I’m a newcomer to the BBC’s wildly popular Downton Abbey, and have worked my way through Season 1 and 2 on DVD. If you haven’t made it through season 2 yet, let this serve as your spoiler alert (but come back and read this post after you’ve caught up on the series).
Toward the end of Season 2, Lady Grantham receives a letter from her daughter Sybil with news that she’s expecting her first child. Lady Grantham is thrilled, but Lord Grantham is not, for the simple reason that he never approved of the marriage between his daughter Sybil and the household’s Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson. He threatens to disown Sybil because of her decision to marry someone outside of her class, but because he really does love her and is generally a decent chap, he softens his stance, and the marriage takes place.
Lord Grantham sounds resigned as he says that Sybil’s fate is sealed now that she’s pregnant, as if before her pregnancy, she could or would have undone her marriage to Tom. Lady Grantham’s response to him is that it wasn’t the pregnancy but the marriage itself that set Sybil’s life on its current course. (She further cements her place as one of my favorite characters by assuring Lord Grantham that she won’t be kept from her first grandchild simply because Sybil’s marriage doesn’t fit with conventions of the day.)
Lord Grantham isn’t alone in his thoughts that children are the cementing element of a marriage. The term “starter marriage” became popular in the late 1990s, and I remember some coworkers teasing a newlywed among us that she could have a starter marriage (as several of them had already had): a short marriage that ended in divorce and never produced children. How sad it is to me that there’s even a term for such a marriage and a prevailing attitude that the end of such a marriage can be taken lightly because it doesn’t matter as much as one that produced children.
On the flip side, there is an attitude that marriage must necessarily provide children. Elizabeth Gilbert writes of this attitude in Committed: “Matrimony carries an intrinsic assumption of motherhood, as though it is the babies themselves who make the marriage” (185).
I understand that marriages typically produce children, but why should any marriage be considered less relevant than any other marriage? And for that matter, why must any single person ever be made to feel “less than” because of not being married?
Not only is there an inherent expectation of marriage and children in our culture, but there is a value judgment we collectively pass about those who don’t follow the same path, as if we know what must be right for every person.
Even some of my friends who are married and have children speak of pressure to have more children. If there’s one child, it’s “When are you going to have a second child?” In some families, two or three children don’t even seem to be enough for other family members and outsiders who ask, “When will you have another?”
Why do you think we can’t just celebrate the joys of where a person is in life instead of always pushing for something next, something else? By refusing to celebrate with others’ choices, the implication becomes that where that person finds him or herself in life at the moment is less than what’s expected; it’s not good enough.
Affirming instead of tearing down
These thoughts all surfaced for me this past Friday while I was out walking with a friend, one of the woman I interviewed for this series. She said she wondered why she felt so energized and happy after our interview and realized it was because she felt affirmed for where she is right now, for the unique role her life is fulfilling, even if it’s different than what others expect.
She said to me, “I may not be somebody’s mom, but I’m somebody’s something,” and that affirmation built her up. She isn’t a mom, but she is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s aunt, someone’s friend. This particular friend, because of her job, is also involved in the lives of lots of children, and she laughingly calls herself the “patron saint of other people’s children.” So she’s also somebody’s patron saint.
My friend brightens someone’s day every single day, simply because of who she is and not because of who she will be some future day.
If you’re struggling with where you are in life, please read these words and believe: you are somebody’s something. You are somebody’s unique something, fulfilling a role and a purpose that only you can.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul – who remained single throughout his life – says he wishes that all would choose to remain single, but he goes on to affirm the life choice of individuals who are called in different ways to serve God: “However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that” (7:7). He goes on to write, “Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk” (7:17).
What if we didn’t try to do God’s job of calling people to roles God hasn’t placed in their lives? Instead, what if we celebrated each others’ gifts and callings? What would the world look like?
Building up and affirming women without children is one of my greatest hopes and goals of this series. But I don’t want the affirmation to stop there. I want each of you reading this blog to know that you are important, that you are fulfilling a role God has uniquely called you to do, and that you are somebody’s something.
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