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Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women Without Children

“Women have been fruitful matriarchs for millennia, including those of us who never gave birth,” Elizabeth Felicetti writes in her new book reviewed by Elizabeth B. Dickey.

Elizabeth Felicetti
Eerdmans, 176 pages | Published August 22, 2023

Only a creative and imaginative author would spend most of a chapter comparing Dolly Parton with Hildegard of Bingen. In Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women without Children, Elizabeth Felicetti beautifully describes this unlikely pair — both use their music to express a strong faith in God and influence others, and both had extraordinarily creative and productive careers while never having children.

The theme of Felicetti’s book is the strong sense of meaning that women without children can find in their lives. She opens with a recent statement from Pope Francis criticizing couples who choose to be childless, then recounts her experiences with not having children: the anguish caused by church members’ painful questions, pressure from her father, who told her she needed to give her husband a child, and the spiritual struggle of reading stories of biblical women who prayed and became pregnant. Felicetti, an Episcopal priest, also prayed, and when she did not become pregnant, she wondered if God had forgotten her.

She explains with great poignancy, “I wish someone had told me when I was unable to have children, ‘You can build a beautiful, faithful life without children. Look at these Christian women who have done it.’ … I have written the book I wish I could have read as I embraced my own fruitful, childless life.” She starts with stories of biblical leaders such as Miriam, Deborah and Esther, matriarchs who were not mothers, as well as medieval mystics such as Julian of Norwich and Catherine of Siena, whose prolific writings on the love of Jesus Christ remain today. “(T)hese women chose to serve God by prayer, Christian leadership, and writing, and their fruits come down to us in ways they may not have had they (married and had children).”

Felicetti’s storytelling follows a pattern: she recounts the accomplishments of women (such as Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, Dorothea Dix, Rosa Parks, and several prominent contemporary clergywomen) and concludes that they might not have achieved as much as they did if they had had children. She writes of Parks, “(n)ot having children might have given her the power needed to change the world,” imagining that a mother might be less able to risk her personal safety. The book’s weakness is the repeated speculation about what might have happened if these women had had children, which becomes predictable.

That does not detract, however, from the many merits of Felicetti’s book. She provides fine miniature biographies of women such as Blackwell and Dix, who are no longer as well-known as they deserve to be, and of clergywomen who may be unknown to anyone outside the church. Even stronger is Felicetti’s focus on inspiring child-free women, whom the church has too often overlooked. “Women have been fruitful matriarchs for millennia, including those of us who never gave birth,” she writes. Telling these stories expands traditional definitions of being blessed.

Felicetti writes to comfort and inspire those neglected. We can only hope that pastors and other church leaders who read this book will feel called to end the neglect.

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