A Review of
Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Childless Women
Reviewed by Gina Dalfonzo
If childlessness is not exactly a sin in today’s church, for many it’s the closest thing to it. I discovered this as a childless woman working in the Christian pro-family movement for more than twenty years, finding myself looked down upon by the very people whose cause I had made a career out of supporting. When family life is made central to faith, it follows that those without families must have missed their calling.
In such an atmosphere, a book like Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Childless Women is very much needed. Elizabeth Felicetti, like many of us, fully expected that one day she would become a mother; when it didn’t happen, she started thinking about “the ways nonparents offer gifts to the world.” This book is one result of that thinking, a gift to those seeking to understand how the childless, in their own ways, can be generative.
“I wish someone had told me when I was unable to have children, ‘You can build a beautiful, faithful life without children. Look at these Christian women who have done it,’” Felicetti writes in her preface. So she has taken on that important task for the sake of other women who need to hear this truth. Her subjects range from women of the Bible to medieval mystics and monarchs to 19th- and 20th-century activists, all of whom found ways other than motherhood to serve God, family, and community.
Felicetti frames her book with recollections of the Arizona desert in which she grew up—a surprisingly fertile place, thanks to the irrigation ditches that watered the area where she lived. Common stereotypes and misconceptions about all deserts being “barren” lead her naturally to thoughts of her own life as a barren woman—a word she insists on using when others suggest “childfree” instead. “I want to reimagine the word so that ‘barren’ does not mean empty or lacking life,” she explains. “If a desert is barren, I want to be barren too.”
The women whose stories she tells in this book—Mary and Martha, Claire of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Blackwell, Rosa Parks, Dolly Parton, and many more—would have understood this paradox of fertile barrenness. They lived (are still living, in some cases) full lives of work and sacrifice and fulfillment, playing a multitude of vital roles despite having been denied the particular role of mother. Some of those roles involved mother-like nurturing, but some were roles that hardly anyone had imagined a woman could play, such as doctors or, like Felicetti herself, preachers. (She has an un-preacher-like and somewhat jarring habit, though, of scolding God when he doesn’t behave according to her standards!)
Felicetti is particularly good on the subject of biblical women whose stories are rarely taught in church—women like Deborah and Jael, who are never mentioned having or wanting children but are memorialized in the Old Testament as warriors. We tend to hear more about women like Rachel and Hannah, who were granted children after much longing and prayer. While of course those stories deserve to be taught, there’s a lack of balance that hints at skewed priorities—again, the elevating of family life as the highest form of life a Christian could aspire to. And when we’re not hearing about the mothers and would-be mothers, Felicetti points out, we’re often hearing about the Delilahs and Jezebels.
Felicetti doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the actual experience of childlessness for the women she profiles. Rather, she’s inclined, after telling their stories, simply to point out that it was probably because of their childlessness that they had time and energy to do as much as they did. This is true (though she does acknowledge that many mothers manage to do just as much with children), but at times it feels a little reductive to keep coming back to this one point. Information on these women’s thoughts and feelings is lacking in several cases, but when possible I would have liked to see the theme of childlessness, and the way it affected them, woven more organically into their stories.
But just as it is, the book offers valuable resources for a church in desperate need of new paradigms for women who are seeking roles besides that of mother. Readers will never look at the idea of barrenness the same way again, and though we have a long way to go in fully integrating childless women into the contemporary church, that’s a good place to start.
Gina Dalfonzo is the author of Dorothy and Jack: The Transforming Friendship of Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis and One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church (Baker Books) and editor of The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works (Plough Publishing House). She reviews books biweekly at Dear, Strange Things.
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