Jana Kaye Gering is an artist living in Seattle. You should snag one of her remaining two caustic pieces at her Etsy store.
Every once in a while, I listen again to a lecture given at a chapel service in 1982 at Seattle Pacific University. Madeleine L’Engle’s voice is clear and strong, speaking through my computer speakers 30 years later.
In a chapel talk titled “The Answer is 42” she talks about the unchanging nature of God, in contrast to the temporary and fluctuating human understanding of who He is over the centuries.
“I don’t really understand how there can be any honest conflict between science and religion,” she says “because whatever science can discover can only open us up more to the marvels of creation and the Creator. Of course some of these marvels can force us to change perspective.” Galileo rocked the foundations of the church when he proposed his theory that the earth was not the center of the universe.
In Madeleine’s world, it seems that God is not as mysterious as we like to pretend. The mystery comes from our changeable, temporary, timebound perspectives coming into context with the unchanging nature of the I AM.
I find this comforting, probably because I am a mass of ideas and insecurities, all of which get communicated through a filter of emotion. I am changeable; that is constant. “You remind me of Iceland,” A friend told me recently, “I think that it’s beautiful you can feel all of that.”
The volatility doesn’t feel good, though. I’ve been struggling with the same questions of purpose since childhood, and I haven’t made any headway. It gets frustrating, and like Iceland, fire and steam are close to the surface. I change my mind about how I feel on any given topic depending on the day, the mood, how I slept, and maybe what color I’m wearing that day.
Some people seem so clear on purpose; I never felt that certain. I was an undecided major in college until the last possible moment. I’ve changed careers 3 times since college; teaching, management, project management, editorial. Over a six-month stint of unemployment this summer, I battled to decide what to do next, and ended by accepting the first job offer I received. I work hard at it, and I’m glad to have it, don’t get me wrong.
I wanted to believe there was some purpose to unemployment; that it would end up being meaningful to be off work for six months, that I would magically figure out what I wanted to do and magically find a job that would pay me to do it.
The company that laid me off said “We want to help you find something you like. Choose what you want to do, and we’ll help you get there.”
And I cried and tortured myself for months, trying to “just pick something.” Should I go back to school? Should I go back to teaching? Should I focus on art, writing? Should I just try to get a day job that doesn’t require so much of my brain? How do I make a living at whatever I decide? I never did reach a conclusion. I accepted the jobs as they came along, to avoid bankruptcy and homelessness.
Some of the trouble is, I know what I think I want. There’s a deep struggle going on that has been one of the only constants of the past decade-plus: I believe that in purpose and design, my skills, talents, and heart all combine around loving and building a family and a home.
Problem: I don’t have one.
To tell the truth, I feel really lame and pathetic about this desire for family. I really don’t know what to do with it. That useless desire just sits here in the living room of my life like an uncomfortable sofa, taking up space and not being useful at all. It weighs me down. If God meant me to be single this long, why do I want something different at all?
I know many homemakers who feel trapped, isolated, and like their creative talents are going dormant and unrecognized. They struggle with irrelevancy, just like I do. Perhaps there’s something about us that always desires what we do not have, telling us, as C.S. Lewis, said that we were “made for another world.”
The world that pays me tells me that I should want a career. That I should bulk up on being thick-skinned and analytical, learn to do public speaking, get out and network with other career-oriented people, focus on ROI, KPI, budgets and quarterly market-share. That I should be happy about meeting goals and punching out to-do lists and inbox zero, that I should relish coming into an office for 8 hours a day, going home to a cold house to make my own dinner, and rest peacefully to get up and do it all again the next day.
At the same time, the people I respect most in the world acknowledge that none of that matters as much as the people they love and hold dear. Reading a book by a dear, favorite poet of mine (who also delivered Madeleine L’Engle’s eulogy, as a dear friend), in her recent book of meditations on the close of life, acknowledges how none of her career successes mattered as much as being a mother.
Many of my other favorite writers, friends, and leaders are mothers, and they would all (rightly) say similar things. That stings. Nothing in life is as important as loving and being loved, knowing and being known. They wouldn’t trade motherhood for anything.That thought breaks my heart.
There are, in fact, a lot of stings in being an older single with a heart longing for family.
When people talk about marriage and family the same way they talk about graduating from high school or college; as if it’s a given. It isn’t a given. I can talk about college and classes and professors and dorm life. I could very easily take it for granted. But I know very well that I am among the first in my family generations to have the wide advantages of a liberal arts education. I know going to a university—a private one, at that— was a deep privilege that most of the world doesn’t have. If you are in a healthy marriage and/or have healthy kids, it hurts when you denigrate those deep privileges down to banality. Acknowledge that what you have is special, and worth celebrating (which is different than bragging about it (#blessed) or hiding behind a happy mask. Of course it’s ok to talk about the heartaches and hardships of family life; but don’t forget that your life is a gift.
I’m 35. I’m now older than my mother was when she had her youngest child. My chances of being a mother reduce by the minute. At this age, all pregnancies will be classed as high-risk ( I know this through friends who have walked this road), even were I to meet the man of my dreams tomorrow, and get married the day after, and get pregnant the day after that. I hate that this gets reduced and ridiculed in popular culture to “biological clock” and “baby-crazy”. It’s one of the acceptable ways left to marginalize and ridicule women; this patronization around longing for children.
Those of us who are barren either through infertility or through singleness are sometimes battling a deep mourning, but one that feels unacceptable to acknowledge. People are either uncomfortable with it, or patronizing about it. The church, especially.
The church seems to respond to singleness and infertility like the nuns in the Sound of Music: “how do you solve a problem like Maria?” The answers are similar too: first answer is usually to throw her to the children, have her volunteer at sunday school or youth group for years on end. She’s obviously got the time, and it’s so nice to give the mothers a break. So she spends her life coaching and teaching other people’s children, isolated from acceptance into the adult community.
Other answers range from dedicated meat markets (ahem—singles groups), to dating conferences (complete with single-mingles), online dating, awkward set-ups. Basically the answer is to get Maria married off somehow, so she’s off the church’s conscience. Singleness makes things awkward. Meeting with pastors is tricky, since they don’t like to be seen with single women for obvious reasons. I feel dangerous to the church, an outsider, an unknown quantity.
Church, if you ever find out, let me know how you solve me. I’ll be here.
Our faith is that the universe is God’s, that we are God’s. Exactly how he manages that is his business.
My faith is not in how, but who.
So maybe the fact that I don’t know how or why my life is the way it is is ok. I do know who. And I know he is trustworthy. And that is, almost literally, everything I know about life right now.