believe it is my sacred duty to be sure I want and am supposed to be a parent before I take the plunge. I respect the mom job description too much to take it on lightly.
But as I near birthday 32, the question nags. My tendency to overthink kicks in, and I do the math: “Well, if we had one, we’d of course have another, and they’d need to be spaced at least three years apart. And who knows how long it would take to conceive. And then there’s the nine months of pregnancy each time…” Suddenly, I’m pushing 40 with two young children, one maybe not even potty-trained, and that siren call from the nap couch starts up again.
I know I can’t compare the gnawing of indecision to the frustration of single women who really want four hands and two incomes before they have a child. Or the righteous anger of LGTBQ couples barred from adopting. Or the devastation of couples dealing with fertility problems or the loss of a child. But there’s still a worry at the base of my skull that we’ll wait too long to make up our minds, only to find out that time has made the decision for us. And we’ll realize that it was the wrong one.
So for now, Matt and I go about our very full lives. We work, we travel, we have date nights at least once a week, we eat what and when we want. We sleep for eight hours at a stretch. I revel in my blissfully peaceful home. I keep slapping on that demure smile as I deflect questions about the hospitality of my womb. I grumble over the oft-implied connection between procreation and godliness. I protest the sentiment that intentional kidlessness equals selfishness, knowing that even if I could offer toys and trust funds galore, it would mean nothing if my child felt resented for even a moment.
I accept that whatever shape family Matt and I have, there will be sacrifice. Maybe it will be the sacrifice made by the no-sleep, constantly-running, always-fretting variety of parents. That’s what my own wonderful Mom and Dad opted for, and there are times when I can’t imagine not following in their excellent example. But if not, the sacrifice will be in the likely drifting away from friends who spend more and more time with couples who have kids, the knowledge that I’ll never experience the pure joy babies reserve for their mamas, the grief of not providing grandchildren to my patiently-waiting parents and in-laws, and the dread of ending up in the nursing home with no one to wipe the drool from my chin (as my parents have made me swear—in those exact words—I will do for them).
God called me to ministry, which I never could have expected. God called me to marriage, which I wasn’t sure I was up for until I met Matt. I trust that God will call me either to embrace motherhood or to close that door for good. But for this moment, the call to wholeness means I have to be honest about my mixed parenting feelings and to live in the indecision. Hopefully that’s a good model for my anxious parishioners, because where there is discomfort, there is holy opportunity. Where there is space, there is Spirit. And where there is love, there is family, whether or not any of its members are under three feet tall.
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Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a Baptist minister in Alabama currently serving a PC(USA) congregation. She and her husband are the proud nurturers of newborn multiples—of the tomato and black bean plant variety.