The Tender Place in Childless Families

It's not a sin to be a family of two.


“Did that question bother you?” Debbie asked.

We were studying the biblical story of Hannah, a married woman who for a long time couldn’t conceive. We discussed how she might have taught her toddler, Samuel, about God before leaving him to serve in the tabernacle with Eli the priest.

The study asked, “How will you, as a mother or father, learn from Hannah and teach your children?”

“It’s the wrong assumption that bothered me,” I said. “The study assumes any adult reading it has children. It could have asked, ‘If you are a mother or father, how will you learn from Hannah and teach your children?'”

Debbie nodded. I was grateful for her sensitivity — a cool salve for a tender place in me that others unknowingly bruise.

Guidelines

It’s a delicate and awkward subject: discussing children — or the lack of them — with couples married long enough to have one, or several.

After seventeen years of marriage, my husband and I remain a family of two. We still run into many questions concerning our childlessness — sometimes from newly met acquaintances, other times from long-known friends. From those experiences, I’ve gleaned the following ten thoughts. If you know a childless family, or if you meet one, these suggestions may help you avoid bruising someone’s tender place unknowingly.

Avoid asking “How many children do you have?”

The words how many imply the person should at least have some. Instead, when you meet someone new, try asking “Do you have any children?” first. If the answer is yes, then ask, “How many?”

After learning someone is married, please don’t ask if she has a family.

My husband and I are not a couple waiting to become a family; we are a family.

Avoid asking “Why don’t you have children?”

I’ve never found a good response to this question. Many couples do not know why they can’t have children. How can they answer? For those who have chosen not to have children, an answer acceptable to most people cannot be summed up in thirty seconds or less.

Subjects this intimate should only be broached within the context of a deep friendship. After you have developed that kind of relationship, try asking “Was it your choice to not have children?”

If the answer is no, realize the couple may be trying to conceive a child even now. One out of every six couples experiences fertility problems.* Many other couples conceive, but are unable to carry the child to term.

Don’t presume you know why the couple is childless.

Assuming they chose not to have children is a painful presupposition for those who have not been able to conceive. When couples do choose not to have children, they have their reasons. These may be difficult for some to understand. Others might have married later in life or have health concerns that prohibit childbirth. Perhaps as many reasons for not having children exist as do families without them.

Don’t assume you know how someone feels about being childless.

Believing she is devastated when she’s not is awkward, but supposing a person is not devastated when she is can be worse. A gentle comment like “I’m sorry if I hurt you when I asked about children” can open the way for the person to express how she feels. She may say it’s no problem or may confess her struggle, but no matter how she answers, your relationship can grow, based on truth rather than on awkward assumptions.

Refrain from telling someone that she should have kids.

While she knows you only want her to experience the joy and love for a child that you’ve experienced, telling her to do what she’s not able to do, or what she’s chosen not to do, can wound that tender place in her.

Don’t admonish someone for being childless.

To my dismay, some have called me selfish, apparently assuming I chose not to have children so I could spend all my time and paycheck on myself. Others have reproved me for breaking God’s law, insisting I’m outside His will because my marriage has not produced children. Proverbs 10:19 gives good advice: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (NIV).

Don’t avoid talking about your own children with her or in front of her.

I love to hear about children — their antics and off-the-wall sayings. Don’t walk on eggshells around childless couples.

Don’t expect her to produce children for you out of obligation, if you’re a member of her family.

Many parents look forward to grandparenting, but she may not be able to fulfill your expectation. And if she has chosen not to have children, your expectation will not likely change her mind. Your words can be hurtful and embarrassing when you tease her for not giving you grandchildren, nieces, or nephews and when you hint about her doing so — especially in front of other people.

If you are concerned about a couple’s ability to make you a grandparent, aunt, or uncle, or if you have questions about their intentions, find a gentle, respectful way to ask (in private, please).

Be aware that holidays can be painful — particularly those that seem centered around children, like Christmas.

A couple may feel especially awkward on Mother’s and Father’s Day. While we should continue honoring parents in special places like church services, childless couples may be embarrassed when mothers or fathers are asked to stand or when flowers are pinned on every parent.

One recent Mother’s Day, my husband took me out to dinner after church. When the hostess held out a red carnation, I automatically confessed, “Oh, I’m not a mother.”

“It’s okay,” she said without hesitation. “We’re giving them to all the women.”

I will never forget that young lady’s quick kindness or the red carnation that adorned my home for days. Her simple gesture touched that tender place in me. I will never again decline a flower on Mother’s Day.

For those childless families who long for a child, God may yet place one in their arms as He did for Hannah. But whether we wait and wonder, or whether we choose to remain a family of two, we’re always grateful for the cool salve of sensitive friends and family who treat us gently and with respect.

*Married, No Children, Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family Bulletin, October 1996.