This article is part of an ongoing series on Pravoslavie.ru on family life, by Fr. Andrei Ovchinnikov.
“If you care about your salvation,
Prove it by deeds, not by words.”
St. John Chrysostom
Today I would like to speak to the ladies. I will try to give practical advice on the theme: “woman and children”. I will warn you from the very beginning that it is not for all. I expect criticism and disagreement. But perhaps some will listen to me and try to look at their lives in the light of reflection on the suggested subject.
1. The life of a woman should be connected with children
This is my first statement, or, to be more exact, thesis dictated by my life. With what children? Her own children? Not necessarily. I mean children in general. All the more so when a woman has remained single, has not become a mother and has not given birth to any children. It would be advisable for each girl to think about this thoroughly in her youth: “What if I am never to become a mother?” However, the average woman does not think about it at all. Likewise, hardly anybody will think about which cemetery he will be buried in one day. We tend not to talk about the site of our future interment—all of us want to live long and happy lives on earth… It has been observed that the sorrows that we are not prepared for and try to distance ourselves from are the most difficult for us to endure. Childlessness is usually taken as a very unexpected and severe trial that a girl has never thought of before. For some reason most ladies are confident that they will marry, be very happy in their marriages and will certainly have the joy of motherhood. But dreams like these do not always come true. We can never know what lies in store for us.
In my view, the main difference of modern women from women of earlier times is best revealed in their attitude towards children. Having children is not their highest ambition any more; the birth of a child is no longer a happy event, and child rearing is taken as an unavoidable obligation. Today women are mostly preoccupied with their jobs, successful careers, and material well-being. Many of them feel happier at work, in company with their colleagues, than at home with babies in their arms or in the kitchen in their dressing gowns. It is obvious that the most important values and principles, given in the Holy Scriptures, are being erased from their consciousness. A good indicator is the professions and occupations that most modern women opt for: banking, tourism, personal business, scientific work, travelling on business abroad, and even politics. These are the widespread yearnings of many girls and young women nowadays. However these sorts of activities will hardly ever give them inner satisfaction and make them happy. Not all will give up such ambitions and resist such temptations as living “in high style”, being rich, being “stylish and modern”, having powerful friends and lots of admirers…
It is sad that work with children is not the fashion any more, and fewer and fewer women are willing to devote their energies to children. I often see the faces of teachers when I pick my kids up from school. Most of them are middle-aged and elderly ladies. And as a rule their faces are radiant and kind, and they speak smoothly and calmly. Young teachers are different. They are normally strict, competent, and have great command over themselves. They are actually very good… But they still lack the heartfelt warmth and worldly wisdom that come only after many years of work at school and which are so necessary for kids and their parents… A lady teacher will always find herself and reveal her best qualities in her work; or, to be more precise, her ministry.... It is a sad observation of our days that the children of those people who have devoted their lives to teaching are far from ideal. The time that they spend at schools has a negative effect on their own families. Educators invest their energy in schoolchildren and give them their love, whereas they give just a tiny bit of attention to their own kids at home. Therefore let us pray for our first teachers, tutors and educators (the people who did much to shape our lives and develop our personality) immediately after our confessors and parents in our private prayers every day. The work of female schoolteachers is very important and vital; the best of women’s qualities and virtues manifest themselves in it. Such women soften with time, they become kinder and humbler. The reason is frequent contact with children and closeness to them. Women do need it; this is actually what they were made for. Children are a “domain” which requires the presence of a woman, including an unmarried woman. Of course, not only school is fine for women. It is always so wonderful when a girl wants to become a pediatrician or a nurse in a maternity home, a preschool teacher, a child psychologist, or a speech therapist. In a word, women and children, even in professional activity, are inseparable.
2. It is better for an unmarried woman to be with another family
For example, with the family of one of her siblings. As is generally known, aunts can have the most positive influence on their nephews and nieces. The help of another woman is indispensable in a family with many small children. If your sister looks after the house, it has advantages as compared with the work of a nanny, or a mother-in-law who sometimes tries to be a dominating figure in the family. A friendly atmosphere and peace at home are so important, when there are no conflicts and heated arguments over trifles. Sisters will always have something to talk about and find a “common language” in the kitchen. It will be a good option for an unmarried young woman from a large family. As a rule, one of the siblings in such families remains single and lives together with the family of her nephews and nieces. For example, in the my wife’s family, her uncle was single all his life. According to my spouse, her uncle Vasya [a diminutive form of the Russian name Vasily] reared and took care of his two nephews and two nieces for twenty years. This life in the family of his brother helped him, a man, preserve his chastity and invest his pedagogical abilities in the children he loved. If this helped a man, then it must help an unmarried woman, too. However, in order to live in the family of your sibling you need to have sufficient patience, humility and industriousness. And your presence should be deemed welcome in this family.
3. Adoption of a child
I mean adoption of or care for a child by an unmarried woman. Are you full of indignation and disagree? You argue that a child should be raised and cared for by a two-parent family, where there is a man who is the breadwinner and father! Yes, that is the ideal situation, I don’t dispute that. But today we are speaking about a different thing: namely that a woman feels bad without children. Realizing this, different single women without children behave differently in this situation. Let us talk about two variations of women’s behavior.
3.1. “To give birth to a child for myself”
Words like these make me “feel creepy all over”, as the saying goes. And what about you? It is not pleasant to hear them, and it is yet more unpleasant to observe this in life. Unfortunately, I have seen this phenomenon many times. It is “technically” very easy to do it. There are more than enough “candidates”, all the more so because sometimes this excuse for a future mother will not expect any help from the man… They often prefer to get pregnant by married men, and they choose a suitable candidate using the criteria for stud horses. What they take into account is children—legitimate natural children of such men. If children of “a stud horse” are beautiful and healthy, and he has nothing against cheating on his wife with someone else, then the conception of a baby is a matter of time. Some Orthodox women resort to this trick as well. When such a woman is preparing to “put her plan into action”, her conscience is lulled and she forgets any idea of sin. She gets absolutely enslaved by her egoism, which dictates her “animal” desire: “I want a baby (at any cost)!!!” At that moment all persuasion is unavailing, appealing to her conscience and reminding her of the Last Judgment are absolutely ineffective. The passion and folly darken her reason and mind. Reminding her of our dignity as Christians and the need of purity of life is like “banging your head against a brick wall”. You get added evidence that sin rules over people, blinds them and makes them lose their bearings.
It is noteworthy that men and women react to the sin of fornication in different ways. For a guy this sin is “a common occurrence”, especially when he is on a business trip, vacation or “in his cups”. It is commonly followed by consciousness of his guilt, the feeling of remorse, self-loathing, and the “dirty pig and beaten dog syndrome”. During confession there are two widespread causes for surprise:
- The man is surprised at being asked by a priest about fornication, “because almost all people commit it, and so does he”;
- The priest is surprised to learn when a strong adult male has remained chaste and free from the sin of fornication.
But the “repentance” of lonely women who wanted to become pregnant through sin is different. We can classify them into two types. Women from the first group can be called “unlucky fornicators”: they couldn’t become pregnant and thus attain the aim. These women not only acknowledge this sin during confession, but also grumble about their lives and their “infertile partners”. Women from the other group can be dubbed “lucky girls”. Not only do they come to “repent” of their sin of fornication, they also hurry to share the “happy news” of their excuse for motherhood with a priest. Once a woman became pregnant with twins “for herself” and I was the first person to learn about this. And now let us consider a situation where there is no sin, but there is the blessing of God.
3.2. To adopt a child
A child who will the very soon become beloved. But a woman needs to feel like it, to believe and begin to pray for it. This prayer will surely be answered. The main thing is to know and fulfil God’s will. There are unmarried young women in our parish church who got tired of waiting and resolved to act, with the blessing of their confessor. So we have decided that they should attend courses for foster parents. They will start training, listening to the advice of doctors and psychologists, closely communicating with parents of adopted children and, of course, praying more fervently to God. It is advisable to ponder over this and not to hurry. “The will of God is revealed with your patience,” our holy elders used to say. One has to read a special daily prayer rule for knowing the will of God in this extremely important matter. These courses do not commit the girls to anything. Upon the completion of the courses any of them may adopt or not adopt a child—and it will be an act of good faith. Any of them can make up her mind to do it, but it must be done with faith, with the determination to warm a child’s soul with love, to become a true mother for a baby. What really matters to God is the right state of heart and our role in someone else’s life, not least the life of a child. For Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless… in their affliction (Jam. 1:27). The practice of child adoption (including that by unmarried women) is very ancient. This can be seen, for example, in the Instructions of Abba Dorotheos. Though little girls were adopted not only by pious maidens for a Christian upbringing, but also by harlots who taught them their satanic trade (see more in Abba Dorotheos’ Sixth Instruction: That We Should not Judge Our Neighbor). To tell the truth, there are still very few single women who adopt somebody else’s children, but they do exist. In such cases the consent of all family members is necessary, and I think that is fair. Not only the new mother, but also her parents will be obliged to take care of an adopted child. And it is usually a heavy burden for elderly people to set small children on their feet.
I am going to conclude here without giving any final judgment. I will leave it to our readers interested in this theme to make the decision independently, but it will be a responsive decision. I don’t think there is an unequivocal answer to this question: to adopt or not to adopt a child. And hardly anybody has a moral right to impose his answer on somebody else. According to your faith be it unto you (Mt. 9:29)…
Our talk is nearing its end. Today I have offered my reflection on the women who have not experienced the joys of motherhood. Their lives are full of hardships, but they are not losing faith and hope, because women are called to be wives and mothers. Woman’s heart was made for love—a pure and self-sacrificial love. In my opinion, this love is best manifest towards children. Any woman displays her best qualities near children; she feels needed and can use her abilities and knowledge to the utmost. And children who need affection and help are numerous. They are near us and are waiting for us. You shouldn’t lose heart if you have never had a family and your dream has not yet come true. You shouldn’t give up; instead, you need to trust God and act. Let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 Jn. 3:18). And if a woman learns to love through children, then why can’t she be saved?