Leading a Secondary Life

The discussion over at FMH on Ana’s excellent day-in-the-life-of-a-working-mom post got me thinking again about the complexities of leading a secondary life. For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, it’s becoming more and more likely that my husband and I will never have children. (The complexities of infertility merit their own post, and perhaps someday I’ll post about them, but it remains a painful subject, and at the moment I manage the pain mostly by trying not to think about it.) Here, though, I want to consider the contradictions of what I will call, for lack of a better term, a secondary life.

It will come as news to no one that the Church teaches a life founded on marriage and family as the ideal. I wholeheartedly support with that ideal; one of the things I love about that Church is that relationships are considered more important than money or things or satisfying work or intellectual stimulation or the development of one’s talents or the exploration of the world, worthy as those possessions and pursuits are in their spheres. But my life has offered me only part of that ideal, and I know that life offers many women and men considerably less. So here’s the problem: given my acceptance of an ideal that may never define my life, how do I understand my own life as meaningful?

There are many ways this problem can play out, of course: in my life, the particular form it takes is that I find myself engaged in an intellectual life which I love (most of the time 😉 ), but which I might never have pursued had I had children. I love what I do, and I find my work is meaningful and valuable. But there’s no question that I think raising children is infinitely more meaningful and valuable, and if I had to choose between the two activities–as so many women do have to choose–I would give up my formal education and raise children. Some days I can hardly believe my own incredible good fortune. I get to study what I love, and teach what I love, and to a large extent, I get to make my own days and exercise considerable control over my own time. I’m sometimes painfully aware of how few people on this planet ever get even some few of the educational opportunities spread out before me like a feast, of how many, many people have to labor at exhausting, backbreaking, miserable jobs of one kind or another just to live and provide for their families. I’m dizzy at the riches with which I’ve been blessed. But the hard fact remains that I do not think that my life is the most meaningful life I could possibly be living; there is an undeniable hollowness at its core.

On the FMH life-of-a-working-mom thread, Sonnet responded to my confession of laziness by asking me this excellent question:

“Do you really mean that? …especially the last bit about doing/meaning nothing in comparison to mothers?”

In thinking about it, I have to admit that while I realize that while I don’t think my own life is “nothing,” I do think my life is less meaningful than a mother’s or father’s life. I don’t see any easy way around this; it seems an inevitable conclusion of the beliefs I hold.

I’m not trying to say that my life is terrible (it’s clearly not, in any sense) or meaningless (that’s clearly up to me); I’m just trying to think through this contradiction between serene acceptance of what cannot be altered and commitment to relationship ideals. As I mentioned on the same thread in somewhat different terms, I’ve long thought it vital that I not perpetually recast my life in terms of some imagined future (even an eternal future) in which I will have the children I now lack. While there’s comfort in considering eternity, at the same time I have to accept and live this life, now; I have to resist the temptation to waste time and energy and tears over other lives I might have had. I want to embrace my life wholeheartedly. But I don’t want to lose my grip on the ideals that would seem, inevitably, to make my life a lesser one.

How do I lead a secondary life?

33 thoughts on “Leading a Secondary Life

  1. 1

    In my humble opinion, Eve, and based of course on my extremely limited knowledge, you’ve already figured it out experientially, even if you can’t yet explain it. Maturity sheds its grace on our lives when we’re able to accept ourselves as secondary characters in a larger scene—and you shed that grace on me in all our virtual encounters. You will probably get many comments assuring you that your life can be just as meaningful, fulfilling, useful, etc without children—and I could get behind that approach, too, for sure. But I find something very beautiful in the clear-eyed patience of the tragic.

    I save my very deepest sympathy and compassion for women who suffer infertility, and they have my full support in whatever course they choose. I hope, though, that as ARTs become more available and more affordable there will still be some women like you, Eve.

  2. 2

    Eve, this is the dilemna, isn’t it?

    When I’m very honest with myself, I admit that perhaps one of the reasons I delayed graduate school after college was that I assumed RT and I would have kids after a couple of years of marriage. And now that I’m getting ready to apply to Ph.D. programs, real honesty requires me to admit that it is in significant part because I don’t see kids in our immediate future, and I’m tired of waiting around.

    As I grow just a little older, I find many, many things to do with my life. I do things I would in other circumstances have delayed, or made hobbies of, until my kids were well into their school years. I enjoy what I’m doing. It shapes me. I begin to think less about the life I planned to have, more about about the life I perhaps will have, every day. It frightens me because I wonder what I may be giving up. But I find I can’t live that secondary life.

  3. 3

    Wow, what a beautiful post. I don’t feel qualified to offer anything except this. The life you are living makes my life richer, almost every day you say something that makes me happy, or rings true to my soul or opens a new door in my mind. I am so sorry for your pain.

  4. 4

    For what it’s worth, I’m the mother of two boys, now 15 and 20. I quit graduate school when I had the first one. (Not because I felt that I had to quit when I had a child, but many other things in life started getting in the way.) I find right now that I’d say the same things about my own life right now, as Eve does about hers. I don’t regret my choice to mostly stay home while my kids were little, but it does feel to me that a lot of what I have done is not very meaningful. Getting the groceries, driving, the laundry, etc. A lot of boring tasks that I did, and do. I think that somehow I thought when I quit that I would be able to return to work and education in 20 years or so, unscathed (and unaged), but of course that’s not the case. I’m taking one class in the evening, one night a week, and it seems as though I’ve got some family commitment just about every week that I have to ignore. I look at the people I know who’ve been out practicing medicine, or teaching for the last twenty years and think that I haven’t’ done much at all. On the other hand, I look at other women who have stayed home, and think what a great job they have done with their families– so why do I feel that I should have done more? So not wanting this to come across as denying your feelings, but just saying that the choices are hard, and sometimes we’re too hard on ourselves.

  5. 5

    I hope that this won’t be seen as insensitive, but the first question that comes up for me is, what about adoption? It seems that there are plenty of children in the world who need love, and you seem to have an abundant capacity to love a child. And adoption, unlike pregnancy, is a choice (given some constraints like finances and bureaucracy, etc.). Certainly adoption is not the same as giving birth, but it does provide the opportunity for the same divine role of motherhood manifest on the earth with children.
    Is adoption also somehow “secondary”?

    Maybe you could reframe the situation as a choice to study rather than a choice to pursue children through adoption or other means.

    There is the sorrow of not being able to bear children naturally. But it seems that having a child is a choice, given a variety of options available.
    As a disclaimer, I cannot claim to understand infertility, although I have seen many go through it and imagine the torment of it, but as a female graduate student, married, but intentionally not trying to have kids I have not (yet?) encountered it.

  6. 6


    Thank you for this post. My wife and I are leading the “secondary life,” and we are both still reconciling ourselves to that. It is admittedly easier for me, since following my profession has always been part of our plan. But still, as my birthday approaches next month, I am reminded that when my father was my age, I was on my mission. I don’t feel that old, but without having the natural milestones that children bring, I am lost in knowing where my age group really is.

    Had they survived, our son would be a senior in high school, preparing for college, a mission, or a career. Our oldest daughter would be a Mia Maid, probably arguing with us about when she can start dating or driving. I only know that when I stop to think and add the years. My wife knows without having to think.

    Robin, adoption is an answer for some, and we would love to. Unfortunately, the medical bills that come with fertility specialists, followed by miscarriages, stillbirths, and days in natal ICUs, with the resulting medical needs my wife has had following those incidents make the financial requirements for adoption currently out of our reach. We have known for years that our choice was adoption or another try for a difficult natural birth, and we always chose the latter. After the last miscarriage three years ago, my wife had no other choice but a complete hysterectomy.

    Seeing the physical and emotional toll these last 18 years have taken on her, I wonder if we made the right choice; should I have said a decade earlier, “Enough. Let’s adopt so we know we can have children in our house, and hope to be able to have our own later.”? I don’t know. As the years go on, I regret that decision more and more. There is some fulfillment in a secondary life, but, given the choice, it is not a road we willingly would have taken.

  7. 7

    Oh, Eve, how I feel your pain, emptiness, and confusion. If motherhood is the “noblest calling of all” (ETB), and we are physically unable to bear children, must it mean that any course we pursue instead is automatically less than “the noblest”?

    I was pondering on this dilemma a few weeks ago when I came across a relevant section of Ardeth Kapp’s (former General YW president) biography. Sister Kapp and her husband were unable to have biological children, and prayed for many years to receive confirmation to adopt, but never received that confirmation. She was, obviously, devastated, and felt pain/confusion as to what to do with her life if all avenues for motherhood had been effectively closed. As she struggled:

    Ardeth sought an answer…to what she could do to live a fulfilled life. “One night, as my husband and I were reaching for that ‘kindly light’ to lead us ‘amid the encircling gloom,’ we read a statement from President David O. McKay: ‘The noblest aim in life is to strive…to make other lives…happier.’ ”

    Ardeth explained: “These words were like a beacon in the dark. They became a motto, a guiding light. That night, speaking I think by inspiration from the Lord, the patriarch of our family said to me, ‘You need not possess children to love them…The world is filled with people to be loved, guided, taught, lifted, and inspired.” Anita Thompson, Stand As a Witness: The Biography of Ardeth Greene Kapp 131 (2005).

    From there Ardeth commenced her “secondary life,” of loving, guiding, and teaching all those around her, especially the youth/YW of the church. While she explains in several places in the book that the pain of childlessness has never fully been taken away, she has found peace and fulfillment through a life devoted to something besides motherhood. This gives me hope that I might be able to find something similar in my life. It sounds like maybe you have already discovered it, too, Eve, but if not, I’ll pray for you in your journey.

  8. 8

    Hi Robin,

    I think in general it is a bad idea to ask infertile couples whether or not they have thought about adoption. If they are infertile, I think I would safely bet that 100% of them have considered adoption, and on a level that you, as a fertile person, would probably never understand. So to bring it up will come across as 1)rude, 2)nosy, 3)condescending, 4)judgmental, even if you only pose the question out of genuine concern and without any intent to cause pain (as I am going to assume you posted the question above).

    Adoption is a complicated, complicated choice (I want to scream everytime I hear someone say “Why don’t you just adopt?”), and unless someone feels close enough to you to bring it up on their own, I would again safely bet that 100% of them don’t really have a desire to discuss it with you.

    I hope this response doesn’t come off too harsh, Robin, again because I am going to assume that you posed the question above with genuine sincerity and concern. I have just been feeling lately like maybe I’m doing my fellow infertile sisters no favors when I let situations like this slide without attempting to correct them.

  9. 9

    This post by AmyB about forgiving her parents reminded me of this post. In many ways none of our lives are the ideal, some deviate in bigger (and more painful) ways then others. Thinking yourself less worthy, or less important because you aren’t able to create the ideal family is like thinking yourself less worthy for not growing up in the ideal family. The fact remains that we are here to get a body, and live the gospel as well as we can. *Everything* else is secondary. If that helps or not, I don’t know.

  10. 10

    Perhaps I should clarify my post. And apologize for any insensitivity that it showed or hurt that it may have caused especially to Eve. Blogs are a strange space because you can respond to an idea without the palpable presence and understanding that a person with deep emotions has written the words.

    I agree that adoption is complicated, considered by most people and chosen or rejected based on a variety of reasons including essential personal revelation. C.S. Eric, thanks for your post. It helped me to understand in some small way the sorrow of infertility and the process of decision making and the factors that go into that.

    I think that adoption, if only as a symbol, offers us insight into the fact that life is full of alternatives, even when we are faced with unchanging facts such as infertility.

    Although there is not a choice to have natural children or not, there is a choice (that you may or may not select for your own valid reasons) whether or not to adopt. There are good reasons NOT to adopt, that CS Eric illuminates better than I can.

    The important thing to me is twofold: 1) our lives are not secondary–a Loving Heavenly Father knows us, and knows our circumstances. Although our expectations may be for a different kind of life, that is not the primary, the best life for us. Our imperfect lives on earth are in fact the best and most essential life for our individual progression. 2) We may not have control over our circumstances, or be able to avoid sorrows, but we can always choose how we handle those situations. We are not victims of our lives, unless we choose to think more of what we are missing than what we have. I think that Eve demonstrates that in her post, that her life is full and beautiful, although she thought she’d be doing something else.

    As a therapist put it, one of the major causes of misery is the imposition of shoulds against ourselves and others. It’s easy to say, “you should be more sensitive”, “he should not have had an affair,” or “I should exercise everyday.” With this should comes a punitive and normative force that does not allow us to accept and act within reality. If you change the statement “I should be a mother– this is the primary life” to “I would have prefered to have children, but I could not. So I went to graduate school.” There is something empowering in that, something that accepts the situation and embraces the choice.

    I did not grow up in the church, and therefore do not have the same inculturated sense that there is only one way through life– that everyone “should” become a mother with natural or adopted children. Each life is unique and beautiful! Certainly motherhood is a great calling, and a complicated idea that stretches far beyond biology or adoption.

    I think that the crucial point is this: life presents us with certain obstacles, some of them that cut us to the quick (eg parents divorcing, affairs, accidents, debilitating medical conditions, rape, the death of a loved one before you had a chance to forgive etc.) We all have deep heartaches of one type or another. What matters is that we live an abundant life and choose to celebrate what life gives us rather than some expectation of what we thought we should have had/ accomplished/ been.

  11. 11

    In response to your final question, it sounds like you are doing so courageously. I haven’t had to deal with any of the issues you are currently facing yet, but when I am honest with myself, I realize I will be sadder if I don’t get the opportunity to be a mother than if I don’t get the opportunity to be an academic/professor (as much as I am passionate about doing/being the latter).

    I wish I knew what else to say except that I hope you are able to find joy even if, at this point, your life is not the ideal you would choose to live.

  12. 12

    Rosalynde and fmhLisa, thanks so much for your very kind words–I’m kind of blown away by the nice things you’ve said. I really appreciate compliments like that because they make me redouble my efforts to be the kind of person you think I am. 😉

    Rosalynde hints at something I’d hoped would come up–the fact that my particular situation is just a variation on a theme of all human life. In a sense no one gets a primary life. All lives sustain irrevocable losses and departures from the ideal. I’m thinking of people like Stephen/Ethesis, who’s endured losses I cannot even conceive of. I think we’d all agree in a heartbeat that life with his daughters is an infinitely better life than life without them. And yet (I imagine, I hope I’m not being terribly presumptuous here about someone else’s pain) life without them is what he has to live, just as, for the moment anyway, life without children is what I have to live. How to negotiate this doubleness, our worthy love for all that is good and our need to accept that we do not have it?

    I see this as analogous to the paradoxical peace we all have to make with our own sins. On the one hand, we shouldn’t sin, it makes us and others miserable, it distances us from God, this we know. On the other, this we know just as surely: as long as we’re here on this earth, we’re going to continue to sin. So we have to make peace with that reality through the grace of Christ without ever surrendering our ideals or allowing our acceptance of our fallen natures to slide into complacency about them. But I’ll leave further comments on grace, sin, and the fall to our resident theologican, Lynnette.

    Serenity Valley, CSEric, and Maria, thanks for observations from those who’ve been there–in some cases for much longer than I have. Serenity Valley’s experience alludes to the complicated negotiations women inevitably make at marriage, negotiations I imagine all of us who are married have made–delaying our own educations for our husbands, delaying education and careers and other pursuits to have and raise children, trying to get all the people and things we love to fall into some kind of life we can live.

    Serentity, good luck with grad school applications. What’s your field? I hope you’ll keep us all posted.

    Adoption–wow. That’s an issue whose complexity is exceeded only by the complex considerations attending various infertility treatments. It’s definitely something we’ve discussed. The short answer is that it just doesn’t feel right for us at this time. And I think Maria alluded to the complexities involved–the money and the advertising couples have to do of themselves. I find the last particularly distasteful. It’s just not in my nature to put a picture of myself and my husband on an LDS Social Services website with the rosiest possible description of what we could offer a child, essentially crying out to a vulnerable, pregnant single woman, “Pick me! Pick me!” (Sheesh, I’m not sure she should–I mean, I know myself.) I don’t mean this as a criticism of the system–I really don’t know how it should be run. In short, if I felt a mandate from God to seek out a child to adopt, I think that would provide me with the strength to cut through the obstacles, but without that, I just don’t have the emotional energy. At least not right now.

  13. 13

    Robin, thanks for your apology–and no harm done. I certainly don’t think you were being malicious. I do think what’s hard about infertility treatment/adoption questions (as Maria suggested) is that they are very, very complicated, and very personal. (And egads! The unthinkingly intrusive questions about what treatments we’ve tried–I want to ask some people if they’d like to share their charts of their menstrual cycles and their husband’s sperm count, but if I asked, they probably would pull them right out of their handbags!!!)

    Here’s how these conversations tend to go, and how I’ve come to manage them. Just a couple of Sundays ago I was at the stake center for a series of ward conferences, and I was chatting with the stake executive secretary, very nice older guy whom I’d just barely met. At one point in the conversation, after he’d told me about his grown children, he started in:
    Him–So, do you have any kids at home?
    Him (trying to figure out if it’s time for us to have kids yet, for all he knows we’re older newlyweds)–So how long have you been married?
    Me–Just over ten years.
    Him–Well, you know, having children is the most important experience you can possibly have, the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do. I didn’t think that when I was younger, but now I realize how true it is. I told my sons that if they found themselves in a situation where they couldn’t, they should do _anything_ to have kids–adopt, whatever.
    Me–[Forced smile, say nothing.]

    I’ve found that if I even admit to people who ask these questions that we have had problems conceiving, it opens a floodgate of well-meant advice: Take this herb! Stay out of the whirlpool. Vitamins. Reduce stress! You should quit school. IVF. Adopt! There was this couple I knew who couoldn’t have kids, and blah blah blah happened which proved that God’s purpose in this was to cause them to pour more money into the struggling reproductive endocrinology profession/enjoy special time together as a married couple for decades on end/be tested like Abraham and Sarah. And the more I stammer out answers, the sicker I feel as I’m sharing personal information with people I don’t know…much better to smile, say nothing, let people draw their own conclusions (I’m a wicked, wicked career woman who’s insouciantly pursuing her own fulfillment while her ovaries dry up. Hey, it’s kind of a fun role to play!)

    Gotta run to a meeting–I’ll answer the other excellent comments later.

  14. 14
  15. 15

    If you ever want to get really depressed, spend a while perusing LDS Social Services adoptive parent profiles. So many good, kind, faithful people, who thus far haven’t been able to complete their families. SO depressing.

    And what makes it even sadder in my mind is the fact that the “cutest” and most traditional-looking couples are the ones who are most likely to be selected by the unwed (usually teenaged) mothers. Think blonde-haired blue-eyed petite Barbie wife, hulking tall dark-haired husband. If you don’t meet the ideal physical description…good luck. SO depressing.

  16. 16

    Paula (#4) makes the excellent point that SAHMs can, and maybe often do, feel their lives are secondary as well. Clearly, the judgment of a life as secondary depends on perspective, and there are many contexts in which I’m presumed to be leading the “real” exciting life of self-development, unlike those SAHMs who “don’t do anything.”

    Maria (#7), thanks for the observations from Ardeth Kapp about the ways we can all–whatever our circumstances–extend ourselves to and care for others. I also liked Starfoxy’s perspective (#9):

    The fact remains that we are here to get a body, and live the gospel as well as we can. *Everything* else is secondary.

    Those are, arguabley, the only two constants of human life–embodiment and the moral responsibility that accompanies the knowledge of good and evil.

    Robin (#10), I completely agree that it’s up to us to seek the abundant life whatever our setbacks. It just seems to require a particularly complex, even paradoxical requirement to maintain a commitment to certain vital aspects of that abundant life while simultaneously making peace with their denial. I’m not sure I can articulate my own mental stalemate very well.

    On the one hand, I have been a little disturbed to realize that I do think of my life, particularly when I’m in church contexts, as somewhat secondary. I can see that it’s unhelpful to measure my life by the lives of others in different circumstances, and to constantly apologize for it and denigrate it (I’m trying to give up that bad habit of constantly saying to mothers that I’m not nearly as busy as they are and what I do isn’t nearly as important as what they do. Maybe it’s true–it probably is–but I know I need to think of my life on its own terms.) On the other hand, as Rosalynde suggested, in a certain sense accepting a secondary life that does not meet all of one’s ideals seems a part of maturity.

    Seraphine said,

    I realize I will be sadder if I don’t get the opportunity to be a mother than if I don’t get the opportunity to be an academic/professor (as much as I am passionate about doing/being the latter).

    My feelings exactly.

    Bored in Vernal and Maria, you have touched on the heart of my problems with adoption. Just last Sunday we had our yearly LDS Social Services presentation in a combined RS/priesthood meeting, complete with a video about unwed pregnancy. In the final scene, the lovely infertile couple–her blonde hair cut stylishly, fresh face nicely made up, fashionable, modest clothing–talks with the mother of their child. Needless to say, that’s not me.

    I just don’t think I can stick myself out there as if I’m dating all over again, only to be repeatedly passed over because I’m not cute enough for someone to want me to raise her child.

  17. 17

    I’d almost forgotten the tacky comments people make. We did not have kids for the first six years of marriage. Four of those years were by choice, then a year and a half of trying to conceive. Then we had a five year gap before the next child. I used to joke that I was just going to learn to burst into tears on cue. I figured that if I did that the next time someone started offering advice on how to conceive they’d leave me alone after that.

  18. 18

    I think I should insert a personal perspective here in the face of the perceptions of LDS social services being expressed. Infertility runs pretty rampantly through my husband’s family. I have five amazing nephews and nieces who are being raised by various and sundry of my beloved, overweight, balding, very average-looking, seriously middle-aged, totally unphotogenic and unglamorous brothers and sisters in law who adopted them through LDS services as well as through state adoption agencies. Whatever you decide in terms of whether or not to pursue adoption, don’t let your concerns about how you look to others be a factor in your decision.

    And I my experience with unwed mothers working with LDS services is that, in general, they are a lot more saavy and thoughtful about the future of their child than your average silly teenager. They see beyond the photo. We need to give them the respect for that that they deserve.

    A bit off topic, and I do not want to detract from Eve’s very good and thoughtful post, but I felt it should be said.

  19. 19

    Mary, thanks very much for your perspective. I didn’t mean to denigrate LDS Social Services; my anxieties about it are definitely my own. If I felt a strong impression that we needed to adopt, I’m sure I could set them aside.

    Bizarrely, over the years whenever I’ve thought about adopting, or trying various methods to conceive, the answer has been: go back to school.

    The Lord works in mysterious ways.

  20. 20

    Hi Mary,

    I promise I’m not just sharing this info without any basis for it. As with everything here in the bloggernacle, personal anecdotes are difficult because we all have such different personal experiences. But…since you’ve shared your personal family experience with LDSSS, let me share my family’s experiences:

    My mom was a counselor at LDSSS (in the West) for 4 years and it was her observation that, while “less attractive” couples were sometimes selected by the birth moms, it was much easier to get a baby (meaning much faster) if a couple was young, cute, more-traditional looking, etc. Time and time again the cuter couples would come in, be selected for adoption, get their baby, and then move on. But the less attractive, older couples tended to stick around, sometimes for years, before someone selected them for adoption. That is, if they were ever selected at all. Many just gave up.

    Also, from my own personal experience several years later, an LDSSS counselor (on the East Coast) told my husband and me that we’d have no trouble adopting a baby because we photographed well and would be able to present ourselves well on the website.

    So, I’m not trying to say, categorically, that unattractive couples never adopt from LDSSS. I’m sure they do. I guess all I’m trying to say is that attractiveness/fitting the ideal does play a role. And that fact alone is very unsettling to me. I don’t think that I deserve a baby any more than any other woman…and especially not because I photograph well as compared to other women.

  21. 21

    Sounds like your experiences were less hopeful than mine and my family’s. Such is the variety and the vicisitudes of life on earth with human beings, I suppose. Would that we were all a bit wiser and more careful in our choices.

  22. 22

    I believe that most people have a great deal of sympathy for those that struggle with infertility.
    With the emphasis on families in the LDS church, is there a place for couples who “chose” to not have children? I feel that when I say this about myself to people, there is an automatic assumption that I am a selfish person and that is why I don’t want to have children, that I am too focused on my career or earning money, or having fun.

    We offer a lot of comfort and platititudes to those who can’t have children but only suspicion to those that chose not to. I don’t feel like any less of a person or that I have any less of a life, that I contribute less to the world. I have chosen to not have children because it enables me to use that time to be involved in the service work that I want to do. My career field also contributes back to society and so I feel that the time I spend on it is worthwhile although I don’t pursue it to the extreme. I like to tell people that my other family members had all my kids for me just because of the sheer number of kids that they have had. By not having children it allows me to really be there for my younger siblings, my cousins, etc especialy those that have some special needs and circumstances. I am able to lend my extra room to people who need it (currently a poor orthopedic resident) because my house has the space and relative calm.

    With the non-stop “focus on the family” that we get at church with the occasional interjected consolation for those that can’t have children, is there a place for a two-person family who choses to not have children yet focuses on service? What are we doing that causes people who don’t have children (by choice or otherwise) feel like their lives are somehow something less than meaningful. There are certainly activities that are meaningful other than raising children. Note to all readers: I am in no way denegrating the raising of children, I think it is wonderful and awesome. But just like chocolate, it doesn’t mean it is the choice for everyone although most think it is the best flavor and sometimes it is sold out.

  23. 23

    Eve…this post is beautiful. I too have spent much time living a secondary life, all the while waiting for the true, real life. The only thing I ever really wanted was to be a mother of many. We are blessed with one eleven-year-old. Common is the question, “So, do you have an only child by choice?” Or, “Wow. I figured you had a bunch. Why not?” Since offense is never intended, I’ve never taken it, but sometimes this is difficult to truthfully answer. No: infertility and serious medical issues. Yes: we’ve stopped actively trying. No: we’ve never prevented. Yes: adoption in all its grand complexity.

    A well-meaning neighbor asked recently, “So, do you ever stop wanting? You know, do you get over it?” I’ve never had trouble answering the questions above, but this one was/is painful. No, this is not something you get over. This is something you accept. And then the real choice arises: what now? A primary life, different yes, but still primary.

  24. 24

    Ahna, thanks for your kind and thoughtful words. I like your distinction between “getting over” something and “accepting” it. So much of life seems to hang on that crucial ability.

    Denae, you raise good questions about choosing not to have children and whether there’s a place for that in the church. I wish I knew what to say, but that’s pretty far outside of my experience. If you want to say more about it, why did you choose not to? (If you don’t, no problem–I understand the desire for privacy.)

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    I didn’t notice any stupid comments on this thread or deliberate insensitivity.

    My daughters have a medical problem that will make conceiving difficult, if not impossible, when they make that decision. My older daughter is bothered by it, but doesn’t long for children like my younger child, Sarah, who is 20.

    She’s been married for a year and they want to get some education and financial stability before they try to get pregnant, but she also worries that she may never be able to conceive. It is her biggest concern in life, because she wants to be a mother so badly.

    We discuss the situation and she is doing all she can now to prepare to conceive and leaving the timing in God’s hands, despite their goals of education, etc.

    She says that even if she is able to have a baby, she will adopt. But I think it will break her heart not to experience pregnancy.

    I’ve watched her struggle with many painful situations in her life, always supported and loved by her father and me. We can’t protect her from pain, however. I hate that.

    Eve, and others, I’m sorry for what you’re going through. I don’t totally understand your feelings, but I appreciate your willingness to share on this subject. I hope I can be sensitive to my child.

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    I appreciate your thoughts on this, Eve. I’ve wrestled with similar questions about living a “secondary life” as a single person. I feel torn; like you, I don’t want to focus my life around a possible future which may or may not happen, nor do I want to define myself primarily in terms of what I don’t have. Yet at the same time, if I’m honest I have to acknowledge that this isn’t the ideal I would have chosen. Though I like what Starfoxy said about how everyone in some ways ends up living a secondary life.

    This conversation also reminds me of a question I’ve returned to many times in thinking about depression: do I simply accept that this is something I’m probably going to deal with for the rest of my life, and focus on learning to live with it, or is recovery of some kind a realistic hope and something I should work toward? I don’t know. At times I think I’ve been better off focusing on the acceptance piece, and at times I’ve really needed to hold on to a hope that things could someday be different.

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    I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Thanks Eve for your provocative post and for sharing something so personal. I hope that my experience might add another perspective.

    Ideally all families are sealed together, with children born into the covenant and continually sealed together through everyones’ righteousness for time and all eternity.
    I was not born into the covenant, and my parents are currently going through a nasty divorce catalyzed by an affair. This is certainly not the ideal. There was a time when I felt like this situation, a situation that affects my family relationships, somehow determined my worth as a person. But, like infertility, I did not choose this trial. Nor did I do anything to cause it. I will probably never experience the opportunity to be sealed to my parents and sisters in this life. But I embrace the ideal wholeheartedly. I can use (and have used) this ideal against myself. I can make myself feel somehow inadequate or flawed because I cannot experience the sweetness of the covenant bond with my first family in this life. (and I worry that I might have inherited some dysfunctional relationship habits, but that’s another story) After accepting a lie that I was damaged goods because of my familial sorrow, I decided to stop. I embrace the ideal of eternal families and righteous lives in the face of my own families chaos. But my inability to achieve that ideal does not disqualify me from joy in this life. Nor does it make me secondary, unless I embrace the adversary’s attempt to turn a beautiful ideal into an evaluative criticism of a less than ideal reality. Then I sell hope for condemnation, and become less than what I might otherwise be.

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    Eve ~

    I didn’t want to go too deeply into because I didn’t want to hijack the conversation too much. My decision is multi-dimensioned (as so many are). I know that one componet is my mother relied on me a lot to help her with younger siblings and I think consequently I don’t have a strong desire to raise them myself as I have already gone through a lot of that.

    Another reason is environmental, I am an environmental scientist and I can’t deny the impact the people have on the earth. That doesn’t mean I think people should stop having kids but having lots and lots of kids, well, that is not the decision for me and that is the decision that most of my family members made so I thought that I could kind of “make up for it” by not having children. I should insert a warning here that I don’t judge others for making the decision to have any number of kids, just my personal preference.

    Yet another point is both my family and my husband’s family have a strong history of mental illness so that doesn’t seem like a good recipe for a healthy child. And then I’ll go back to my original point of giving myself time to be involved in worthy causes.

    I wish that everyone that wanted to have children had that option, but I wonder why those that can’t feel that they are living less of a life. I wonder why we are suspicios of those that chose not to have children and some even accuse them of being selfish. I wonder why those that chose, or through no choice of their own, have no or few children are constantly questioned? Do we put pressure on people to have children when they really didn’t want to have them and therefore children are raised in situations that are less than loving? Are mothers putting terrible strains on their bodies or their psyche because they feel a social pressure to have more children than they really want?

    This is not another rant at any church institution, just a question about societal pressures. I would be interested to hear if anyone else felt pressure to have children when they contemplated not having them, to have more than they really wanted or have them sooner than they wanted. I am sorry if this seems like a threadjack, if so, please ignore.

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    Denae, thanks for your thoughts–and no worries about threadjacking; I asked, and I’m quite happy to let the conversation go wherever it goes.

    I think I can understand some of where you are coming from. Like you did a lot of babysitting in my younger years, and I hated it. I’m the oldest of seven, and unlike my next sisters Lynnette and Kiskilili, I’m not particularly a little-kid person. (I like working with adolescents better.) I’ve become more interested in and attached to children as I’ve gotten older, but as a child I hated babysitting and hated having to put up with younger children. Growing up I never wanted to be a mother; I saw it as unglamorous, relentless drudgery. Your point about a family history of mental illness has crossed my mind as well. So honestly, it came as a surprise to me that I really wanted, and still want, to have children. I’m not sure I can explain why I do, even to myself.

    Your question about a place for the childless by choice in the church is a tough one. From what I’ve seen, and I’m sure from what you’ve seen as well, the church seems to emphasize the “multiply and replenish the earth” commandment pretty unequivocally. It’s hard to see how the church can reconcile its stand on the family with deliberate childlessness.

    I’m sure none of this is news to you. Again, if you want to respond, how do you think about these claims of the church? I don’t mean my question to sound critical or condescending–there are certainly claims of the church I have my own issues with! I’m just trying to understand.

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    Your thoughts are so familiar. As one who has experienced infertility (or should I say, still experience) these types of threads are so painful because inevitably, someone says the very thing you wish that they would not say….because they cannot possibly understand. Infertility is a death that you grieve every day. But perhaps, as the years go by, it rears it’s ugly head only at baby showers, or holidays, or family history searches, or…..but it never fully leaves.

    The only answer that ever filled me with peace was that the Lord understands this, and me. You are not secondary. Your status in His kingdom, here on earth and in the world to come, is measured by Him and Him alone. And He knows your heart.

    And for those who are interested in adoption, please know that there are other reputable and wonderful agencies out there besides LDS Family Services. LDSFS is notoriously behind current research in its adoption practices, policies, and beliefs.

    God bless.

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    “Some people make it sound so easy to adopt. My friend has been trying to adopt through LDS Social Services and other reputable places for several years unsuccessfully.”

    Has your friend looked at adopting through DSS (which costs nothing, and I have a friend who has adopted three perfectly healthy African-American babies without any problem, because everyone else on the list wanted Caucasian babies) or internationally? I adopted a 5-year-old as a single parent, and while it put me into major debt (it was an international adoption), it certainly wasn’t ANY problem finding an older child to adopt — there are literally thousands of non-Caucasian, non-baby children out there to adopt. Granted, the chances that you will get a child with issues is greater (my child has fetal alcohol syndrome and all the accompanying difficulties), but I really wish more infertile couples would give older kids and kids with special needs a chance. I realize some people only want babies, and preferably babies with no special needs, but I have to say, there are GREAT rewards in adopting older children AND in adopting children who are have special needs. As a single, working parent, it hasn’t been easy by ANY means, but I wouldn’t trade my special needs daughter for all the healthy babies in the world, and my next child will also be at least above age four. They need homes desperately and they are overlooked 95% of the time. Just a thought. My daughter appreciates her adoption in ways a baby who is adopted will never grasp — after living in foster homes or orphanages, to finally have a loving home is just a miracle for these kids.

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    Eve, I want to thank you for this thoughtful commentary. And I agree with the statement someone made about all of struggling with feeling like we are living secondary lives. I wonder though, if it much of it isn’t the struggle to sort out our earthly existence from our eternal one? Living day to day and raising a child with disabilities often feels quite meaningless. I mean, really, how in the world do I made endless episodes of Dora the Explorer feel like anything but a waste of time?? When I look at it from a earthly, day to day perspective, I see the repetitive, the boring, the mundane, and the failures on my part. (The house is messy, I yelled at my Little Man, I didn’t cook dinner, I had to force myself to read to him when I didn’t really want to). When I look at it from a more eternal perspective, I see the value in loving this little boy, in trying my hardest even when I fall short. I see how far I have come in my patience and unconditional love and in the growth of my testimony of my Father’s love and promises of forever.

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    Sarah, thanks for your perspective on adoption. You’re entirely right that there are so many children in desperate need of good homes. I followed Ana’s posts at FMH awhile ago about adopting and racial difference with a great deal of interest. I’ve worried that as a white woman married to a white man, I couldn’t provide certain essentail things to a child that parents of their own race and/or culture could. I’m fascinated to see how other people manage these issues.

    Jo, good point! The many comments from SAHMs who feel their lives of Dora the Explorer and cleaning toilets and grocery shopping are meaningless have made me realize, yet again, that the sense of a secondary life–or the struggle to reconcile the contingencies of time with the values of eternity–is something we all have to face.

    So what is a meaningful life? This discussion has forced me to think through my own assumptions on the matter. Thanks.

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