Childless and childfree women come in lots of shapes and sizes. We are all colors, all cultures, and all ages. As much as we have in common, we are also very different. Some people say it is strange to define ourselves by things that we are not, so let’s determine what we are instead. In this series, childfree blogger Laura LaVoie interviews women without children who answer the question, “If you’re not a mom, then what are you?”
Shawna Atteberry is a speaker, author, and theologian who can go from feminist spirituality to urban fantasy fiction in the blink of an eye. She speaks at churches and conferences and has served as a pastor for many years. She writes a blog and is working on her first novel, a feminist vampire story, and her second non-fiction book. The NotMom is pleased to offer our readers her vision and perspective on the childfree lifestyle and the choices we make.
Tell us about yourself and your writing, mission, and career.
I’ve always written. I wrote my first short story in second grade. It was set on Venus, and that’s all I remember. If there’s one thing I can point to and say “I’ve always been that” it’s a writer. My mission is to free women from Biblical misinterpretations and outdated cultural assumptions that limit women.
My main focus is writing about all the women in the Bible who were religious and secular leaders, had careers, and made huge decisions for their families. These women tend to be either ignored or their stories are told emphasizing marriage and motherhood instead of the power and authority they held. I write to bring these women out of the shadows they’ve been relegated to, and to show that the few verses in the New Testament that instruct women to be silent and submissive are neither the majority nor normative voice in the Bible. This was the foundational concept of my book, What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School: Women Who Didn’t Shut Up and Sit Down.
In this book, I point out that many times, eight verses from three New Testament books dictate how the women in the Bible are seen and interpreted. These are the verses more conservative branches of American Christianity use to deny women leadership positions in the church. But these eight verses are not normative. I wrote What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School to be a Bible study that introduces the reader to women in the Bible whose stories are trivialized or ignored because they are clearly leaders in their homes, towns, and religious circles.
The book I’m currently working on now, Career Women of the Bible: A Narrative Theology of Women and Their Work, takes on the lie that women working and supporting their families is a modern phenomena and not biblical. This book will cover the many careers and jobs women did that financially provided for their families.
From now through my birthday March 26, anyone who buys What You Didn’t Learn in Sunday School will be entered in a drawing to win a $25 Amazon.com gift card. You can go here for more details.
In your response to Ross Douhat’s op-ed in The New York Times, (2/15/14), you specifically called out the author for the very common charge that “childfree people are selfish.” Our readers would love to read more about your thoughts on selfishness in this context.
I don’t think everyone is cut out to be a parent. I’m not. If I had children, I would resent them because they would take up my time, and I wouldn’t get to do the writing I want to do. No child should grow up with a parent who resents them. Yes, my decision not to have children looks selfish, but is it really?
Also, this argument assumes that people who have children have them for unselfish reasons, which isn’t true. People have children for very selfish reasons: they don’t want to be alone; they want a family to show off, or to force marriage. The “childfree people are selfish” trope implies that people with children aren’t selfish, which is blatantly untrue.
You also recently wrote about your chosen family: a young man with whom you developed a bond. I think a lot of childfree women make these types of connections along the way without formalizing them. Can you share a little about the joy of a chosen family?
I’ve depended on chosen family for most of my life. I left my birth family over 20 years ago, and for most of my adult life I was single, so I really came to depend on my chosen family in the many places I’ve lived. Through most of my chosen family years, I’ve had adopted mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers. In fact, I only have one sister, so I’ve loved all my “adopted” brothers I’ve had throughout my life. A girl needs a few good brothers whether she was born with them or not.
I’ve just come into having chosen children. I’ll never forget the day Taylor (my “adopted” son), and I were hanging out at a coffee shop talking about our writing, and it hit me that I was old enough to be his mother. Then it clicked in my head how I felt about him: he was my son. It really threw me for a loop last year when I went through empty nest syndrome after he and his girlfriend moved to Seattle. That was one “syndrome” I didn’t think I’d go through as I’d chosen not to give birth. I’ve discovered not giving birth doesn’t mean you don’t have kids.
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.
How do you feel you are treated as a childfree woman? By readers? By strangers? By the media?
On the whole, I feel treated fairly well as a childfree woman. My readers all seem fine with it, and the ones who have chosen not to have children love it. My church is very accepting and supportive of my childfree life. I haven’t noticed strangers caring one way or the other about it. Of course, as a writer, I spend the majority of my time alone on a computer, so my career isolates me from the general population (as does my tendency to be a hermit).
The media is really the only place I feel like I catch flack for being childless. It seems to me they just do not want to do their homework. They want the sensationalist story of childfree people being selfish and living carefree lives to boost ratings and sales, and they don’t want to delve into the harder questions of delayed marriage, infertility, and the fact that not everyone is cut out to be a parent.
Can you explain what you mean by the ‘Divine Feminine’? How is it connected to women without children?
The Divine Feminine acknowledges that God has feminine attributes as well as masculine attributes. God is both Father and Mother. God is a shepherd and a housewife (Luke 15). The term takes seriously the implications in Genesis where both man and woman are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). If women are made in God’s image, then that means we can use feminine names and titles for God. It means we must use feminine names and titles for God in order to have a fuller picture of who God is. Masculine names and titles only give us half the picture.
I think it’s connected to women without children in that it shows that women made in the image of God are autonomous beings who can make their own decisions. We are not afterthoughts or derivatives of men created solely to be wives and mothers. Being made in the image of God means we have the ability and capacity to make our own decisions about our lives and do what is best for us. Our lives do not have to be connected to a man or to children to have worth. The Divine Feminine gives women sovereignty over their own bodies, lives, and decisions.
Are there any childless women in the Bible? It seems they are generally blessed with a pregnancy eventually.
Yes, there are childless women in the Bible. Deborah, a prophet, judge, and military leader in the Book of Judges 4 (Old Testament) did not have children. Many women mentioned in the New Testament are childless: Mary Magdalene, Anna, a prophet (Luke 2:36-38), Priscilla, an early church leader (Act 18:24-28), Phoebe, a pastor (Romans 16:1-2), Junia, an apostle (Romans 16:7), and Lydia, the first Christian convert in Europe (Acts 16:11-15). Because of the way Jesus re-defined family, the importance of a being a mother was eclipsed by the importance of following Jesus.
What do you want our readers to know about what it means to be childfree in today’s culture?
I think it’s incredible to live in a time and place where I can choose to be childfree, and because I can choose that, I can choose how I really want to spend my time and energy. It means freedom. It means I don’t have to be forced into a life because that’s the way it’s always been.
Before birth control, most people had children because there was no other choice. A lot of people have kids because they think that’s what they’re supposed to do. They never stop to think, “No, I don’t have to”. I think it takes a very self-aware person to see that they don’t have to have children. For me. being childfree means being free, being self-aware, and being aware of all the possibilities in life instead of just one.
I want to tell them to get all of the facts, and to stop causing infertile people to have more pain and guilt than they already have. Whenever one of these “childfree people are selfish” pieces comes out, my heart always hurts for my friends who have tried to so hard to have children and failed. They don’t need to be kicked while they’re down.
The very least people could do is acknowledge that there are people who are child-free due to circumstances beyond their control, instead of making blanket statements. I want them to do their homework and get beyond sensationalistic pieces to acknowledge how complicated the decision not to have children is. This decision is not made on a whim: it usually takes years. I want them to get to know child-free people from all walks of life instead of taking the easy way out.
Big thanks to Laura for speaking with us. We want to share your stories, too! If you are or know a child-free woman or blogger that we should showcase at TheNotMom.com, please let us know!