This article was co-authored by Megan Hershey, a professor of political science
A note: though what we discuss in this article can apply to both men and women, we have found that we, as women, encounter these questions more often than our male peers. But this is merely our experience. Your perspective might be different.
I am single. I am over the age of 30. I may have a cat living at my house (it’s my roommate’s! I promise!). Why is this relevant? And did you find it strange that my first identifying characteristic is my marital status?
I visited a church last week, and while looking at the information card they wanted me to fill out, I noticed something: in addition to my name, address, phone number and email, the church wanted to know whether or not I was married or single, how old I was, and how many kids I had.
Oh…now I’m starting to see what might be going on here. Could the church (and society) condition me to think of my primary identity in terms of singleness? Being single is often viewed as some kind of disease to be cured — a temporary state. But what if it’s not? What if — by accident or design — I never marry? And given the ratio of single women to single men in the church, this is a very real possibility. I am OK with this. Yes, if circumstances are right, I would be happy to marry. But I have also come to the point in my life (and my relationship with God) in which I will also be okay if I don’t marry. I can’t deny there are some great things about being single.
But I also would like the church to recognize that being single is not my primary identity. Nor am I somehow incomplete without a spouse.
Finally, a word about Facebook (it’s relevant, I promise!). When you list your relationship status as “single,” the ads are for dating sites. When you specify you’re in a relationship, you get jewelry ads for engagement rings. After you marry (so I hear), then you might get ads for Babies ‘R Us. There is always something that society tells us will make us complete people — and it’s never where we are. What’s wrong with this picture?
…and start a family?
As a married woman in my early 30s, this is a question I often face, whether someone poses it explicitly or society asks it implicitly. As a Christian woman, the church provides me with additional pressure to reproduce. This pressure is often fully incorporated into our church practices.
One of the ways this pressure manifests itself is through evangelical churches’ exclusive definition of “family.” We are told that the family is the most important institution in our society, that it provides the foundation for our culture. Yet “family” almost always refers to the traditional nuclear unit of a (married) mom and dad with children.
Well-meaning people often ask married women when they will “start a family,” as if one’s spouse doesn’t count as family. Worse still are the similar comments about family directed at singles that reveal the asker’s assumption that singles are family-less orphans, floating through life without anyone with which to spend the Christmas holidays. Family, it seems, is unattainable for the single or the couple who has chosen not to have children (or, chosen not to have them yet). The addition of children to a couple justifies the use of the label “family.” And children go on to play a starring role in the meaning of the word; the phrase “family-friendly,” for example, refers directly to an event’s suitability for children.
This limited definition of family does two things. First, it insinuates that one type of family is the best, or the most desirable. Second, it creates an unnatural division between members of the church by sorting them according to their family type. To pull out a Christianese phrase, aren’t we all part of God’s family? If singles and couples without children are to be welcomed as integral members of the church, they must be accepted as they are — without the expectation that they will morph into a different family structure — and they must be recognized as no less important than the church members who are part of mom+dad+children groupings.
Join us for our next Coffee Talk at 10 a.m. on March 2 at Indaba Coffee, where we'll talk about how gender equality is handled in faith communities.