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Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women without Children

Elizabeth Felicetti
Published by Eerdmans in 2023

In the Acknowledgements of Unexpected Abundance: The Fruitful Lives of Women without Children, author and Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti thanks her agent for something that writers usually dread: a rejection. That initial rejection came alongside an encouraging request for Felicetti to reach out again if she ever decided to write a different book, a book on childlessness, which at that time wasn’t even started, but a possible future title Felicetti had listed in her original book’s proposal.

It is fitting that Unexpected Abundance was born of a “no,” as it’s a book that, like the gospel itself, turns a common worldview upside down.  It’s also fitting because the book’s topic was born out of a “no” answer when it came to having children. Felicetti writes vulnerably in the book’s first chapter of her unfulfilled desire to have children. “Like Hannah,” she writes, “I prayed fervently for a baby.  But I was never able to cut a deal with God that worked like hers did.” 

Shortly after her fortieth birthday, one that Felicetti recalls as particularly difficult, she went back to visit her family in Arizona where she had been raised. As she saw the “saguaro stretching their arms to the blue sky,” abundant wildflowers, and many varieties of hummingbirds, she realized, “If all this desert life meant being barren, I realized, then perhaps I wanted to be barren, too.”

Though friends flinch and beg her to use the term childfree instead of barren, Felicetti’s book reclaims the word: “I want to reimagine the word so that ‘barren’ does not mean empty or lacking life.” Part memoir, part theological dive, part history lesson, Unexpected Abundance brings to light the lives of “twenty-five women who generated life without giving birth,” which is the result of scrupulous research woven with Felcietti’s narrative, which is personal, vulnerable, and, oftentimes humorous. (Read to discover which of St. Augustine’s quote irritates her, the story of a painful responsive reading of the not-very-nice Psalm 109, and why it’s a bit head-scratching why the “preachers quickest to condemn Martha…are men who rarely help to prepare or to clean up” at any church gathering.)

Felcetti’s survey ranges from Old Testament matriarchs Miriam, Deborah, and Esther to childless composers Dolly Parton and Hildegard of Bingen and childless Christian activists Sister Helen Prejean, Rosa Parks, and Dorthea Dix.  While delving into each woman’s story, Felicetti walks a delicate line of celebrating their stories without idealizing them.  And while each chapter examines the stories of women who broaden our understanding of the command, “Be fruitful and multiply,” Felicetti’s own story is also woven through the pages. In a chapter on barren medieval mystics and writers, we learn of criticism she received for stressing love over fear; in a chapter on childless medical professionals, we learn of her own relationship with doctors and nurses due to back-to-back cancer diagnoses; and in a chapter on childless Christian clergy, we learn about her journey to ordination.

Unexpected Abundance is a fascinating, eye-opening, and transformational book for all readers—not just women and not just women without children.  By zooming in on the lives of twenty-five women whose lives were not defined by motherhood, our understanding and appreciation of not just these women but all women grows. The book fulfills Felicetti’s desire at the beginning of the book to write the book she wishes she could have read years earlier:  “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.’”

Dana VanderLugt

Dana VanderLugt lives in West Michigan with her husband, three sons, and spoiled golden retriever. She has an MFA from Spalding University and works as a literacy consultant. Her novel, Enemies in the Orchard: A World War 2 Novel in Verse, released in September 2023.  Her work has also been published in Longridge Review, Ruminate, and Relief: A Journal of Art & Faith. She can be found at and on X @danavanderlugt.


  • June Huissen says:

    What a great review. As a mother, grandmother and great gram your review makes me want to read the book. And what great timing as the Hallmark holiday celebrating mother’s is this coming Sunday.
    June Huissen

  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you, Dana. It’s your embodiment and nuance of humility that leads us never into the reviewer using the book to display arrogant intelligence but into an understanding of the value and breadth of the book and the worthwhile and brave work of discovery that went into the book. I never lose my impatience with the common invasive “welcome to the neighborhood “ inquiry, “Do you have children?”
    I want to be a Grampa. Our daughter teaches elementary school art. She is barren.

  • Travis West says:

    Thank you for bringing this book to our awareness, Dana. As a married 40-something without kids, this review was a beautiful reminder this morning of something Mariah and I took several years to learn ourselves, said so beautifully in your closing quote: ‘You can build a beautiful, faithful life without children. Look at these Christian women who have done it.’

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