My husband and I do not have any children at the present time. Our blessings in this matter have been delayed. But make no mistake, we are even now a family. Our family unit was established by the authority of God at the same time that we knelt at the altar in the temple. Children come as an extension and an expansion of the family. When a man and a woman are married, they immediately become a family and remain a family even in the temporary absence of children.
I mention this because I know many couples struggle with the sorrow of childlessness. I would like to share with those of you who have not been blessed with children my testimony and some of my insights gained from personal experience about our particular challenge. Because these experiences are so personal, I have seldom shared them outside the walls of our own home.
Brother Kapp and I understand and remember some of the pains and much of the suffering that you suffer. We remember the emotional highs and lows with every month, including the fast and testimony meetings when testimonies were borne by those who asked in faith and were blessed with children. We know how you return home and put two dinner plates on the table and recall the marriage covenant to multiply and replenish the earth and your desperate desire to qualify for that honor in righteousness. You can’t explain your feelings to each other, much less to your family and friends; and your whole soul cries out as did Job, “If I be righteous, … I am full of confusion; therefore see thou mine affliction.” (Job 10:15.)
Some of you go through the suffering and concerns of your childlessness year after year until finally you may even say, “My soul is weary of … life” (Job 10:1), thinking that if you have no children, you cannot fill the measure of your creation. And if you don’t fill the measure of your creation, you may say to yourselves, what else matters?
I will forever remember the day a child new to our neighborhood knocked on our door and asked if our children could come out to play. I explained to him, as to others young and old, for the thousandth time, that we didn’t have any children. This little boy squinted his innocent face in a quizzical look and asked the question that I had not dared put into words, “If you are not a mother, then what are you?”
But then came the day my young husband was called to be a bishop and I was finally convinced that our not having children was not because of our unrighteousness. Some don’t understand that. A good man in the ward who had desired that position came to him privately with strong emotion and said, “What right do you have to be a bishop, and what do you know about helping a family? Don’t ever expect me or my family to come to you for anything!” In time my husband helped that man’s family through a serious crisis, and through it we forged a lasting bond of love with them.
You have undoubtedly had similar experiences. If you haven’t, you will. In these ways we grow from the time when everything hurts and offends us until, with faith in God, we are neither hurt nor offended. But I want you to know I understand if you feel hurt or offended now.
Mother’s Day may be one of those times of hurt. Every year there will be a Mother’s Day, and every year at church a little plant or some other gift may be forced into your clenched fist. But one day you will learn to open your heart, and then, somehow, you will open your hand to receive that gift. Eventually, that gift becomes the symbol of an eternal promise.
I know a childless woman who, at the age of fifty-eight, went into the hospital for a hysterectomy. She couldn’t handle the emotional impact of that event, and she wept bitter tears of anguish, saying, “Now I know that I’ll never have any children.” She and her husband lived together in loneliness, waiting, never facing reality and never able to make the adjustments that could have brought them a full life.
How do we handle unfulfilled expectations? First, we must accept the reality that this life is not intended to be free of struggle. In fact, it is through struggle that we are given opportunities to fulfill the very purpose of this mortal life. It is the fiery trials of mortality that will either consume us or refine us.
Part of those trials is facing alternatives and making decisions. For those of us without children, the choices may seem incredibly difficult to make. What would the Lord have us do? To what extent do we seek medical attention? What about adoption and foster children? What about no children? If that is the choice, then what do we do with our lives? The choices are never simple. During these times of searching, we often find ourselves caught between conflicting counsel from parents and friends and leaders and doctors and other experts. Some couples I’ve known even consider divorce, each one thinking the other is responsible.
From my own experience, I’ve learned that the only lasting peace is the peace that comes when we learn the Lord’s will concerning our opportunities in life. To do that, we must consider our alternatives, formulate a decision, and take it to the Lord. Then, as President Dallin H. Oaks observed when he was president of Brigham Young University, “When a choice will make a real difference in our lives— … and where we are living in tune with the Spirit and seeking his guidance, we can be sure we will receive the guidance we need to attain our goal. The Lord will not leave us unassisted when a choice is important to our eternal welfare.” (BYU devotional address, 29 Sept. 1981, in Brigham Young University 1981–82 Fireside and Devotional Speeches, Provo: University Publications, 1982, p. 26.) I believe that. We just don’t know the Lord’s timeline, and that is where our faith comes in.
I have two younger sisters, both of whom are mothers. My youngest sister, Shirley, has eleven children. Sharon, another sister, has a little girl who was born to her after six years of anxious waiting. Ten years later, through the fervent prayers of the extended family for the wonderful blessing of adoption, a little boy came into their family and was sealed to them in the temple for time and eternity. What a blessing he and the other children have been to all of us!
Over the years my sisters and I, with our husbands, have prayed for each other and with each other and about each other. We have come to know that the Lord has answered our prayers differently and not always in the affirmative and not always according to our timeline. But we have all felt the warm assurance of his approval and love.
There will be times when you may feel that your desires are righteous, but the answer is still no. At that point, the only way to peace is to say, “Not my will but thine be done.” The Lord doesn’t have to explain his decisions to us. If he did, how would we learn faith? I have learned that we must make our choices—even the hard ones—and then accept responsibility for the consequences. It is in facing the awesome responsibility of using our agency and, in faith, making decisions of great eternal consequence, that we are drawn close to God.
Someday, maybe years after the trial of our faith, we will receive a witness that our decisions were right. (See Ether 12:6.) But until then, those who try to live in tune with the promptings of the Spirit must exercise no small degree of faith and courage in following that Spirit.
What, then, are some of the decisions couples can make to lead fulfilled lives when the answer is that they will not have children in this life? One night, as my husband and I were reaching for that kindly light to lead us ’mid the encircling gloom, we read from President David O. McKay, “The noblest aim in life is to strive … to make other lives … happier.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1961, p. 131.)
It was like a beacon in the dark. It 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. Loving is not synonymous with possessing, and possessing is not necessarily loving. The world is filled with people to be loved, guided, taught, lifted, and inspired.”
My husband and I knew that parents are constantly placed in situations that develop unselfishness and sacrifice. We began to realize that if we were to learn the important lessons that our friends with children were learning, we needed to place ourselves in situations where we could serve and sacrifice. So we began to say yes to everything and to everyone.
It wasn’t long before we had many opportunities to serve and sacrifice. Often, at the end of a long week we would plan for a moment together—just the two of us—and the telephone would ring. We’d postpone our moment together and carry on with joyful, grateful hearts for our opportunities, hoping to qualify even in some small measure for the quality spoken of by Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
“So often our sisters [and I would add brothers] comfort others when their own needs are greater than those being comforted. That quality is like the generosity of Jesus on the cross. Empathy during agony is a portion of divinity! … They do not withhold their blessings simply because some blessings are [for now at least] withheld from them.” (Ensign, May 1978, pp. 10–11.)
We who do not have children can wallow in self-pity—or we can experience “birth pains” as we struggle to open the passageway to eternal life for ourselves and others. I bear testimony to you that instead of wrapping your empty and aching arms around yourself, you can reach out to others. As you do so, one day you will even be able to hold your friends’ babies and rejoice. You will be able to rejoice with the mother of a new bride, and the mother of a newly called missionary, and even with your friends the day they become grandmothers. How can that be? Let me tell you.
We were alone with each other in St. George, Utah, one Thanksgiving time because all our relatives were with their families. It was early in the morning in the motel; the room was quiet, and I was thinking. I remember my heart crying out as I anticipated Christmas approaching. And although we could share in the joy and excitement of our nieces and nephews, it wasn’t like having your own children with stockings to hang. The whole thing seemed to me to be unfair. I felt a darkness and a despondency settle over me, and I did what I’d learned to do over the years. I got on my knees and prayed for insight.
My answer came when I opened the scriptures to Doctrine and Covenants 88:67–68: “And if your eye be single to my glory [and remember, God’s glory is to help ‘to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man’ (Moses 1:39)] your whole bodies shall be filled with light, and there shall be no darkness in you; and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth all things.
“Therefore, sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that ye shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will.” [D&C 88:67–68]
I don’t know how long it will be for you. For us it was years. But one day you will gain an eternal perspective, and you will feel peace not pain, hope not despair. I would have liked so much to have received that insight years before, but I know that had that happened, I would have been deprived of the growth that comes from being comforted by the witness of the Spirit after the trial of my faith.
If I have any comforting message for you, it is this—Peace of mind comes from keeping an eternal perspective. Motherhood, I believe, is a foreordained mission. For some, this glorious blessing may be delayed, but it will not be denied. Motherhood is an eternal reality for all women who live righteously and accept the teachings of the gospel.
On the other hand, the characteristics of motherhood, which include concern for others, sacrifice, service, compassion, teaching, encouraging, and inspiring can be the noble labor for each one of us now, with or without children. The fate of each spirit in the eternities to come depends so much on the training it receives from those here and now who are willing to help another gain eternal life.
To participate in this glorious work gives meaning and purpose, great joy, and eternal blessings each and every day, even as we anticipate the promises of the future.
If you don’t think that will be enough comfort, let me close with this thought by President Brigham Young:
“Let me here say a word to console the feelings … of all who belong to this Church. Many of the sisters grieve because they are not blessed with offspring. You will see the time when you will have millions of children around you. If you are faithful to your covenants, you will be mothers of nations. … and when you have assisted in peopling one earth, there are millions of earths still in the course of creation. And when they have endured a thousand million times longer than this earth, it is only as it were the beginning of your creations. Be faithful, and if you are not blest with children in this time, you will be hereafter.” (In Journal of Discourses, 8:208.)
After reading this article individually or with your spouse, you may want to discuss the following ideas:
In what ways can a couple who have been sealed in the temple feel that they are a family, even in the temporary absence of children?
In what ways can couples who cannot have children structure their lives so they can feel fulfilled?
Elder Oaks tells us that “the Lord will not leave us unassisted when a choice is important to our eternal welfare.” What kinds of important choices must childless couples make?
What can couples with children do to make their childless counterparts feel more a part of the ward family? How can they sensitively include childless couples in their activities?