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What Not to Say to Childless Couples

Because our church places paramount focus on the family, it can be easy for couples without children to feel left out. Especially when, after years of countless appointments, invasive tests, and expensive surgeries and treatments, infertile couples sometimes must accept that they will not have the opportunity to be parents in this lifetime.

For some childless couples, even adoption and foster parenting are pursued without success, and it becomes apparent that our Father in Heaven has something else in mind. The decision to trust in Heavenly Father’s plan and to move forward in faith with a childless life as guided by the Spirit eventually provides a renewal of hope and joy—but childless couples may still be vulnerable to the grief and pain of an unrealized desire for children.

Being childless in the Church isn’t often or openly discussed, and it can be hard to have a conversation (especially a first one) with a childless couple without feeling awkward or inadvertently saying something hurtful or inappropriate. From four childless women who have heard it all, here are our top 10 things not to say to a childless couple (or either spouse), and some ideas for what you could say instead.

1. “So, why don’t you two have kids?”

While inquiring if a couple has children is perfectly reasonable, when the answer is no, please don’t follow it with “Why?” The “whys” are emotionally and physically painful, always extremely personal, and make a couple feel very uncomfortable as they try to justify why they are in a situation that is not the “norm.” If someone says they don’t have children, leave it at that unless they volunteer more information.

2. “Isn’t it about time you made someone/me a grandparent?”

Childless couples often (though wrongly!) carry incredible guilt over the inability to create fathers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Reminding them that they are “depriving” others of anticipated joy is hurtful and reinforces a destructive sense of guilt and inadequacy.

While talking about the pain and sadness that childlessness might bring to a whole family, it is important to remember that nothing compares to the pain a couple feels. Instead of focusing on what the couple can’t bring into a family dynamic, it helps to focus on what they can bring, like meaningful relationships with other family members in the extended family. Focusing on the positive instead of the negative helps the childless couple and, importantly, their family members realize that there can be contentment in a life without children or grandchildren.

3. “Have you thought about adoption?”

This is undoubtedly the most common comment childless couples hear. Assuming that adoption hasn’t been considered makes the childless couple feel like the individual is suggesting they haven’t looked into every possible solution or that it isn’t important enough to investigate every option.

Adoption is far from an “easy fix.” Many childless couples have broken their hearts and their bank accounts pursuing this option. There are many reasons a couple might take adoption off the table. The most important reason is personal revelation, but there are also other things to consider: finances, health issues, stable employment, age, and many other factors.

When speaking to a childless couple, it’s best to assume that they most definitely have considered adoption, researched it, and prayed about it—because we have. Instead of jumping to the suggestion of adoption, consider a softer comment like, “It’s a big decision. I am sure you’ve explored all the options.” This gives comfort and validation to the childless couple and often initiates trust and further conversations.

4. “But the reason we are here on this earth is to have children!”

Except that it isn’t. We are here to gain a body, to be tested and tried, and learn to become like our Savior. Childless couples know all too well the limitations of physical bodies and the tests and trials of mortality. Please be especially careful when you say this in a gospel setting. Comments such as “My children picked me in the pre-mortal existence,” or, “The only thing that matters in life is our children,” imply that those without children aren’t serving any purpose here in mortality. We are all deeply loved by our Father in Heaven. His love is unconditional, and His knowledge is perfect. The mission He has for some of His children here on Earth has nothing to do with parental status.

5. “If you just pray (fast, go to the temple, stay faithful, etc.), you’ll be blessed with children.”

These kinds of statements mistakenly equate a lack of faith with childlessness or righteousness with having children. Often when you hear of childless women in the scriptures, you learn that, as a result of their faithfulness, they are blessed with children—even in old age. In many people’s minds, because of these well-known examples, there is the assumption that if a childless woman is faithful, she will receive the blessing of a child. But there are also the lesser known examples: Deborah in the Old Testament and, more recently, Eliza R. Snow and Ardeth Kapp who were and are faithful, childless women.

As childless couples, we try to incorporate the Lord in this very difficult decision. The decision to live life as a childless couple is made with fasting, praying, priesthood blessings, temple attendance, and faith. As childless couples, we learn very early to trust in the Lord’s timing for our lives. Sometimes this is a difficult concept to come to terms with when having a child is a righteous desire. In our communing with the Lord, we eventually find that sometimes the answer to even righteous desires is no.

6. “Well maybe if you try . . . ”

Childless couples have tried it all! They have done hours and hours of research and consulted for years and years with medical professionals. In the vast majority of cases, persistent infertility cannot be cured by relaxing, taking vacations, herbal supplements, alternative therapies, or anything else. Childless couples have made a very difficult decision as spouses and with Heavenly Father; they have moved on from pinning all their hopes on a “miracle” baby by birth or adoption to embracing life as a family of two. Acceptance and support for who and where they are now, as well as all they have to offer, is needed and appreciated. Chastisement for “giving up” is not.

7. “What do you do with all your time?”

Often parents whose lives are filled with soccer games, dance lessons, homework, and various other child-centered activities can’t imagine what a childless couple might fill their time with. Childless couples fill their days quite readily with careers, schooling, Church callings, volunteering, and running a household. If anything, they tend towards overfilling their plates as a coping mechanism.

While childless couples can be very busy, we also recognize that we are lucky enough to have spare time for ourselves and our spouses—a luxury that parents might not have. Couples without children don’t expect those with children to apologize for the blessings that come with parenthood, so please don’t make childless couples feel they must apologize for or explain the blessings of travel,  sleeping through the night, or white carpet!

8. “You wouldn’t know; you don’t have kids.”

This comment has a particular sting, as it implies that children are required for empathy and understanding. Childless people often have extensive experience with and knowledge of children, including years of schooling, research, and daily hands-on work that parents may not have. They may also be caretakers, aunts or uncles, Primary or youth teachers, Scout leaders, and of course, all of them were children themselves once.

Asking for an opinion or advice from a childless person can provide some unique and valuable insight from a different perspective. Very often the childless couple may have a suggestion or course of action that the parent might not have thought of because they are so close to the situation. By asking the advice of a childless woman, you validate her as a woman and a mother in Zion. Few things heal the broken heart of a childless woman quite as well as valuing her perspective and opinion on child-rearing.

9. “Don’t worry; you can borrow my kids!”

This comment not only devalues the blessings of parenthood but also implies that “borrowing” children would resolve the grief of infertility. Not wanting to “borrow” children, however, does not necessarily mean not enjoying being around them.

Some childless couples are in a place of healing where they can interact and be around children, but some aren’t. Baby showers, baby blessings, children’s birthday parties, and the like can be salt in an open wound. Childless couples appreciate thoughtful invitations to child and family events, but please let them know they can decline or leave early without giving offense. Allowing childless couples to heal at their own pace shows great support and compassion and can be very helpful to them while working through their grieving process.

10. “But you’d have made such great parents!”

Childless couples have spent years planning and hoping and wishing for a child, picking out baby names, painting nurseries, and putting plans in place. They have read all the books and gone to the classes—they know they would have made great parents and have agonized over why they never got the chance to prove it. But, they have also been through the refiner’s fire. They are strong, compassionate, and empathetic. They have learned to adapt and are willing to serve. They will be great— in whatever capacity the Lord has chosen for them.

At the heart of all childless couples is a yearning to be accepted and loved for who they are, not who they are not. We aren’t looking for a solution to our childlessness, and often a hug can mean more than words. Once a couple has prayerfully decided to live a childless life, they experience an extreme sense of loss and grief. The process to find joy in childlessness is very personal, and we all heal in our own time. The desire for a child never goes away, but with the help of the Lord, the kindness and understanding of friends and family, the acceptance and sensitivity of Church members, and the support of a loving spouse, childless couples can find joy and fulfilment in the path the Lord has chosen for them



For more information, visit the Childless Mormon Support group online or on Facebook.

See this article in the May/June 2014 issue of LDS Living.