To say I don’t have kids is an understatement. I barely interact with children, save for brief conversations with friends and fellow churchgoers with offspring in tow.
I can’t remember the last time I changed a diaper, pushed a stroller, or let a kid win at board games. When a friend passed her newborn to me this spring, I admitted it had been years since I held a baby.
And in 2014, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s no longer a given in our society that every woman, or even every married woman, will have kids or want to have kids.
Absolutely, marriage and family remain a priority in Christian and evangelical circles. It may seem like a week doesn’t go by without another pregnancy announcement popping up on Facebook or another desperate plea to help with the full church nursery, but in general, Americans are having fewer kids. Actually, fewer kids than ever.
Among us childbirth-delaying millennials, it’s not uncommon for whole circles of friends—20-somethings and 30-somethings—to be childfree. We live in a society where we have fewer opportunities to interact with children because, in general, everybody—our brothers and sisters (if we have siblings—more of us are only children than ever), our classmates, our coworkers, our neighbors—are less likely to have them.
Here’s how TIME outlined the numbers in its “The Childfree Life” cover story:
The birthrate in the U.S. is the lowest in recorded American history, which includes the fertility crash of the Great Depression. From 2007 to 2011, the most recent year for which there’s data, the fertility rate declined 9%.
A 2010 Pew Research report showed that childlessness has risen across all racial and ethnic groups, adding up to about 1 in 5 American women who end their childbearing years maternity-free, compared with 1 in 10 in the 1970s.
Even before the recession hit, in 2008, the proportion of women ages 40 to 44 who had never given birth had grown by 80%, from 10% to 18%, since 1976, when a new vanguard began to question the reproductive imperative.
For married women who don’t have kids, or simply don’t have kids yet, an increasingly childless culture can take the pressure off. There are still people who badger, “When are you going to have kids?,” but that question doesn’t come up as much when surrounded by kid-free friends.
And not only do some childless folks not want kids of their own, they also don’t want to be around other people’s kids. Our worst kid-hatred comes out during travel (leading to a new airline class “for the child-intolerant” in Asia), but also at restaurants, in movies, and on Facebook.
Some of the most unabashedly childfree won’t keep their preferences secret when faced with rambunctious offspring. They’ll tell you in a “no-offense,” joking tone: “That’s why I’m never having kids.” Or, “Aren’t you sick of them?” Deep down, they mean it.
Parents, of all people, are in on it too. Social media updates gripe about their kids of all ages, as if they’re a part of the anti-kid PR team: Pregnancy’s gross! Babies are a mess! Kids interfere with your plans! The whole thing is too expensive!
The most talked about parenting book of the year, Jennifer Senior’s New York Times bestseller, All Joy and No Fun, argued that happiness may be a misguided expectation for childrearing. “Senior scrupulously chronicles the lack of fun. The joy, she admits, is difficult to quantify,” writes one review.
Parents also gush about their kids—but the conversation about children can so quickly skew negative, with rarely any pushback for the child-averse. No one dares to question a person who “just doesn’t like kids.”
There are plenty of single people and childless people who love kids, but for a while, I was not one of them. Never struck with baby fever, I distanced myself from children and occasionally repeated smug lines about the perks and freedoms of childlessness.
That changed once my best friend revealed to me earlier this year that she was going to have a baby. I didn’t have to fake my excitement; I started crying right in the baby section of Target, where I happened to be shopping for a gift when she called. I knew this was not going to be some tiny human that I could nod approvingly toward and then ignore. This was my best friend’s baby, and both of them were going to be a part of my life for a long time.
I started paying more attention to the mothers I knew and to their kids—no matter how sad their fussy faces, how sticky their fingers, how nonsensical their questions. I willed myself to like them. I reminded myself that there were many topics that Jesus was silent on in Scripture, but how we should treat children was not one of them.
In Mark, Jesus takes a child into his arms and tells the disciples, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:36-37, ESV). In Matthew, he says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14). The Savior of the world is not too busy or too holy for playtime. His call to care for children is as direct and straightforward as, “Love thy neighbor.” Even if your neighbor can’t quite talk or walk or read yet.
Little by little, my fear and dismissal of parenting has grown into downright awe. I still find kids to be annoying and needy and cringe at wailing babies and dripping toddler noses, but I’m trying. There are lessons to be learned from the mouths of babes.
People may have a range of reasons for not wanting or not liking children, but I realized that my kid-aversion had its roots in a familiar, dark place: my desire for control. As every parent will tell you, and has told me, kids don’t come with a foolproof guide. From the littlest moments (Why are you crying?) to the biggest questions (How will you turn out?), we won’t always be able to figure them out, to program them, to raise them perfectly. Even as a non-parent, that frustrates me and scares me.
The childless-inept, perhaps, can remember that Christ is with us in the nursery and at babysitting time too. It is God who qualifies us, who takes our obedient, open-hearted not enoughs and multiplies them to more than we expect.