But the focus of this post is not on people who find themselves as “circumstantial” parents – those who have gotten pregnant, given birth, or otherwise found a child under their roof – but then choose to not be a parent. I want to reflect on people who make the conscious choice to be parents outside of normative circumstances.
There is a large portion of our population of people who want to be parents but can’t get pregnant. This was our situation for a while, although we did not have the trouble that some couples have. During the year-plus that we tried to get pregnant but didn’t, we became painfully aware of the often insensitive assumptions placed on married childless couples of a certain age. One terribly hurtful comment we heard when we announced we were pregnant: “I was starting to wonder if you guys even knew how!” Oh really? That’s your way of congratulating us? Imagine the assumptions underlying this ridiculously insensitive, if perhaps innocently intended, statement. There are lots, but they all have one thing in common: that we had, up until the point of pregnancy, had some kind of agency in our status as childless. There is an assumption that choosing to become a parent begins at pregnancy when in fact, for a lot of adults, it begins far earlier. Of course, we all know someone whose pregnancy was accidental or unintended who then make the choice to become parents during the pregnancy, who accept and welcome the surprise of a new child in their life. But many of us make that decision months and years before biology agrees.
For some people, biology never agrees. Biology is not the ultimate gatekeeper to parenthood as perhaps it was once assumed. The problem of infertility is as old as the Bible (older, I’m sure), and we have a good many scientific remedies for this problem today. But science can’t always conquer. People who cannot conceive can choose to be a parent by adopting a child. There are plenty of children in this world whose biological parents choose, in whatever way, not to be their parents. How wonderful it is that people choose to be adoptive parents, making the conscious choice to be parents to children who do not share their genes. (And, of course, this decision isn’t always made out of biological necessity. Plenty of adoptive parents are capable of getting pregnant.)
In each of the above situations, though, I imagine that many of you have assumed a constant: that a mother and father are involved. I know I usually make this assumption, because this is how it works in my household and how it worked in the household in which I was raised. But the world is a big place, and there is room for far more diversity than this. I know people who choose to be single parents. I know same-sex couples who, through adoption or in vitro, choose to be parents. Again, biology doesn’t rule us, and cultural assumptions shouldn’t, either. But sadly, they often do. A friend of mine, a gay woman who with her partner of fifteen years adopted a girl, told me of a situation in which she found herself at the post office with her screaming one-year-old being scolded by the woman behind the counter. “Did you really think being a single parent was a good idea?” the woman said. Of course, this is offensive for several reasons. First of all, she wasn’t a single parent. Secondly, so what if she had been? The choice to be a parent is a brave, courageous, and important decision, and I hardly think it socially constructive to shame or scold anyone who makes such a choice. (Nor do I believe it helpful to scold people who make the choice to not be a parent, but that’s for another post.)
Children need parents. This, I think, we can all agree on. What form those parents take is a different question. I know people whose biological parents did not make this choice but had grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins who stepped in and made this choice. Neighbors, parents of close friends, church members, mentors and teachers – people everywhere make the conscious decisions to be parents to children. When I hear some talking head bemoan the state of our culture and blame troubles on parents – “It starts at home!” – I usually wonder if I’m hearing the frustrations of someone who has, in some way or another, chosen not to be a parent. Of course, it does start at home. But “home” is as diverse as “parent” and can be found and provided in many different ways. It seems to me that anyone who makes this choice in any capacity should be supported, affirmed, and encouraged. I don’t just mean adoptive guardians or any of the configurations of parents and children in a household. There are people in my life that served to parent me in little ways as I grew up, people who maybe wouldn’t have claimed to be my “parents” but who still served to nurture and love me as such. Some of these people had biological or adoptive children of their own, some of them didn’t.
In short, I’m arguing that old adage that it takes a village to raise a child. I know that this gives me great comfort in the moments when I feel overwhelmed with the burdens of parenthood, of the responsibilities that come with my choice to raise my little girl. I am not alone. Of course, I have my little girl’s mother to help me. I also have her grandparents and her aunt and uncle and her church family and a myriad of other people who have not yet made their way through our lives. Likewise, I have opportunities to be a parent to children other than my little girl. This is what it means to be in a community. But what I find myself sitting with when I look around my community at the various incarnations of “family” and “home” and “parent” is that the decision to be a parent is gift that people give the world, a gift of one’s self that comes out of a sense of service and dedication. I believe anyone who makes that choice should be encouraged and enabled to give of themselves. I know what a blessing it is for me, and if others in my community seek a similar blessing, I want to dedicate myself to helping make this a reality. It’s not just good for the children (who you will remember are our future); it’s good for all of us.