Comforting the Childless

On Sunday Glen and I wrote a post on childlessness. Thank- you to everyone who’s been so supportive and for those who have shared some of their own experiences too: it means a lot.

I’ve been asked to write a bit more on how churches can help those who are struggling with this issue. This is tricky, for a number of reasons.

Every person’s struggle is unique: there can be hundreds of reasons why a couple cannot conceive – many of which are deeply personal.  And whilst we can support them, we can’t make the problem go away.  So, though I’ll make a few practical suggestions (based only on my experience), I’m not speaking for others in a similar position: what helps us may not help them.  Much is common sense  and applies to any pastoral situation. But here’s a few thoughts;

As a Christian, I am part of a family that is called to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 15:13). This goes for whatever is going on in my life – from how I’ll pay the gas bills to the end – and beginnings – of  new relationships.

If for example, you have a friend who’s unemployed and you get a new job, you’ll want to share it with them (and hope that they can rejoice with you).  At the same time, you’ll hopefully be sensitive to their situation – and able to mourn with them.

In the same way, if I can’t have children and a friend gets pregnant, hearing their news might hurt.  I don’t want to hear about 15 new pregnancies in church this week.  I really don’t.  It makes me feel sad and squashed and jealous.   I hope you’ll understand that, and have some sympathy for why. But I also hope you won’t leave me in my sad isolation.

Much as I might like it, I can’t be shielded from relationship or from life .  I’m called to engage with the blessings of others, just as they share in mine – and to mourn with others as they mourn with me.    What’s more, this is actually for my benefit as well as theirs. I need to be in community, even when I tell you – and myself – I don’t want it.  What binds us together are not identikit blessings, but a Saviour who unites us across our differences. As I pray for my pregnant friend and she prays for me, both of us are strengthened.  As we reach out – falteringly – to each other, our friendship is deepened instead of severed.  It’s impossible for me to do this alone, but by the Spirit I can genuinely rejoice in her good news, just as she can weep with me.

Churches are an especially hard environment in which to be childless (and single).  Scripture talks a lot about the blessing of children and it’s a gift that is rightly given a very high status. But this also means that there are lots of pregnant women and lots of families at a typical Sunday service.  If you’re Not Pregnant and you want to be, then there’s no-where to hide. Plus, some events (Mother’s Day, Family Services, Christmas, Parenting courses) are geared to families.

So what’s the solution?  To avoid family fellowship or segregate sections of the congregation? This can’t be right. Painful though it is, we need community and we can’t airbrush our relationships (in the same way as someone recovering from an ED can’t avoid food). It’s  tempting to deal with our  pain by isolating ourselves.  But gospel balm comes through God’s people as well as direct from Him.  The diversity of our fellowship is one of the markers of gospel community – we share our lives and the gifts that God has given us. Here is a place where the childless can share in the families of others, where the widow finds many husbands and the orphans many parents.

One of the interesting things about 1 Samuel 1 is that Penninah envied Hannah’s relationship with her husband and Hannah envied Penninah’s children.  But neither children, nor a husband’s love actually satisfy on the level we deeply desire.  When we’re isolated, it’s easy to think that X or Y – a wife or kids or a car or a job – will make everything better.  But by sharing our lives with honesty and grace, we  can fight the lies which isolate us and make our struggles unbearable. If we foster genuine and honest relationships, we’re less likely to idealise what we don’t have.

Childlessness brings a whole raft of emotions from guilt and shame to anger and desperation.  This is frightening and I need to know that God and His community are honest and strong enough to handle these.  Childlessness is not a special kind of pain that (unlike others) needs kid gloves  – but neither does faith mean smiling through tears and saying ‘I’m fine’, when you really aren’t. More than verses on childlessness, I need to be pointed to the God who understands suffering and is big enough to handle all my pain and rage and sadness.  To the Saviour who shares in my struggles and may not take me out of the furnace, but will be with me in it. To Bible stories of real people facing real losses and crying out for help. To a people who fight for me by praying for me, even if I can’t speak.

Some other practical thoughts:

When it comes to childlessness, don’t assume anything.   That it’s the woman’s ‘problem’, that infertility is a simple biological issue or that the woman feels it more deeply than the man.  (In fact, don’t assume that all women want to be mums either – this is often not the case).

Last year Glen met a minister who asked whether we had kids.  When he said no, the minister joked “Ah, you’ve got time and money instead.”  Glen smiled and responded quietly: “We’d trade it all for kids though.” The minister was slightly lost for words, but I think Glen was right to make this point. There can be an assumption that men don’t particularly want babies and need to be talked (or seduced!) into it by their wives.  Not true.

Please don’t speak for God either – by saying  you feel sure God will give X two baby girls in a year’s time.  How wonderful if this happens – and please pray that it does – but God will do what God will do. In those 12 months, where will the couple be setting their hopes?  Fully on the grace to be revealed? (1 Peter 1:13)  or uncertainly on the prophetic powers of their friend?

Do recognise when speaking and preaching that not everyone can have children (estimates are one in ten ) and that miscarriage is an ongoing pain for many couples, including those who may now have kids. Do provide information on counselling (sex, marriage, relationship) and a factual and straightforward account of the different kinds of fertility treatment that are available.

Christian websites such as can be useful, both for those who are childless or who have lost children. Make an effort to run events for singles or couples without children as well as family ones.  And be especially sensitive on occasions like Mother’s Day – e.g; if you’re giving out flowers, give them to all the women there, not just the ‘mums’.

Most of all, be available to talk and pray.  And keep praying.

13 thoughts on “Comforting the Childless

  1. Another brilliant post, thank you. I loved your and Glen’s insights on 1 Sam 1 as well.

    I resonated with the point that you made about the challenge to celebrate with those who are pregnant. I felt this from the other side: I wasn’t sure if I would be well enough to have children, and was overjoyed when I got pregnant. But because there were friends facing infertility issues, my whole group of friends had a very ‘muted’ celebration with me. I could understand – really understand – why it was painful for those facing infertility to find it difficult to celebrate, but I was gutted that it meant that no-one cheered with me. It is important and a challenge to weep with those who weep – but also a challenge to laugh with those who laugh. One of my friends who had been trying for ages to get pregnant didn’t speak to me for weeks, and I found that very hard. In contrast, another of my friends battling infertility made the time to congratulate me and ask me about it. I could see from her face that she really was happy for me – but I could also see how much it cost her, and I loved her all the more for it.

  2. Tanya – thanks: this is a great inspiration and a challenge, especially when I’m tempted to think there’s just one side of the story. I’m praying that instead of withdrawing and closing down, I too can be like the friend who celebrates and shares.

  3. Dear Emma,

    Thank you for helping me out with these practical tips.

    I especially like the encouragement to share joy and to acknowledge the pain in community.

    I’ll be praying that our church be energised by the gospel of grace to persevere with sharing the good and difficult of life with one another.

    Thanks again,

  4. It’s quite a challenge to read your recent posts on infertility. My wife and I tried for 5 unsuccessful years to have a baby. Callie found it increasingly hard at church to see all the pregnant women who kept popping up, but what can you do. I didn’t find it that easy either. Your post balances the difficulty of being there for each other, whether you’re celebrating or mourning. We’re virtually at the point of being placed with a child for adoption now, but that process hasn’t been easy either. I am really proud with how Callie coped with it all, especially since she is quite a highly-strung woman generally. She really turned to God and her friends to help her. For me it was really important to not let ‘trying for a baby (and failing)’ be the thing that defined us. Can’t say that everything is sorted in my head, but….

  5. David – as you say, there are no simple answers. I’m really sorry it’s been such a long journey for you and Callie, but thrilled to hear about your adoption. We’ll be thinking of you in the weeks and months ahead x

  6. For some who are struggling with infertility it’s too painful to celebrate with those who become pregnant, even if those people have had to wait too. I don’t think that the call to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ is necessarily a command to those who are suffering in something to rejoice with friends who are successful in that very same thing. Obviously, that would be the ideal, but in reality, especially when it comes to childlessness, it is just beyond their strength. When I read a post like T’s (on 10th January), it really upsets me. Of course someone who gets pregnant successfully would wish their friends would rejoice with them, and of course it was big for your friend who was finding it difficult to conceive to say she was pleased for you, but you could have been as good a friend to the other woman – the fact that she didn’t speak to you for two weeks shows something of just how painful childlessness is for her. The pain of ‘not being rejoiced with’ is absolutely nothing compared with the pain of year after year of childlessness.

    The reason I write this is that Emma’s post is so helpful, but to be followed by that first post almost negates its helpfulness. We remain childless, but we have had to deal with many friends becoming pregnant and some being upset that we didn’t ‘rejoice with them.’ It only compounded our grief and made us feel more alone. So I say it again: don’t require those who are mourning over something to rejoice with others about their success in that very same thing – if it’s real mourning, most people can’t. Don’t condemn them, comfort them.

  7. Hi R

    Thanks very much for commenting. So much of what you’ve said resonates – for me, and I’m sure many others. I’ve been struggling with this issue a lot this week and at the moment it feels like an open wound: if anyone goes near I will jump a mile…so at this moment, the goal of rejoicing with pregnant friends feels impossible.

    But …whilst you’re right in saying it is totally beyond our strength, so is the whole Christian life: from forgiveness to the basics of faith. So it’s still my prayer – though what this looks like in practice is a bigger question.

    The reaction of T’s friends highlights this. I can identify much more readily with the friend who says nothing – but my desire is to be the one who can rejoice with her. However,instead of being a judgement on either, it’s my longing for myself.

    In this area as in many others, I’m nowhere near where I want to be: and as you say, compassion rather than condemnation is required. Otherwise we can assume that the one who says something is more godly, when in fact both could be wrestling in faith and prayer before the Lord. But I don’t want to stay where I am either – so I’m caught in that messy place between the practice and the ideal. Some days it feels impossible – some days less so. But in all of this it’s my heart before the Lord that is the most important bit: and this is often unseen. In the same way, as we come prayerfully before Him and His word, our responses can be genuine but also different.

    When writing I’m often formulating what I think as well as articulating it – so I’m very grateful to you and T and everyone else who’s helping me think and feel my way through this.

  8. Simultaneously happy and in tears… is this normal?

    What a post, and the comments too.

    I love Jesus more because of this.

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