The Childlessness Omission Exposed in Elder Andersen’s Talk
Elder Andersen did well to acknowledge the vulnerable and privileged decision that couples have in regard to children in the last October conference. He began his talk with the reminder that when and how many children a couple have are “private decisions to be made between a husband and a wife and the Lord.” As a result of this, the talk was bearable. However, he neglected sincere recognition of infertile couples. Like those before him, he swept childlessness with a broom reminder that those who do not have children in this life will do so in the next life, swiftly discarding infertility as a non-topic.
To be clear, I have no intention of marginalising singles in this analysis, but by comparison, Andersen’s diatribe of lower-numbered families at least contained some direction in regard to those who do not marry. His advice to unmarried women was short, but included the terms righteous, noble, and remarkable to describe unmarried, faithful women. Infertile, married couples obtained no acclaim or advice, but for the typical “in the next life” reminder. It is this point that I aim to address.
There are two interesting points about the repetitious “next life” answer that deserve attention. The first is that just after he made this bland and overused statement, he followed with a story of a mission president and his wife who happily adopted children when they appeared old enough to be grandparents. The story implied that if you are righteous enough (mission president and bishop callings) then you will still have children in this life, even if it takes a long time. It is impossible to argue that this was not his intention; the shortness of the “next life” statement followed with a comparatively lengthy story of a couple who had children after a long wait implies that all that is needed to cure childlessness is patience and righteousness. What is more interesting is that the successful adoption story used here is relayed from the perspective of the husband.
The second interesting point is that the “in the next life” line is the reference from the talk. It is from the church handbook of instruction. It is notably NOT from prophets, previous talks, or otherwise. Indeed, the reference is under the subtitle “Unmarried Members of the Church.” This is a powerful symbol of the cultural shame and distinct lack of church-based compassion associated with infertility and childlessness in marriage. Further, he did not give any spiritual guidance for these couples who worked for decades, but are still childless. In doing this, and using a reference that equates singles with childless married couples, he belittles the sealing ordinance between infertile husbands and wives. With so many prophets warning about modern attacks leveled at traditional marriage, this talk by reference attacks marriage by equating childless but sealed couples with those who are unmarried.
The April 2011 Ensign attempted to address the infertility issue with an article titled Faith and Infertility. But, just as Elder Andersen did in his talk, each of the couples highlighted were successful in becoming parents. However, in the electronic version of the Ensign, there is a link to stories of childless couples. All but one of these stories were written by women. Statistically, the numerical contrast of the success story of the mission president recorded in Andersen’s talk and the numerous married but still childless stories by women further infers that successful adoption is more likely when the masculine half of a married couple holds an important calling.
To be fair, one of the couples highlighted in the Ensign link has obtained parenthood, the rest have not. This is an impressive effort on the part of the church, but it still falls short. The childless stories outnumber the four couples highlighted in the print edition of the Ensign and the one successful couple in the additional link. The omission of childless couples in the print edition suggests that the editors of the Ensign were instructed to only emphasise couples who eventually became parents. To continue to omit childless couples from the formal (hard-copy) Ensign exemplifies the inability, shame and systematic ostracising of couples involved in real-time infertility.
The stories of the childless in the Ensign link are heart-felt; all are seeking to become parents in this life. I mean no disrespect to the couples and their pain in the least, but they discuss their pursuit of peace in a manner which they seem sure will result in children. Probably because I recognise my own desire for family, I can’t help but read these stories as though they are advertisements aimed at influencing young, pregnant teens to give them a baby. Because of this sense of advertisment, I question some of the couples’ integrity in submitting their stories to the Ensign. I easily relate to the isolation, awkwardness, and darkness they relay in their childless church experience. In the end, while I agree that the authors of the stories are sincere in their pursuit of righteousness in order to obtain a family, they also express heartfelt unhappiness. If righteousness is supposed to equal happiness, then why are these couples unhappy? It implies that childlessness equally unhappiness. Why am I, one half of a childless couple, assigned to earthy unhappiness? Can’t I be happy, childless and Mormon? Is happiness only found in children? It is evident that Elder Andersen and the Ensign seem to think exactly this.
Before you judge, don’t mistake me for a quitter. My husband and I have visited LDS family services numerous times, in more than just our own country. We have applied for over 100 adoptions. We have had our home, minds and bodies inspected repeatedly, and are deemed suitable potential parents. We have saved money and passed all financial eligibility requirements. We have interviewed as potential parents in three countries. We know that you must convert to Islam in order to adopt from Morocco, that adopting from Mexico is complicated and limited to US citizens and that Russia forbids adoption to perspective parents with any degree of asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, depression, etc. etc. We cried with joy and sadness when we read that Chinese citizens are now allowed to adopt a second child, limiting our chances at international adoption from there. We are well familiar with the limitations and agreements between countries that allow adoption to some, and forbid adoption to others, wholly based on ethnicity. We know the limitations and refusals of socialized medicine and private insurance to cover the needs of some of the children available for adoption. We have found that many children are ineligible for adoption visas because of their medical needs, which means we cannot adopt or take them home with us. We are very familiar with terms like “down-reg”, “flare cycle”, “trigger,” and we know what A.R.T. means.
So far as church rhetoric is concerned, the only thing we are NOT familiar with is joy and happiness, because we still don’t have children. And based on the resources of the church, we will never find true happiness until we die and have a family; indeed, even our temple marriages are somehow ranked as invalid as per Andersen’s reference. When Andersen states that children are a “crowning privilege of a husband and wife,” he further implies that childless couples lack privilege and are less eligible to claim royal, eternal lineage because of mortal circumstance. Further, to assume that a childless life should only be filled with pious suffering (as exemplified in the Ensign) suggests that the atonement does not include the absolution of the pain associated with childlessness. In consideration of these points, it is clear that the church actively teaches that childless couples must wait until the next life for joy, do not have valid eternal marriages, are denied the inheritance promised to those of royal lineage and are denied the healing balm of the atonement.
I reject this.
I am happy. My marriage convent is real. I am blessed and the atonement heals my pain. I can say with confidence that I did everything I possibly could to be a parent. My marriage has been through more than I can ever describe in our attempts to become parents, we are still together, sealed in terms of mortal, eternal and royal lineages. The strength of my marriage is a miracle and I find absolute joy in this miracle. I embrace that parenthood does not appear to be in my Heavenly Parents’ plan for me. I do not find joy in childlessness, but in applying the healing promise of the atonement, I find incomprehensible joy in my life right now. What’s more, unlike Sheri Dew and Ardeth Kapp (both of whom I love) imply when discussing their childlessness, my joy is not limited to my experience with nieces and nephews. The potential for joy is never limited to the potential for us to be able to have, be with or adopt children.
So next time, Elder Andersen, rather than feeding childless couples with the stock “in the next life” phrase and then use the church handbook for reference because you do not understand childlessness, would you quote me? Because I am taking my joy back. It was always wrong to assume that you or undeveloped church ideology had the right to withhold joy from me. So please, this is my quote. Study it. Learn it. Apply in your life:
Childless couples can celebrate that they worked undeniably and passionately hard to become parents. In this, your time of patience, “possess ye your souls.” (Luke 21:19) Protect your marriage from influences that seek to destroy your eternal commitment to each other. Know that even though mortal parenthood might not happen, when we trust the Lord, all of our pain is absorbed by Christ through His Atonement. In embracing the Atonement in your lives, righteous, childless couples will have absolute joy in this life, as well as in the eternities. Be assured that much love and joy will be yours upon the earth, just as was promised to all of us in the Garden (2 Nephi 2:25).
What other rethorical omissions did you note in Andersen’s “Children” talk?