A guest blog by a Christian member of Gateway Women’s Childless Christian’s group – one of 35+ specialised subgroups in Gateway Women’s private online community.
Happy New Year! Have I got my dates in a muddle – surely it isn’t 2021 just yet? Well no… it’s new year but in the Christian church calendar: Advent Sunday. Today starts the season of Advent – candles and calendars and yes, Christmas is under four weeks away. Advent is a time of preparation and countdown to celebrate the birth of the ultimate miracle baby, Jesus Christ, and all the trappings of comfort and joy that are traditionally expected to go with it.
I’m a Christian, a vicar, and a woman who is childless not by choice, through a combination of infertility and circumstance.
So Advent Sunday and the approach of Christmas provoke some mixed feelings for me as I navigate my grief about never being a mother, especially when it’s my role to lead and encourage others as we prepare to celebrate our Saviour’s birthday, along with all the cultural baggage of Christmas and the extra Covid factor of Christmas 2020.
Christmas has always been special to me: the anticipation; the delicious smells; lots of time crammed into church with candles; singing and familiar words – and the uniqueness of a day when almost everything stops to make way for celebration and togetherness.
And yet almost every year of my life I’ve found myself crying at some point on Christmas Day – usually, it’s been a sense of being overwhelmed or disappointed or both, and that’s only got more intense with each passing year of having no baby, and now knowing I’ll never have a baby. I know I’m not alone.
Many of the families for whom I lead funerals tell me that they miss their loved ones particularly at Christmas. Our childless grief also doesn’t stop for Christmas and may even become stronger at this special time of year when the absence of the children, relationships and the roles we hoped to have are so apparent, and yet the world doesn’t acknowledge our situation.
Last year on Christmas morning I talked in church about joy and about grief, and several people thanked me for naming the grief they were experiencing. Five days before Christmas I’d been among a thousand people at the funeral of a twenty-five-year-old man who’d lived life to the full, had seen the potential in everyone and was killed in a terrorist attack by someone he’d helped. I told my Christmas morning congregation about the funeral and how, as we arrived, bells were pealing joyfully to celebrate Jack’s life – an odd juxtaposition with the rows and rows of people sitting inside silently and the many, many tears shed.
I could also have talked on Christmas morning about another aspect of my personal grief – my recent miscarriages, the end of fertility treatment and with that, the end of the hope that one day I would be a mother.
Maybe one Christmas I’ll stand up in church and talk about the deep grief involved in realising what it can mean never to have a child after hoping and dreaming of it for years, and how I’m weaving a life of grief, hope and meaning without my own baby.
On Christmas Eve in normal years, my church is absolutely packed and we act out the Christmas story with children dressed up as angels and shepherds and all the other characters. At the end, a real baby is placed in the manger. They are usually babies I’ve christened – I know them and their families and I often know something about their sorrows as well as their thankfulness for their baby. I do everything I can to support their moment in the limelight, including a parking space and a pew ‘Reserved for baby Jesus’ and I respond positively whether the baby sleeps or shrieks.
At the same time my baby will never be in the manger on Christmas Eve, will never be an angel or a shepherd, will never be cuddled by my smitten granny. That hurts deeply.
Being childless means I will never plan wonderful Christmas surprises with my husband for our children. There is a whole family of people who aren’t aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts and great uncles who won’t get to spend Christmas with our children who were never born. It also goes even deeper – Christmas is a time of memory-making and meaning. Grieving childlessness at Christmas is also about the ‘who am I?’ question.
Advent and Christmas come when the days are shortest in the northern hemisphere and candles are popular because they’re pretty and hopeful. The light of a candle is small and yet our eyes are drawn to them and the way they move makes them seem ‘alive’. The candle represents hope and the light that Jesus is for Christians the world over.
How does Jesus’ birth fit with my story, my grief and my hope of having a meaningful life without children of my own?
I’m fascinated by the whole very weird idea of God coming to earth as a baby inside the body of an unmarried woman in a strict society with a lot of emphasis on family life and God’s law. A miracle birth which is eclipsed by the much bigger and weirder miracle of God breaking into the world as one of us. Baby Jesus would grow up to be a single, childless man who broke a lot of the conventions of the time. Jesus was and is particularly trusted by people on the margins of society, including childless people. In Jesus’ life and in his death he embodies compassionate love. The story has a hopeful ending which is even odder than his birth. This ending prompted people to remember his promises about being there for and including forever anyone who trusts him.
The Bible is full of stories about every kind of human vulnerability and experience, including infertility, miscarriage and childlessness. There are many stories of women longing to be mothers – Hannah and Elizabeth among them – and yet I am struggling to think of one woman in the Bible who prayed for a baby and didn’t become a mother.
My namesake, Elizabeth, giving birth to John the Baptist in her old age has had an odd significance for me since I was at primary school and now I know why. And yet there are many people mentioned in the Bible who don’t seem to be parents: perhaps more non-parents than parents. Digging into the Bible and the way people have lived and prayed with it through the centuries, it becomes clear that it’s intended to surprise, to encourage approaching things from God’s perspective of compassionate love which can often reveal a whole different and deeper meaning. The mothers in the Bible tend to freely share their children for the benefit of the world, and especially those who asked God for years to give them a baby.
When I consider the love, compassion and sisterhood I have experienced amongst my childless-not-by-choice sisters of all faiths and none, I wonder whether this is a form of motherhood or ‘otherhood’ – or shall we just call it deep, compassionate love which we share with and for one another, and with anyone who is open to receive it.
Christmas is very strange because we only seem to glimpse the very beginning of the story – about a baby, a miracle baby. All the rest of the hope, the grief, Jesus hanging out with people who usually get left out, tends to get rather hidden in all the excitement, and I don’t think that helps any of us. Every human on this planet knows difficulty and pain as well as joy and it seems ridiculous to pretend otherwise.
This year because of Covid my church won’t be packed to the rafters on Christmas Eve, and there won’t be a real baby in the manger amongst children dressed as angels and shepherds. We may be able to gather in church at a distance with masks on; singing carols inside cars parked in the graveyard, and households may be able to join together for small Christmas meals. There is much talk about how to “save Christmas.” Many of us will miss our usual traditions and it will be incredibly difficult for those with little money or whose livelihoods depend on Christmas trade, and I really feel for people facing what may be their last Christmas. Does Christmas itself need ‘saving’ or perhaps Christmas can save us?
My favourite Christmas moment is usually on my way home from Midnight Mass: on my own, outside, in the dark. No crowds, no candles, no carols, no baby, but a sense in the very air of specialness, of holiness, of hope and love that is stronger than we can possibly imagine and with us in the things we find most challenging.
My hope and my prayer this Advent and Christmas is that all of us, whether childless or grieving or not, whatever we believe, might discover something new about love.
I loved reading this and it’s so well explained. What strength. You’re being is being tested in ways previously unspoken of, within a role, whose society and culture is underlined by family, but not necessarily underpinned. I hope that Church members and other faith leaders are able to read this somehow…Mainstream societal values are so strongly supported and validated through the church. Though the outsider is always welcomed. The outsider is often seen either as someone who is sick, someone who has lost their way, or someone who has sinned. Bereavement is also supported through funerals and inclusion and remembrance. But what is there for the childless? And the single and childless? They are often seen as unfortunate, to be pitied or in some societies, shunned and outcast – still
Our recognition could create a change is the way childless living and experience are integrated into mainstream thought. The Christian religion is at the root of nearly, if not all, ‘man or woman made’ law in the UK. There is nothing for us. We are in fact discriminated against, often unknowingly by being ignored or invisible to the often judgmental eyes of society and the law… As we slowly emerge stronger for our childless community, after our own emotionally brutal experiences, this is our time … And who, after reading your blog, would not understand, empathise or believe everything you have written of your experience? Deepest respect to you Elizabeth.
Thank you Elizabeth for you wonderfully moving post. It’s not often we hear the experience of childless church leaders so it was lovely to read your words especially as I’ve found that Christianity can be such a silencing experience when it comes to not living the life you hoped for. I particularly live your parting words “My hope and my prayer this Advent and Christmas is that all of us, whether childless or grieving or not, whatever we believe, might discover something new about love”. Simply beautiful x
Thank you Yvonne and for the way you’ve been an important part of inspiring me to write. I think I’m fortunate to have been in more inclusive churches and yet still there is an ignoring and yes silencing of this experience. xx
I too am a minister who is childless not by choice and you share so eloquently most of what I feel. Thank you for putting it out there’. I’d love to connect with other women in similar circumstances.
Hello Jo – I’m both glad and sorry we share the same feelings. I already host a space for ministers within another organisation and am working on an idea and can perhaps update here unless there is another way we could connect?
Hi again Jo – we’ve just set up a space for childless clergy. If you message me on Twitter at @heartmother1 I can give you send you the link.
Thank you Elizabeth. I’m a Vicar who is also childless not by choice – I found this reflection helpful and moving. It made me want to have more conversations with you
Hi Sarah, Thank you – I’d be glad to talk with you too. I believe I’ve just followed you on Twitter. Do feel free to DM me.
A beautiful post. The writer’s comment that the overall emphasis in Christmas of joy, happiness etc. disguises the fact that many people are grieving at Christmas and that all humans on this planet know difficulty and pain was particularly helpful. Childless people tend to separate the world into “them and us” categories often leading to further isolation, but we are all in this together – childlessness is heartbreaking and difficult, but others have different things to bear along life’s journey. The challenge for the involuntary childless is to live out a life of compassion, love and peace in spite of this misfortune and to seek out a support group of friends, etc, who can help with that. It will always hurt, but we can also and, need to give ourselves permission, to experience happiness and a sense of belonging – even if its just in the little, daily things like a walk in nature. exchanging smiles with a stranger, etc.
Hi Debbie, I’m glad you found my writing helpful. The “them and us” binary is very strong and I feel there is such a power in shared experience, whether that’s of motherhood or not – though of course many of us have spheres of belonging in both – and we also have so much in common. When people say to me “I just can’t imagine…” I’ve started to say “I think you may have experience of similar emotions,” when it seems appropriate.
What a wonderful blog. Thank you for your courage and for sharing this with us Elizabeth. I too find Christmas challenging as a childless woman. This year we finally adopted a puppy & some of my mothering needs have found an outlet with him!
With your permission, I would like to share your blog with other vicars I know. Please could you let me know if you would consent to this.
Thank you again,
Ruth – I’m so pleased that Elizabeth’s blog has been supportive to you. This is a public blog, intended to be shared, so I think it’s absolutely fine to share it with others. Here is a shortlink to do so, if that would be helpful: http://www.bit.ly/gw-advent
Dear Ruth, Thank you – as Jody says you’re of course welcome to share it wherever you like. I’m glad you found my blog helpful and sorry that you know these challenges too. Your puppy sounds adorable – we dote on our cat likewise. Elizabeth xx