Wednesday, August 3, 2016

"It Can't Be That Bad!"

I had a strange conversation today. About family size, naturally. These happen to me all the freakin’ time. I was at the park with the children and an older couple is on the path walking toward us. He says, “You have three, so it can’t be that bad!”

I reply, nonplussed, “No, not at all.”

She says, “Do you think you need two more?!?”

“That would be all right.”

The two of them crack up, “Oh ho! Oh ho!” as if I’d said something kinky.

Maybe they think I don’t know what causes it. It seems to be a common assumption.

Yeah, people are weird. But more and more I feel like the weirdo, because I DON’T have a plan. Even among NFP-ers, it seems like more and more I’m hearing about spacing children far enough apart for optimal physical and psychological health, being responsible for the sake of the environment, how learning NFP should be required before marriage, etc. etc. This feels like buying into the freak-out culture. It all makes babies sound so dangerous. I don’t have a target number of children. Never did. We’ve never charted, but been just fine with a general awareness of how my body works and what it looks like when babies are likely to happen. We never had an unexpected pregnancy or anxiety about achieving pregnancy. Breastfeeding has kept me infertile for at least a year after each baby. When I was really depressed after moving the second time last year, I couldn’t deal with the idea of being pregnant just yet. So my husband gave me a little space during the fertile weeks for a few months. Now we’re back to letting nature happen. It just hasn’t been rocket science for us.

I realize that we are very blessed in this. I definitely understand that sometimes a more, shall we say, technical approach to the marital embrace is helpful for those who struggle with infertility or who really need to avoid pregnancy but don’t have such obvious fertility signs. That said, the way we’ve handled things in our marriage, not micromanaging our fertility, has been the normal way of things for millennia. Now of course it’s super, super, weird. People don’t know how to process the information that I don’t know how many children I want to have.

Here’s the thing. NFP isn’t magic. Contraception isn’t magic. The nature of sex is to make babies. So it can never be ruled out all together, even if one uses some kind of contraciption. That “openness to children” part of marriage is permanent. Neither are we guaranteed a child when we want it. So here we go procreating with reckless abandon. But really, it is highly unlikely that I will have ten kids. I’m almost thirty. I have about ten to twelve years of slowly declining fertility left. I had three children in eight years. So mathematically, I will probably end up with a large family but certainly not Duggar-sized. Financially we can provide much more than most people around the world, even if that might not include a college education.  (I’m a drop out, myself, so don’t try to convince me college is necessary for life!) We are healthy and the first three kids are doing all right thus far! We really enjoy our family. As far as I can see I don’t have any reason to worry about having “too many” children.

But is there really any such thing as “too many” children? Mother Teresa of course famously said that’s like saying there are too many flowers. But really, if we do have that big family and then suddenly become poor, or have major illness strike, or some other calamity, would we regret having them? Is a child something that, by its nature, we ought to resist? Should we be worried about having another one?

That’s crazy talk. And yet here we are. The basic assumption that it’s responsible to avoid pregnancy is just a hidden source of anxiety, to my thinking. Because a child is now by default a *bad thing*. As aforesaid, the nature of sex is to make babies. So the thing that is meant to unify the husband and wife in a profound way is now a source of this *bad thing*. So sex is now kind of the enemy. Sounds like a miserable way to live. And if you read this kind of news at all, you know that American couples really don’t have sex all that much! How can this be good for anybody?

We also avoid the potential for regret that we didn’t have more children. As far as I know, there haven’t been any scientific studies on this, but I have met enough older ladies that have expressed regret at not having grandchildren or wished that they hadn’t prevented having more themselves. (Yes, really! People tell me this stuff!) This regret at what might have been is real.

So what happens when we give up the idea we can and ought to control exactly when we have babies? You might think you ought to avoid pregnancy, then break your leg in a ski accident and discover you’re actually carrying twins. You might have to rely on friends to take care of you when you are on bed rest and then have a preemie. You might end up childless, to your complete surprise and disappointment. All true stories of people close to me. They all have peace in their hearts.

So what if we just acknowledge that some things are just out of our hands? Make our peace with not being in control of the Universe? That we are not gods? 

What if we just entrust it all to the one who is God? Trusting that He will work it all out for our good?



  1. I enjoyed this, Mary! I'm happy you're writing a little again.

    And I feel kinda famous. :) I gotta say, though, I was trying to conceive the twins. I mean, I wasn't trying for twins (people kept asking us that-how do you even?) but I got pregnant on purpose (not to say that it's always that way around here) and I went skiing on purpose, knowing I was pregnant. What a rotten combination the two turned out to be!

    We've reached a point where discernment about avoiding is getting difficult. It is easy to fall into careful analysis of all the why's, but not easy to tell whether or not, added all together, they are a good enough reason.

    I had a great conversation today. I have recently began befriending a neighbor, a sweet Catholic gardener lady named Marcy. I stop to buy corn and blackberries from her and we chat. Today I met her sister, Sister Rose, in full habit while on vacation. Marcy said "Rose, this is Emily. She mothers six children". She went on to tell me that she didn't mean that in a "what a crazy lady" way, but just that she feels that it makes me noteworthy and admirable. I was embarrassed. Another visiting sister of Marcy's came outside and was introduced the same way. The two mothers expressed their gratefulness for their children, and we all talked about how important and special the work of mothers is, and also how belittled it is in today's world. Both Marcy and her married sister had left careers when they had their first child; both firmly said they never had a minute's regret. It was such a completely unexpected and beautiful conversation; it made me all emotional. I actually teared up when I drove away and passed Sister Rose strolling down the road, as she'd left for a walk a few minutes before me. I rolled down my window and told her the sight of her walking down the road in her habit, Rosary in hand, was beautiful and full of hope. She told me she'd pray for me, and I went home. I've been uplifted by the experience all day.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I thought anyone reading here might also enjoy the story. :)

    1. How lovely! Thank you so much for sharing that. I'm so glad you have such a good neighbor, too.

      And sorry for some of the historical inaccuracies. Somebody planned those twins! The "Is our reason good enough?" trap is a tough one. It's all subjective. I bet some would call me out as being selfish for using depression as an excuse, especially since I was more or less functional. But you know what? To me it was real, and Ryan was being loving by helping me catch my breath before potentially plunging into another big stress. If your goal is honestly to do what's best for your family and you're asking God to help you discern, then I don't think there's reason to be feeling anxious. You are forced to revisit the question every month, and if you ARE being selfish, Grace will reverse that quickly.

  2. Edifying story! Gives me hope for the future that some folks out there 'get it'.

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  4. Huh. An older couple? Maybe they have 5 kids, and there was some sort of... inside joke there?

    For the first time in my experience, my midwife was seriously pushing child-spacing during my last appointment. She was just fine with our "methods" (I told her we know Creighton for nfp and that I plan to exclusively breastfeed), but she could tell I was not interested in using nfp and so she kept carrying on about how its more healthy for me and baby to have babies 18+ months apart. Ok, sure, but after 2 years of infertility for our first, and a natural (but made me rather anxious!) 28-month space between these two, I'm reallllly not worried about getting pregnant less than 9 months post-partum. And if I do, wonderful! As you said, why do we have to micromanage everything? Been there, done that out of necessity on the TTC side, and hopefully will never have to go back whether to conceive or avoid!

    1. Amen! I think a lot of medical people really dismiss breastfeeding as a means of child spacing. I'm sure it would be hard to have children very close together. Even harder if you don't have much of a support system. But you're right, it's not something to be worried about before you've even had the baby for goodness sake. Should you get your cycle back at 2 months postpartum, then maybe have that conversation in earnest.

  5. Agreed. When it comes to children, I'm all for following "let go, and let God"

    It makes me sad that so many Catholics, even, buy into our culture's total fear of babies and large families.

    My response when people ask how many kids we want is, "I don't know, but we'd love to have a big family"

    1. I think you already have a big family by most reckonings! :)

  6. Thank you for writing this - it's great to know there are other people who don't have a Plan (yes, with a capital letter)! I have three under five at the moment, so we get plenty of comments... mostly friendly, though.
    Funny story, in relation to Katie's comment: I had my first child in France, and they send a family planning nurse in to discuss contraception with all new mothers before they leave the hospital. When I said we were thinking about NFP, she went quiet for a bit, then said "right, I'll just put 'condoms' then, otherwise you'll have half the obstetric staff in here trying to talk you out of it". Made me laugh...

  7. Hah! NFP is going underground in France! The strange thing is, NFP is a lot more effective than condoms for avoiding pregnancy. Thanks for reading!