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Called to marry, not to parent

Called to marry, not to parent

THE MAGAZINE

by Gia Hayes-Martin

 

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children…” (BCP, 423)

 

Melville asked me to marry him on a clear August day, atop a Scottish hill shaded by ancient beech trees. I hadn’t expected it then, there, although I should have guessed from the champagne he’d packed in the car. Still, there was only one answer I could give: Yes. Yes, I will.

 

From the moment we had met the previous October, everything about this man had felt right. Our relationship shouldn’t have worked: he was a thoroughly Scottish, thoroughly Presbyterian preacher’s kid living in Glasgow, I was an American aspirant to the priesthood seventeen years his junior and 3,000 miles away. We’d met at the Iona Community [link: iona.org.uk], the ecumenical Christian community seeking new ways to live the gospel in the world. A couple of chance encounters in the restored medieval abbey led to long talks at the pub, a hill walk on a free afternoon, and a dance at the ceilidh that shattered every plan he and I had for the future. I was drawn to his groundedness, how he simply was who he was; he felt a unique spark of connection with me that he still struggles to explain. We fell into step naturally when walking together, as though our bodies already knew we fit. By the end of the week on Iona, it was clear there was something worth holding onto. We visited every few months and talked and talked on the phone, using a flat-rate international plan that AT&T discontinued soon after I signed up for it. (I take full blame.) Our cultural and age differences faded amongst our common values, shared Christian faith, absurd senses of humor, and the simple ease we felt with each other.

Marriage to Melville is my vocation as much as priesthood is. Our meeting was so precarious––he’d been on the waiting list for that week at Iona, and a space had opened up at almost the last minute––that we saw the hand of Providence guiding us to each other. As I listened to God in prayer, I consistently felt a call to make this marriage to this man. Our discernment was confirmed by our friends, who gave enthusiastic affirmation of our relationship. So as I moved through the ordination process, Melville applied for a fiancé visa (yes, we learned, there is such a thing) and we prepared for our new life together. Before long, he emigrated to the United States, I quit my job, we married, we packed up my apartment in Cleveland, and we drove to California so that I could begin seminary.

 

Both of us had been ambivalent about having children before we married. Melville was almost 45 when we met, and though he thought he’d probably marry someday, he assumed the opportunity to be a father had passed. He was willing to do it if I wanted to. I had never especially wanted children, but was open to the possibility because I knew he would be a true co-parent. When it came up during premarital counseling, we both said that we were okay with either decision. About a year after we were married, I began to feel an almost primal urge to have a child; I can describe it only as the biological clock. We were unsuccessful and had to stop trying so that I wouldn’t be taking GOEs with a newborn. And I realized that I didn’t feel any sadness or regret, only relief.

 

Lots of our friends were having or adopting babies around that time, so we were surrounded by people choosing to become parents. Life with young children did not appeal to us. The only persuasive reason I could see for us to have a child was companionship in my old age, since it’s likely that I will be widowed relatively young. But that seemed a thoroughly selfish reason to bring a person into the world, and in any case, there are no guarantees about children. Among our friends are children with special needs who will require lifelong care, children with serious mental illness and addiction, children estranged from their parents, children who have died. I talked about it over and over with my spiritual director, and over and over she said, “Nothing I hear suggests that becoming a parent is God’s will for you.” Around our fifth anniversary, Melville and I knew for sure that God was not calling us to the vocation of parenthood. The final sign was the visit we made to meet our newborn nephew. We loved him, yet nothing about the experience made us want to do it ourselves.

 

It’s a common trope in our culture that women––men, too, but especially women––who choose not to have children are selfish. Nonsense. Having children doesn’t automatically make one unselfish; some of the most entitled, greedy behavior I’ve seen has come from parents who are selfish on behalf of their children. Our marriage is what Timothy Sedgwick calls “generative,” caring and nurturing the broader creation, whether that is through procreation or some other means. Not having children frees up space in our lives for Melville and me to love other people’s children: our two nephews, friends’ children, children at church and the parish day school. We give away more money than we would if we had a child to educate. We are able to spend more of our time volunteering, in causes wider than the schools and extracurriculars to which parents are invariably drawn. And we are open about our choice not to have children to offer another model of marriage for young people. My aunt and uncle were childless by choice, and their example showed me that it was possible to have a fulfilling, generative married life without being a parent. We hope others can learn that from us.

 

Although we chose not to have children, our marriage fully lives out the purposes God intended for marriage. We continue to find mutual joy in each other; we often joke that strangers watching us would think we were newlyweds from the affectionate pleasure we take in each other’s company. The help and comfort we give one another in prosperity and adversity has allowed us to thrive in stressful vocations, thousands of miles from our families. As for children, it was not God’s will for us to have them. And that is just fine for us.

 

 

The Rev. Gia Hayes-Martin is rector of St. Bede’s in Menlo Park, California. She and Melville celebrate their eighth wedding anniversary in August.

 

image: The Dancers by Ernst Wilhelm Nay

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Ellen Campbell

My husband and I have been happily married for nearly 38 years without children. It was the right decision for us. Who are we to judge others about this very personal decision?

Anand Gnanadesikan

I think there is a reason that those of us who have had kids ascribe selfishness to those who don’t.

It’s how parenthood changes us and teaches us about God.

There’s nothing like having a one-week old to make you realize that you are no longer the center of your life. For a lot us, it forces us to confront the false Gods our culture has made of Autonomy, Achievement and Pleasure. And so when we hear “WE didn’t want anything to disrupt OUR relationship.” or “*I’m* too busy making partner.” “WE wanted to travel.” It is natural to think- “Wow, if I’d thought that way I would have sacrificed one of the most transformative relationships in my life to my own desires.”

I don’t think the author confronts this. But she does correctly point out that there are other ways to make one’s life less self-centered. Taking care of an aging parent. Praying a family that has lost a newborn. Investing in the next generation with your time, talent, and treasure.

-Anand

George Marsden

Thank you so much for this thoughtful essay on choosing not to have children. My wife and I share an amazing marriage and it too is one where we have chosen not to have children.

Thankfully after 11 years we no longer get much of the “When are you going to have kids?” questions. That is a line of questioning that truly crosses a line and shows a tremendous insensitivity to those who may want children, but cannot have them. Yet for some reason many people feel this is a question they may freely ask couples, even ones they do not really know.

Our child free marriage has also given us opportunities to give more of our time and treasure to our community. Two years ago it (and my wife’s career) gave me the freedom to quit a job in business, take a 40%+ pay cut and start working full time with youth in our community. Gods plan for us does not include children of our own, but it does include me playing a significant role in the lives of dozens of teenagers. We all have a role to play, and God has led us to ours.

James Moore

My wife and I have been married for over 18 years, and we completely resonate with your sentiments. As with you and your husband, not having children of our own has enabled us to extend care to kids of other people–including those at church. Grace and peace to you!

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