Elizabeth Felicetti—a writer, an Episcopal priest, the rector at a Richmond church, and a cancer survivor—covers a lot of ground in her debut book, Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women Without Children (Eerdmans, Aug. 2023). Her subjects include Miriam the prophet, mystic Hildegard of Bingen, Queen Elizabeth I, Rosa Parks, Dolly Parton, and two notably childless men: Jesus and Pope Francis.

Pope Francis twice warned childless couples who pour their love into pets instead of kids that they are selfish and headed for a lonely, bitter old age. However, when someone blessed his mother, Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Felicetti writes: “Christ here confirms that motherhood is not the sole means of blessedness: rather, our actions in response to God’s word create blessedness.”

Felicetti frequently reexamines words. Childless wives have historically been called “barren,” as if they were deserts, but Felicetti writes about the desert landscape around her native Phoenix teeming with life. Matriarch, to her, includes not only mothers of children but any woman who leads a cause or a tribe or blazes a new path for others. We spoke with Felicetti about Unexpected Abundance, which she calls “the book I wish I could have read before I embraced my own fruitful, childless life.”

You begin with the pope’s comments. Did he provoke this book?

No, although he did irritate and dismay me a great deal. I was working on a different book idea, a memoir, as part of my work for an MFA program in creative nonfiction. My adviser kept highlighting the parts where I talked about not being able to have children. He said, “I think it is important to write a book about childlessness. It has to be written by a woman and it should be you.”

Throughout the book, you point out that with or without children, all women can lead “lives that burst with creativity and influence,” but for those with no children, only their own actions define their identity. Why is this important to note?

I feel like women have really had to fight to show we can be mothers as well as professionals, but we don’t say that children come with costs in addition to fruits. In the past, I have felt inhibited to point out the benefits of childlessness—more time, more flexibility, less fear of risk. With or without children, both ways are fruitful. I want both to be embraced as valid choices. I don’t want to make mothers defensive. I do want to encourage others.

Your book ends with questions keyed to each chapter, such as, “Have you ever interpreted childlessness as divine punishment?” and another asking if someone thinks childlessness is her “cross to bear.” Why such tough questions?

I think questions are the best way adults learn. I take a ton of time with creating questions and they are based on things I have heard and things I know others have heard. When I was interning as a chaplain years ago, I was in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit where a baby was dying. The parents asked me, “Why is God punishing us by killing our child?” I do know that many Christians and some clergy do interpret things this way, but I don’t think that is how God works.