Where There is Love, There is Family

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.

Are you an ordained woman under the age of forty? Email youngclergywomen (at) gmail (dot) com to become a member of The Young Clergy Women Project! Members receive access to a password-protected online community, monthly e-newsletters, and advance notice of upcoming conferences and events.

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.

13 replies
  1. revdebmatt says:

    Wow, it feels good not to be alone in this decision, so much that another couple with one a “female pastor” (giggle) knows the questions and nods given by parishioners. We’ve been married almost 13 years and have not felt God’s call to be parents, for all sorts of reasons, including physical health and ‘selfish’ desires. And then the decision became permanent with a rather sudden hysterectomy last year, at age 32. And though we thought we’d adopt anyway, if God called us to parents, now that is the only option and the questions about when we’re gonna have kids still rather hurts. It seems that God has asked the two of us to be family, just as we are, for the foreseeable future. THANK you for this reminder that God does make different families at various times in our lives, and that we still hear biological and life-stage clocks ticking!

  2. Abby says:

    Re: “I know I can’t compare…”- One thing I really appreciate about this forum is the space for women to express their own experiences. I have identified personally with many authors as I go through these stages (am I called to be a mother? am I infertile? is this really happening?). Yet I have also felt that there were the sensitive nods like yours to those who might find the piece painful. I thank God this exists.

  3. Leslie Holmes says:

    I really enjoyed this article. It made me realize that I’m not ‘crazy’ for not wanting children right now. Thank you for your candor.

  4. Amanda says:

    Thanks, Laura, for reminding me that I’m not the only young married woman in ministry with mixed feelings about becoming a mother, because sometimes I feel like it! I know we’ll have kids some day, because my husband really wants kids and I do too, but to be honest I’m much more excited right now about finishing up my Ph.D. and getting a seminary professor position in the next couple years. We’re also exploring the possibility of my husband being the one to stay at home part-time with the kids when they come along; since he’s an introvert and I’m an extrovert, it just seems to be a better fit for our particular situation. We just need to remember that there’s no particular formula for parenting, marriage, or ministry- God calls us all according to our unique gifts and personalities, and that’s something to celebrate with, not criticize about, each other!

  5. Elsa says:

    Laura, thanks for understanding the single girl trouble. I don’t know if I am called to be a mother either — but I definitely know that I’m not called to be a single mother. I guess this is what vocation is. We struggle with what could be and what is.

  6. Sharon says:

    What a celebration of family – as is – now – in the present – as well as possibility! Thank you so much for this beautifully-crafted insight, Laura.
    I also believe parenthood is a calling meant for some and not for others… being one for whom it is not (in this present) has been a challenge in this society. But there are others with whom I share that, and I, too, revel in being Auntie.
    Thank you again for putting all of these thoughts together with such care for others’ experiences as well as clearly stating your own. Wow.

  7. Katy says:

    Thank you so much for this reflection. As someone struggling with infertility, it is hard for me to hear the “when are you having kids?” question – but I know I’m not the only one for whom that’s true. When I was single in the parish, it was equally hard to be good-naturedly teased about whether or not I would get married.
    To be content with what we have, right now, is such hard work. But life-giving, in many ways. Our societal definitions of ‘family’ are so limited – your reminder that what is, may be enough, is wonderful. Peace to you.

  8. Betsy says:

    I hear you! We’re there, too. Some of my friends understand that means I LOVE being the Professional Aunt, and hanging out with my nieces and nephews, and sending them home so I can have my peaceful nights and lazy mornings. (Some family members are convinced I hate children and any child in my care will die an early death. That makes me sad and angry. All I ever did was let my nephew play with the cat toy!)
    It helps that I have no-kid friends and a very close aunt who never had kids, so I have great models. It also helps to have friends willing to share their rich, kid-filled lives WITH me, without pressure. Martin does not want to be the T-ball dad either, and I don’t want to be up at 3 AM with a kid who won’t stop crying.
    It’s okay. And you know something? I’m fairly certain that I am walking the path God wants me on right now.

  9. MaryAnn says:

    This was a great article and I could relate to a lot of it.
    We were in our early 30s and married for almost 9 years when we had kids. I wouldn’t trade those years of travel, nice dinners out, and sleeping in for anything in the world.
    Seems to me you’re doing the right thing, whatever you decide. Living fully and building up a bank account of memories will serve you well whether you decide to have kids or not.
    Just as an aside, my mother-in-law is a pastor who specializes in interim positions, especially with churches in conflict, and she raised two absolutely beautiful daughters (inside and out). She would say Yes You Can. Doesn’t mean you should or will, but you can.
    Finally, I’m sorry you’re getting the kid questions. I don’t know why I managed to avoid that altogether, as ‘old’ as we were. I wish people would realize just how never-a-good-idea those questions are.

  10. Sarah S says:

    I appreciate your honesty and your committment to allow God to move you to places you never thought you’d go. While I desperately long to be somebody’s momma, I am thankful for the assurance that I am whole right now. Thank you.


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