Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie speaks eloquently about what she calls the danger of a single story. Stereotypes about different cultures thrive, she argues, when one narrative is all we listen to, when one story silences other stories. She uses Africa as an example. When the only story we’ve heard about an entire continent is that they are poor, uneducated, starving, and backward, we create a set of assumptions that render us blind and deaf us to stories that run counter to the dominant one.
I think her point is well-made, and applicable in other settings.
For a long time, I believed in just one story about how to live happily ever after. I would go to college, get married, buy a house, have kids, stay home with them and raise them well. It was the perfect life, and although I wouldn’t have put it in so many words, subconsciously I believed that it was the only way to be happy.
When I stalled out in step 4, I assumed, based on the single story, that I had lost my chance at true happiness and fulfillment. And to be honest, I felt I had also lost my chance to be a really good Christian woman. As the author Rachel Solnit puts it,
Questions about happiness generally assume that we know what a happy life looks like. Happiness is understood to be a matter of having a great many ducks lined up in a row — spouse, offspring, private property, erotic experiences — even though a millisecond of reflection will bring to mind countless people who have all those things and are still miserable…The problem may be a literary one: we are given a single story line about what makes a good life…[w]e speak as though there is one good plot with one happy outcome, while the myriad forms a life can take flower — and wither — all around us.
This idea that form matters more than content, that the titles themselves (wife, husband, mother, father) are more important than the people those titles refer to, is a destructive but widespread mythology in Christian circles. And I get it. As secular culture devalues the roles women play in the home, I understand the church’s reactive tendency to lift up what is denigrated, to show the beauty and value of being a wife and mom. The problem is that the more tightly churches cling to this single story of godly womanhood, the more the women whose lives, for a variety of reasons, don’t fit that storyline, feel like they’re stuck settling for second (or third or fourth or fifteenth) place.
There are many generous and beautiful ways to live. Being a mother is only one of them.
I had no idea that not only would my husband and I be fulfilled and content without children, but that there would also be avenues of happiness open to us that would have been closed had we become parents. I had no idea that it was possible to live sacrificially as a childless person, able to help hundreds of parents raise their children. I had no idea that God could redeem all the broken, weird, confusing parts of my unconventional story and weave it masterfully into the Great Story he is telling through all the lives of his people.
And that’s the biggest danger: that we become so obsessed with living out our own “perfect” plots that we fail to see the story God is telling through us. No human story has been able to provide answers for life’s most difficult but important questions: Where can I find meaning? What does a life add up to in the end? How can I deal with my own brokenness and sinful heart? What about death? Let’s not pretend “happily ever after” is a matter of acquiring certain possessions and titles. Let’s affirm each other’s stories and find the beauty in our own, trusting that God knows what he’s doing.