Anne Witton
Articles 4 mins

The Pain of Childlessness

Childlessness is painful for many – women and men, single and married, gay and straight. It’s a crushing weight of expectation, a loss of what has been or what never will be. It can be a dull ache or a stabbing agony, experienced in private or shared with loved ones.

I was aware of exclusive same-sex attraction from a very early age and so always assumed that I would never have children. I didn’t particularly nurture an overwhelming desire to be a mother when I was younger, but I’ve often wondered what that would be like and sometimes felt a stinging loss when it’s dawned on me that that will never be a reality. There have been years when not having children of my own has felt like a blessing for the freedoms it gives, and there have been other seasons when it’s been ridiculously painful. I’ve faced societal expectations, felt the sting of unfair criticism, felt my heart pound with injustice when someone has said ‘You don’t know what love is until you become a mother.’ I’ve sometimes longed to hold a little boy or girl in my arms knowing that they will grow up calling me mum.

I’ve sometimes longed to hold a little boy or girl in my arms knowing that they will grow up calling me mum.

I realise that many gay people now choose to use artificial means to conceive or choose to adopt children, but this wasn’t a route that I could justify for myself. As a single and celibate woman, now in my mid-forties and barely capable of looking after a hamster, I think that it’s God’s plan for me that I don’t have physical children of my own, but that doesn’t make it easy.

There are times when I embrace the freedom that childlessness affords me to work, travel, minister to others, read and go to the pub. Other times, I am caught out by a sudden sense of loss. Every month, I’m painfully reminded of my capacity for reproduction as another potential child is briefly mourned.

With every passing month
And cramp and flush
Another potential love is lost.
Silently. Alone at home.
Or in the noise of pubs and bars.
Sometimes unnoticed
Sometimes catching my throat
And pulling out tears.
But no one will know.
Only I am thinking about those who could have been.

Jesus understands the pain

The pain is real, but it’s a pain that my loving Heavenly Father understands and meets me in. It’s ok to feel the pain of loss and to grieve for what could have been. We have a God who is big enough to carry our hurts and disappointments. He knows the reality of living in a broken and fallen world. Every tear we cry matters to him (Psalm 56:8). Instead of pretending that everything is ok and trying to fast forward to the joy part too quickly, I have been learning to lament and bring the hurt and pain to God, knowing that it doesn’t make him any less compassionate, powerful or true. A book I’ve found particularly helpful is Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy by Mark Vroegop in which he unpacks the power and process of biblical lament. He says:

‘Lament is the honest cry of a hurting heart wrestling with the paradox of pain and the promise of God’s goodness.’ 1

I’ve found it enormously helpful to write my own psalms of lament to God in which I express both the pain and heartbreak that I feel and also my ultimate trust in his love and goodness.

I take great encouragement from the fact that my Lord and Saviour Jesus knows what it’s like to live on this earth in a society that was preoccupied with marriage and procreation and yet be single and childless himself. Jesus really does get it.

We all have children

There is pain and loss, but there is also hope as God has called each one of us into his family and we belong to each other (Romans 12:5). As I look around church and see the children playing, laughing and being naughty, I can take delight in the fact that they are my children too. They are in my family and I am in theirs. I remember a mother of three in my church once said to me, ‘Whether you like it or not, you have children.’. Praise God that we all do! Jesus had no physical children of his own and yet he loved and cared for the children around him, and they clearly delighted in him (Luke 18:15-17).

In our church culture, we need to be better at living out this truth. We need to honour single and childless women and men, rather than making them feel that they’ve missed the ‘ideal’ of the nuclear family (which actually isn’t a biblical ideal at all).

We need to watch our language and stop saying unhelpful things like ‘When are you going to start a family?’ (as if we are incomplete without children). A challenge to parents is to lay down the hope and expectation of having grandchildren. Family pressure to have children often compounds the pain that a person or couple feels on top of their own sense of loss. We don’t need pity, but we also don’t want to feel that we’re a disappointment or have let people down because we haven’t produced children.

Go forth and multiply

In ancient Jewish culture, like in many cultures around the world today, barrenness was an affliction that brought disgrace. It was often seen as a sign of God’s disfavour, the opposite of having the blessing of fruitful reproduction (Genesis 20:17-18). Physical reproduction was an important part of fulfilling the Genesis mandate to humanity to fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28).

Not only are those of us without children not excluded from the top job in God’s kingdom, we’re arguably better suited to it!

However, the Genesis mandate to ‘go forth and multiply’ has been transformed by Jesus when he gives the great commission to his followers (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus’ followers are still to multiply for the sake of the kingdom, but this is a spiritual reproduction, not a physical one. Every believer, whether single or married, is called to multiply their faith in order to reach all nations with the good news of Jesus. Paul modelled this well when he invested in younger men, teaching them to obey Jesus. He regarded Timothy as a ‘true son in the faith’ (1 Timothy 1:2) as he discipled him and taught him to disciple more people and spread the gospel. Whether we are single or married, we are all called to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). Not only are those of us without children not excluded from the top job in God’s kingdom, we’re arguably better suited to it! Without the pressures that come from raising physical children, we can invest in a network of friendships and mentor those who are younger as they grow in their faith. When I worked with students, I counted it a huge privilege that they looked to me for advice, shared what was on their hearts and even told me things they wouldn’t tell their own parents.

The good news for single people and childless couples is that we can all invest in the next generation to make an eternal impact. There are people around the world who I have invested in who are now sharing their faith with others. That’s enormously encouraging! I may not have physical children of my own, but I have many spiritual children for whom I am profoundly grateful.

  1. Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the grace of lament (Crossway, 2019), p.26.