Shawna Atteberry

Writer, Editor, Researcher

My response to Pope Francis published at The NotMom Blog

Pope FrancisMy response as a childfree pastor to Pope Francis’ ridiculous claim that Jesus doesn’t like it when couples choose not to have children has been posted at The NotMom website: “Woe to Those Who Are Pregnant”: A Christian, Childfree Pastor’s Response to Pope Francis. Here’s a teaser:

When he was prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, Jesus warned:

“Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:23-24)

Jesus did not see the time he lived in to be a good time to have children and raise families. He also did not think that the biological family should come before the family of God he created where children came into the family because they do the will of God, not the will of a parent (or the will of a Pope).

What did you think of the Pope’s claim that Jesus doesn’t like couples who choose not to have children?

"Family Redefined" published in Gather Magazine

My article “Family Redefined” was published in the June edition of Gather, a monthly magazine for women in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. In it I talk about my decision not to have children, my trepidation over coming out of the childfree closet, and why I think the church’s definition of family is too narrow and small. The article is available in the print edition. Please buy the magazine and support your ECLA sisters.

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New article published in Gather Magazine

My article “Family Redefined” has been published in the June edition of Gather, a monthly magazine for ELCA women. In it I talk about my decision not to have children, the trepidation I had about coming out of the childfree closet, and why I think the church’s definition of family is far too narrow and small. The article is only in the print magazine. I hope you don’t have trepidation about buying the magazine. It is a well done and thought out magazine (with excellent Bible studies), and they are very generous with writers, so support your Evangelical Lutheran sisters with a subscription.

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My interview with the NotMom Blog

My profile at the TheNotMom.com Blog has been posted. You can read about my thoughts on being a NotMom, my chosen family, and why women without children weren’t that big of a deal for Jesus or the early church here. Please leave comments and show the other NotMoms some love.

I’m very thankful for my many chosen families, and all of the love and new roles they’ve brought into my life. In today’s world where we often don’t live near our birth families, and move so much more than we used to, I think it’s very important to have a chosen family close to you. I also think it’s important for theological reasons: Jesus said that anyone who obeyed God was his mother, brother, and sister (Matthew 12:50; Mark 3:35), so for me, my church is my family.

Jesus broadened the definition of family to include those who obeyed God. In fact, he ignored his biological family for his chosen family, which is why the American church’s idolatrous view of the biological family makes me angry. For Jesus, the chosen family that obeyed God was the most important family, not the one you are born into.

Blast from the Past: The Biblical Family?

This was originally published on 10/12/2006.

Abraham had two children with two different women. Isaac and Rachel had two children. Jacob has at least 13 children, 7 of them with Leah. What does the “typical biblical family” look like? It’s hard to tell by the patriarchs. Abraham had a wife and a concubine. Isaac and Rachel were monogamous regardless of the number of children they could produce. Then there’s Jacob with two wives, two concubines, and a brood of kids. I think it’s safe to say that there is no one “typical” family model in the Bible no matter how much some conservative Evangelicals want there to be. The New Testament is even foggier with Jesus changing the rules about family. In fact he redefined family saying “Whoever does the will of my Mother who is in heaven is my sister, my brother, my mother” (Matthew 12:15, NT: Divine Feminine Version). He also didn’t go in for putting family above all else mentality that we see in conservative evangelicalism. He said no one could put their family above him and still call themselves a disciple of Christ. This redefinition of family continues through the New Testament as the Church, the body of Christ, becomes family. Paul mentions several family members “in the Lord,” but he doesn’t mention one biological family member in his writing. We only know Paul had a sister and nephew thanks to Luke. We know Priscilla and Aquila were married, but we have no idea if they had kids: Paul and Luke never say. Then there’s Paul and Jesus–neither of them even bothered to marry. It also appears that Barnabas, Lydia, and Timothy were all single as well. And yet they are part of the body of Christ, part of the family of God.

When we see family in the biblical and Middle Eastern sense of the word, it is not the nuclear family we are used to. Family was the extended family, which usually lived together, may be not in one dwelling, but all of their houses or tents were right next to each other. When a son married, the parents built a room on top of their house for the couple. The couple then moved in. The family was run by the oldest living male–the patriarch–and everyone lived together: parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and children. This was family in the Old Testament and New Testament. In Acts we also see the concept of household, which included all the relatives plus the servants and slaves. How many people were added to the body of Christ when Cornelius and his whole household repented and were baptized? His wife (or wives), children, relatives, servants and slaves? Lydia’s household also were baptized. Who all did that include? Lydia’s relatives? An aged mother or grandmother, siblings, nieces, or nephews? Then there were her servants and slaves, all of whom repented and were baptized. Lydia’s household became the first church in Europe (Acts 16). Households and families were very different than the Western nuclear family. In fact, in many parts of the world, this is what family and households look like today. Not even Christians in other countries will agree with the American Evangelical definition of “family.”

There is a reason I’m bringing all of this up. I have seen a couple of articles about larger families starting to be more common than the typical 2-3 child norm our society worships. Of course these larger families are looked down upon, especially the mothers who decided that this is what they wanted: to have a large family. On the other end of the spectrum are couples like my husband and I. We’ve chosen not to have children. Both of these decisions should be fine with the church along with those who have chosen to remain single. All of these families are represented in the Bible. My husband and I should not be classified as “selfish” because we’ve chosen not to have the culturally accepted family. Neither should women like Leslie Leland Fields, who wrote, The Case for Kids at Christianity Today, be judged on why she and her husband have six children. In the article Leslie talked about the reaction outside of the church her big family receives, but I can see raised eyebrows in the church foyer when they walk by as well. It is more acceptable in the church for a larger family because we see children as a blessing from God. But I still have heard comments about “what were they thinking” directed at couples with a lot of children.

Back to my end of the spectrum: please do not believe that because I don’t have children that means I hate them or don’t want to be around them. I love children. And every child needs at least one adult in their life who shares their life and hangs out with them because they want to and not because they have to. I love being that person. I love being Aunt Shawna. When I told this to one of my friends, Virginia, she absolutely agreed. That meant a lot to me because Virginia is a mother (she has two kids), and she is called to children’s ministry: she’s a children’s pastor. I take very seriously the part of the infant dedication or infant baptism where the pastor turns to the congregation and asks the congregation to do all they can to help the parents raise their children in Christ and in the Church. When I say, “I will,” I mean it. I will do anything I can to help parents raise their children to know the love and grace of Jesus. Whether they have two, six, or ten, no set of parents can raise children by themselves: they need the church; they need a community. This was something the extended family provided in the Bible: parents weren’t all on their own raising a family. This is also the way neighborhoods used to be: the entire street helped parents raise their kids. It wasn’t a Lone Ranger thing.

In her book Real Sex, Lauren Winner points out that both singleness and married life teach the church about God and her kingdom. Marriage teaches us about God’s love for us, the church. Marriage teaches us what faithfulness in a relationship looks like. It also teaches us about forgiveness and compromise. Just as marriage is not easy, it is not always easy to be part of the community, and it’s not always easy to be in a relationship with God. Singleness teaches the church utter dependence on God. Singles don’t have a partner always there to help. They have to depend on God for their intimacy. They teach us that there should always be an empty spot in our lives for God alone. They also remind us that in the end the only marriage is between Christ and his Church, and all of us will be siblings. Our primary relationship with each other is not as spouses, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. Before our marriage vows are our baptismal vows. Before we married, we were a sister or brother to our spouse.

Let’s take this a step further for families of all kinds. Large families teach us we don’t always get what we want in community. Siblings may have to share bedrooms and toys. They can’t hog the bathroom or the computer. They also have to conserve: their clothes will go to the next sibling. They have to learn to share. They also have to learn to compromise. They know life isn’t all about them when there are younger siblings too play with and care for.

Childless families remind us that we don’t always get what we want. Not all of us are called to be parents, just like not all are called to be parents to a large family. Childless families remind the church that family is a much larger concept than those who live under our roofs. We also remind the families with children that they don’t have to go it alone. We are here to help. We spend time with their kids because we want to. We also remind the church that marriage is not for children alone: we can use our marriages to build the kingdom of God. Childless couples have more time and resources for short-term mission trips, giving to those in need, and in helping the families at church raise their children in a godly way.

All of us together show the world what the kingdom God is like. It’s like the single person who depends on God for the intimacy she or he craves when they crawl into their bed alone every night. It’s like the married couple who does not let the sun go down on their anger and works through their argument to reconciling peace before they go to the bed. It’s like the family with two children who show us how important it is to know our limits and to do what is best for the entire family. It is like the family who has six children and teaches us that life does not revolve around us: we have to share, we don’t always have to space we want, and there are others who need us. All of this is what it looks like to be part of the church, part of the family of God.

Proudly Childfree and Not Apologizing For It

A friend on Facebook brought this article to my attention. Ross Douthhat recently wrote for the New York Times that childfree people like me and those who postpone parenthood do so because:

Parenthood is “the last binding obligation in a culture that asks for almost no other permanent commitments at all.” In this sense, it isn’t necessarily that family life has changed that dramatically in the last few generations. Rather, it’s stayed the same in crucial ways — because babies still need what babies need — while outside the domestic sphere there’s been an expansion of opportunities, a proliferation of choices and entertainments and immediately available gratifications, that make child rearing seem much more burdensome by comparison.

This has two consequences for young, reasonably affluent Americans. First, it creates an understandable reluctance to give up the pleasures of extended brunches and long happy hours, late nights and weekend getaways, endless hours playing Grand Theft Auto or binge-watching “New Girl.” Second, it inspires a ferocious shock when a child arrives and that oh-so-modern lifestyle gives way to challenges that seem almost medieval, and duties that seem impossibly absolute. And the longer the arrival is delayed, the greater that shock — because “postponing children,” Senior points out, can make parents “far more aware of the freedoms they’re giving up.”

Once again the complexities of choosing not to have children or postponing children are glossed over. No mention is made of people like me who didn’t marry until I was 36. No mention is made of women like me who have significant health problems that would make pregnancy a living hell of pain. No mention is made of being financially secure enough or grown up enough yourself to start a family (as the daughter of a man who never grew up, I wish more people who wanted to live as perpetual teenagers would NOT have children). No, we’re just selfish people who want to have endless brunches and have marathon viewing sessions of our favorite shows (and no one ever had a child for selfish reasons: “I just want someone to love me”).

I’ve recently written about being childfree at Christian Feminism Today with my post, God Places the Solitary in Families in which I make the point that just because I don’t have children of my own doesn’t mean I’m not a parent:

This year I experienced something I thought I would never experience: empty nest syndrome. I never thought I would feel the emptiness that comes from a child leaving the nest for one simple reason: 10 years ago I decided that I did not want to have children.

What I didn’t know was that a few years later I would fall in love with a young British man who started coming to church when he started college in Chicago. Taylor and I bonded over being writers and our mutual obsession with Dr. Who. For three years we read each other’s writings and talked about everything. Somewhere along the way I realized Taylor was my kid; I had “adopted” him. In June he and his girlfriend moved to Seattle, and I became an empty nester. I can’t believe how much I miss my kid.

I also wrote a post a few years ago on my reluctance to write about my choice not to have children. I admitted I was selfish, but not because I want to spend my free time brunching it up:

I know there are those who will think I am selfish for not having children, and you’re right. I am selfish. I know how much time and energy it takes to raise kids. I know how large of an investment it is, and there is no return policy. I do not want to spend my time and energy raising kids. I want to spend my time and energy writing books. I am going to give birth and create new life: I’m just going to stick to giving birth in a metaphorical and spiritual sense.

(I’m happy to say that an article based on this post will be published in the June issue of Gather Magazine.)

Yes, I’m selfish for not wanting to have children, but not because I want an extra hour to brunch with the girls. I’m not having children because I want to do the same thing Ross Douthat does while his wife spends twice as much time taking care of their children. A Pew Study last year reveals that women spend twice as much time caring for children as men do. As I work at home and my husband works elsewhere, guess what would happen to my writing time if we had children? I’m 43–middle aged, with health problems. There’s no way I would have any energy to write once I finished with childcare. Don’t get me wrong: my husband would help all he could, and he would be an incredible father, but he works 50 hours a week outside of the home. I work at home. Do the math. (I have to admit when I see my husband with our nieces and nephews I feel a little guilty for not having children because he really would’ve been an awesome dad. But I don’t feel guilty enough to undo the tubal ligation, give it a go then be in unbearable pain for the last half of my pregnancy.)

The decision to postpone having children or not to have children at all is so much more complex and complicated than brunch and TV shows. It has to take into consideration the age the couple was when they committed to each other, the health issues of each person, where you are financially, and if you’re cut out to be a parent. Not all of us are. I’m not. I’m the first person to admit, I’d be a horrible mother. I’m glad I know that about myself. The decision not to have children is a complicated one that takes a lot of soul searching and years of discernment to make, and it should not be demeaned by an assumption that I would rather have time for one more mimosa than change a diaper.

Why I'm not having children

I’ve debated whether or not to write this post for the last couple of years. I’ve hesitated to write this post because Kelli Goff is right: The most controversial thing for a woman (especially a married woman) to say is “I don’t want to have children.”

For some reason the idea that not all people, including plenty of women, have the desire to become parents, and more specifically, the idea that not all people who can have children, should, remain two of the most taboo things any person, particularly any woman, can say out loud. While endless media coverage has been devoted to the so-called “mommy wars” between working moms and stay at home moms and those who are pro-choice and those who are not, the real gulf, is one so controversial that the media hardly covers it at all: the gulf between those who do not wish to become parents and everyone else who thinks that by shear of virtue of being on this planet and not being a serial killer, you should.

I grew up in a secular world that assumed I would have kids because I’m a woman, and I grew up in a sacred world that assumed the same. In fact, the Evangelical/Fundamental tradition I grew up in told me my highest calling in life was to be a wife and mother. By my early 30s I wasn’t sure I wanted to be married or have children. I had spent a year in Barcelona in 1997, and I liked the freedom of being single. I loved the idea that I could pick up and leave tomorrow if that’s what Godde wanted me to do. I loved my freedom. I was not sure marriage and children were worth what it would cost me. I changed my mind about marriage (I am happily married to my best friend), but I did not change my mind about having children. We are not having children, not because we can’t, but because we don’t want to. I’m ready to go off the birth control pill and decided it was time to just fix what I consider to be a problem: the possibility (however slight) that I might get pregnant. Tuesday I am going in for a tubal ligation. I am relieved. Not only will I get off the pill, there will be no more pregnancy fears. If I was still in my former tradition I probably wouldn’t say anything about the surgery. Or if I did, the automatic response would be: “Well you can always adopt.” Not having kids–choosing not to have kids–is not a conscious option in my former circles.

Now I go to church with two other married woman who made the decision not to have children (and there is another couple who don’t have children–I don’t know if they chose that or it just happened that way). Both of them are on the other side of 50 and have no regrets that they did not have children. The church I attend is fine with our decision not to have children. They don’t treat us like errant children who aren’t getting in line to go to recess. I no longer hear, “Oh you’ll change your mind” in that voice denoting someone patting your head because you’re the silliest, little kid they ever saw. I know how lucky I am. Even in the most progressive and liberal Protestant churches the assumption is, if you’re a woman, you’ll have children.

I was reminded when Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court how taboo it was for a woman not to choose to have children. As Keri Goff points out in her article:

Why has every major profile of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addressed the fact that they do not have children, as if it represents some boat they missed on the world tour known as life? Not to mention the veiled (and not so veiled) references about their sexuality that permeate cyberspace. As though no children = gay by default.

Could a political couple, who chose not to have children, even get elected in our country with its obsession over “family values” (whatever that is; hard to tell with all the family-values politicians committing adultery or some kind of fraud)? So with trepidation I confess that I do not want to have children, and that I am taking steps to make sure there are no future surprises. I know it’s the right thing for me and my family, and yes, my husband and I do make a family, children or no children. I grew tired of narrow definitions of family a decade ago when no one in society or church would recognize that I was part of a family, even if I wasn’t married. It didn’t seem to matter that I was a daughter, sister, aunt, and niece. What I wasn’t was all that mattered: I wasn’t a wife or mother. I still find this to be true now that I’m married. My husband and I aren’t a “real family” because we don’t want children. It’s not enough that we’re husband and wife.

I know there are those who will think I am selfish for not having children, and you’re right. I am selfish. I know how much time and energy it takes to raise kids. I know how large of an investment it is, and there is no return policy. I do not want to spend my time and energy raising kids. I want to spend my time and energy writing books. I am going to give birth and create new life: I’m just going to stick to giving birth in a metaphorical and spiritual sense.

I keep thinking that, of all places this should be OK is within the church. After all, Jesus redefined “family” in his teachings. For him family was not your biological kin but those who obeyed Godde: “But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother'” (Matthew 12:48-50). It should be fine for a Christian woman not have to have kids to fully follow the calling Jesus placed on her life, but it isn’t. It’s assumed that all other callings will be subsumed under The Call to Motherhood. My only response is no. My highest calling is not to be a mother. My highest calling is to be a writer. I can’t even say that my calling to be a wife beats out my call to write. I’ve been a writer ever since I could write (a good 34 or 35 years now), and I was making up stores before I could write them down. I’ve only been a wife for four years. This idea that I should suppress who I really am–a writer–to be something I am not and have no desire to be–a mother–is just un-Christlike considering what Jesus thought of biological families and how he treated women, especially single women.

I am glad that I found a church that does not believe every woman’s highest calling is to be a mother. I’m glad I’m in a place that recognizes my gifts and talents and encourages me to use them to build Godde’s kingdom in our world. Because there are plenty of Godde’s children that need our love and care who are not part of any other family. I’m hoping that my writing reaches a few of these people and draws them closer to Godde.