Listen: Author Steph Penny opens up about her experience of childlessness and shares how you can better support your childless friends
Ten years ago, Steph Penny was told she was “living in sin”.
It was 2010 and Steph was engaged to be married. With her fiancé, she was attending three months of pre-marriage counselling. At this stage in her life, Steph did not have a desire for children.
When she expressed to the pastor that she felt no immediate desire for kids, she was told her indifference towards having children was sinful.
She left that session in tears; little did she know it would be just the start of the pro-child pressure.
“Friends and people at church started asking when we would have kids. Even while we were still engaged,” Steph wrote in her book Surviving Childlessness – Faith and Furbabies.
“They assumed I would become a baby-making machine the instant I got married.”
Friends, who knew of her previous book, Surviving Singledom, started asking her to write about being childless.
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“So I started researching for this book. I discovered a couple of years into our marriage that I had an auto-immune disease and it was during my research that I worked out that my auto-immune disease actually carries a significant risk of miscarriage or of bad pregnancy.”
“We looked into it and we worked out the risk was way too high for us. We decided to remain childless. It was a choice, but it wasn’t really a choice,” she said.
“It was very difficult. We felt like we were backed into a corner, like the choice was effectively taken out of our hands by illness.”
Steph has coined a new term “Childless by Forced Choice” for those who feel the choice to have children has been taken away from them.
As well as sharing her own story, Steph shares the stories of many other couples who are childless, whether due to infertility, age or other circumstances.
“I was amazed by the resilience of these interviewees. A lot of people went through the depths of despair, they were grief-stricken, they were devastated. And somehow they were able to find supportive people, they were able to find reasons to live again, some of them were able to find faith. But they were able to find a way of living with that grief, in a way, not of overcoming it, but of living with it more like a roommate.”
In Australia, one in four women under the age of 45 will not have children. In the UK, it is one in five. In Germany, it is as high as one in three. Yet often the church focuses on families with children at the expense of those who are childless.
In her book, Steph has included a special chapter for family and friends on how to be more supportive of those without children. She also writes about how the church could be more inclusive of childless families.
But what about that tricky question of why God doesn’t answer some people’s prayers to have a child?
“I think what it shows me is how God can be close to us in those times when we most need him, even if he doesn’t answer our prayers. That’s a really tricky area,” Steph said.
“That whole area of prayer is a mystery. This is what I think the church can get better at is sitting with mystery and going, ‘You know what? I don’t understand. But I’m still here for you’.”
Steph Penny’s new book is called Surviving Childlessness – Faith and Furbabies. Listen to her full interview in the player above.