A sharing about the discernment of a “call within a call” within marriage
I have always believed that I would have children. When I was 10 years old, some of my classmates started calling me “Mother” because, as they said, I was so motherly towards them. When I was in my teens, I came to the conclusion after much reflection that the most wonderful thing a person could do in this life was to bring up another soul to know and love God. And while my own mother urged me not to become a stay-at-home mother like her because she believed that I would be able to succeed in both motherhood and a career (a confidence I never shared by the way), I had always felt that if I had children, I would want to be a stay-at-home mum for the simple reason that I am not a multi-tasker and I have always needed to devote myself fully to one thing at a time.
I am the oldest of 16 grandchildren on my mother’s side and growing up, I’ve carried more than a fair share of babies, changed diapers, fed bottles, read stories etc. At extended family gatherings (which tend to last a few days at a time), my aunts and uncles entrusted me with the youngest children, and I loved that responsibility. And when I was preparing for marriage, my husband and I thought that we might like to try and have 4 children.
15 years of being together and 7 years of marriage later, we have one son (Michael) whom we never gave birth to (and whom we remember very tenderly every All Saints and All Souls Day) and no other child. There are of course many people who offer to pray for us for children (including Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia who saw me grow up and always insisted on praying for us to have children whenever he saw us together). Being faithful Catholics, in a climate where fruitfulness in marriage is thought of almost exclusively in terms of biological children, we have often chosen to shy away on the topic of our childlessness. Well today, I feel finally ready to share about the discernment that my husband and I have been going through for the past several years.
Before I begin, let me first clarify that I am aware that our specific situation is not the norm that marriages are called to. And let me also emphasise that in all our 8 years of courtship, we had always intended to have children of our own. But we are both finding with increasing conviction that God sometimes calls people into marriage and then later reveal that their call within a call is not to raise their own family. But that does not mean that they are not called to fruitfulness!
My husband and I have a deep spiritual friendship. We have always seen each other as brother and sister first before being husband and wife. Through God’s grace, the first prayer we ever made as a couple (we were 20 years old) was a prayer of consecration. I still remember the words. “Lord, we ask that you come and be enthroned in our hearts. We ask for the grace to always love you first before each other and to always be faithful to you. We commit this relationship we are embarking on to You. May it bring you glory, and may we follow you wherever this relationship leads.” What can I say, in the years that followed, we have struggled and sinned and fallen badly many times in our faith. But God was faithful when we weren’t. And in spite of our unworthiness, God has called us and set us apart in a very special way for His purpose!
A few years ago, I did a retreat in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. When it came to the ‘week of election’ where discernment usually takes place, I felt called to discern the question of children in our marriage. That was the first time that I realised that the deepest desire of my heart was not to mother my own children but to respond to God’s seeming call to me to make my ‘motherhood’ available to whomever He sends into my life, for however long or short a period of time that was. I felt the Lord tell me that this, in some way, would be even harder than having my own children because I would ‘fall in love with my child’ (as all mothers do) and have to ‘let them go’ many more times in my lifetime. Besides, this is a kind of unacknowledged and “invisible” motherhood… would I be willing to open my heart in this way for Him?
At the time of the retreat, I acknowledged that I was not free enough yet to make a proper discernment. My heart was too filled with guilt for even thinking about not having children because I have always been brought up to believe that a fruitful Catholic marriage is one that is child-ful (if there’s such a word!). I was afraid that what I heard in my heart was not really from God. God, gracious as always, assured me that I was indeed not ready then to discern. But I felt him promise this, “The time will come when you are ready. Then you will know.”
In the year after that retreat, God surprised me by speaking through my husband. When we were prayed over (and there have been quite many who have prayed for us!), it was my husband who would later share with me that he had a growing sense that God is saying that we are called to fruitfulness, but not in the sense of having our own children. We never said we knew for sure (even now, we can’t say we are 100%). We can only say that this process of discernment has increased our trust in God and our amazement at his love for us.
Because we are childless, I could serve in full-time parish ministry for the last 5 years, spending my mornings in prayer, afternoons in meetings/planning, and weeknights and weekends in ministry (where my husband sometimes joins me when his busy work schedule allows). Because we are childless, we could have late-night suppers with young people and spend quality time (and money!) with them in the hope of bringing them closer to Christ. At nights, we often swap notes on the people God has led us to and give each other advice on how to be a better disciple-maker based on the different insights that our gifts have accorded us. Sometimes we disagree on the approach to be taken for a particular person (much like biological parents do!), and even as we journey together, we have learned to love God more single-heartedly and to put ourselves at his disposal more completely.
We sometimes wonder – why would God have called us into marriage if not to have our own children? But we’re finding it is far better to ask instead, “Lord, how are you calling us to be fruitful? Whom are you calling us to love? Where are you calling us to serve?” And because of this specific childless state within our marriage, we both have a special appreciation of the kind of fruitfulness that those called to celibacy for the Kingdom are asked to have. There is a mysterious beauty in being called to a freedom that requires sacrifice (in our case, the joys of biological parenthood) but which avails you to serve in ways that you otherwise would not be able to.
Our childlessness has also led us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Husband and wife are called to fully surrender their entire lives into God’s hands. Being open to life and fruitful is not limited to having biological children. In fact, it is not even FIRST about having biological children, for it is easier to conceive and give birth to a child than it is to birth a deep, genuine faith in another soul. The First Love in a marriage has to always be God and regular times of solitude, silence and prayer is an absolute necessity – not an option(!) – in order to keep God being that First Love.
As with all vocation discernment, we have found that we just need to concentrate on growing our personal relationship with the Lord. We put ourselves and our marriage in His hands and we trust that we WILL be fruitful. But it is up to God to decide HOW he desires to make us fruitful. All we know is that we are called to grow in holiness and generosity and service.
We are surrounded by married friends with children and we honour the amazing and challenging vocation it is to raise a family for God. But we hope that for as long as we are childless by the will of God that we can bear witness in a different way to the beauty and fruitfulness of a Christ-centered marriage.
I sincerely hope that this sharing will not be interpreted as an encouragement for married couples not to have children as that is not my intent! It is simply a frank acknowledgment of our journey as a married couple, one which we have prudently ensured is accompanied by wise spiritual companions and directors. And I hope that by this sharing, other childless couples may be encouraged to live their vocation fully and allow God to make them more fruitful than they can imagine!