Friday, August 10, 2012

Family Size and Openness to Life

I’m accused, occasionally often, of being judgmental. Sometimes, the accusation is true. But what I’m thinking of right now are the accusations that I am judgmental about people who use NFP.

No, I’m not.

I do not presume to judge the unknown motives of those who use NFP, and I do not presume that couples with few children use it, nor that couples with large families don’t. My interest is in clarifying the teaching of the Church on the subject, and examining whether the blanket promotion of NFP leads couples to a “birth control” mentality.

So I was delighted to see this article today: “Wait, Do You Only Have Two Kids?

The author, Lisa Cotter, first expresses a really wonderful openness to life:

When I got married right out of college, just shy of 22, I was fairly certain that I would be having 10 kids over the next 20 years. I was perfectly content with the idea of being open to life because, thanks to my mentor moms, I was able to see the beauty in family life. They gave me great advice reminding me that God would only be giving me one child at a time and the grace for each child would come with that child, not before.

I don’t see any mention of needing to discern whether “the time is right” for another baby; instead, she appears to have entered marriage with a simple trust that God would bless her with children in His time.

But, she explains, after having two children in the first three years of their marriage, she and her husband have had no more “buns in the oven”. That was something that led others to wonder why:

You see, as Catholics who publicly profess our love of the Church and all of Her teachings, friends from the past to perfect strangers who meet us at Catholic events, have made comments from “So when are you going to have another” to “don’t you have three now?” to “wait, do you only have two kids?”

Now, some might bristle at such questions, and comment defensively that “it’s none of their business”. But you know, in some cases, it’s a reasonable question. As Lisa notes, she and her husband had not been shy to profess that they followed Church teaching; is it really out of line then, to ask whether another child is on the way? I appreciate very much the lack of defensiveness I see in this author’s attitude. She’s not “defensive” in the sense of reading criticism into every comment about her family’s size. She assumes, instead, that the comments are “innocent”:

While I know these comments are innocent I constantly find myself trying to defend our situation with rebuttals like “Only two so far” or “We’re just waiting for another” to ensure that the inquirer doesn’t judge us for only having two.

So Lisa does offer a “defense”, and some readers are probably deploring the fact that she feels she needs to do so.  Is a couple obligated to offer such “rebuttals” in this situation? Perhaps not, but sometimes it might be advisable in order to avoid scandal – i.e., causing others to wonder whether the couple’s publicly professed “openness to life” was really sincere. The scandal comes when, for instance, another young couple assumes that Lisa and her husband are saying one thing and doing another; this could lead them to believe that perhaps contraception is permissible after all. While Lisa and her husband are not responsible for the mistaken assumptions every other person might make, appearances do matter, and their public statements – combined with their small family size – do “invite” the questions, in a sense. I’m thankful that Lisa is willing to give a response in order to further the understanding of the questioners.

And I appreciate that Lisa’s response is not “defensive”. I particularly like her comment that “We’re just waiting for another”. That seems like a charitable and gentle way to let curious friends and acquaintances know that there might be a fertility issue.

I personally know another couple who was in a similar situation – which has probably helped me to avoid judging people’s unknown motives by the number of children they have. They had only two children, and the younger was past toddlerhood; in the course of conversations with them at our parish pro-life committee meetings, it emerged that they would love to have more children, but God had not blessed them with more. Then, one day, it became apparent that there was definitely a “bun in the oven”; they told me that they’d been about to give away all their baby things, thinking that perhaps God’s plan was not for them to have more children – and then she became pregnant. Number Three is getting big now, and it looks like God may indeed have limited their family size to this small number. But they are faithful Catholics, and I know they trust God’s plan.

Did my mom use birth control?!
I have no idea!
(Mom with my two sisters and me)
I don’t think that asking a question about someone else’s family size is necessarily being nosy or judgmental. A young woman I know announced on Face Book that she was giving away newborn clothes (having just had her second child a couple of months previous). I commented, “What?! You’re not saving them for the next one?” She responded, “We’re done, for now!” And I followed up with a private conversation with her because I know she is Catholic and I wanted to be sure she knew what the Church teaches about contraception…just in case. Is that nosy and/or judgmental? I didn’t ask the question in order to judge. I asked it out of concern for the salvation of her soul. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why, yes, I do bear some responsibility there. 

And if someone (Catholic or not) says to me “We’re done!”, I might ask with a smile, “Really? Only two?!” hoping to imply that being open to more is a good thing. At least they can receive some encouragement that having more than two children really is permissible! Too often, I think, they have just been brainwashed by a culture that is hell-bent on limiting family size for all the wrong reasons. Small families are socially acceptable; large families get plenty of criticism.

Lisa ends her article with this (my emphases):

I just assumed, we’d be open to life and God would bless us when we were all ready: Kevin, God and me... which of course would be all at the same time. But the fact is that children are a blessing, not a right, and if God calls you to marriage you have to enter into it knowing that it is God who chooses when and if new life will be given to you. Only He can know the reasons why a family is the shape and size that it is and it is up to us to place our trust in Him with this precious gift, even if it doesn’t come in the type of package that we expected.

She is so right. It’s not easy to trust God. But the rewards are great, because He does, after all, have our best interests in mind.


  1. It is an indictment of NFP for sure. Years ago if a couple were practicing Catholics and had only two children, everyone assumed that they were open to more and they never ever needed to explain. It is because it has become acceptable in orthodox Catholic circles for people decide they are "done" that people like Lisa Cotter are put in the position of explaining their family size.

  2. Wow, that is a good point, Sue A. I never thought of that. In the pre-contraception era, people did value large families. And I'm thinking especially of Old Testament Jewish culture, amply illustrated in Scripture, where children were seen as a sign of God's blessing, and childlessness was viewed as a sign of God's displeasure.

  3. Yes, Fr. Griese addresses this aspect of scandal. I hadn't realized it was required, lest we be a source of non-edification.

    I have always had children every two years like clockwork-always either pregnant and/or nursing (which offered a suppression of ovulation.) I've never felt compelled to justify nursing.

    So now I have to say "we're at 5 and holding" (as opposed to five and counting). Then I feel like I have to offer a justification for whether I am using NFP appropriately, because unfortunately, it's not enough that we are using NFP instead of contraception. Some people don't really see much difference.

    When people at large ask if we're "done," my husband politely responds "we'll see." I'm thinking of saying "Only God knows" but I might say "stick a fork in me and find out!" Ask a stupid question...

    True story: when my mom (who was in town to help me while my husband was away at a conference) and I were walking with my then 4 kids down Main Street, someone yelled out their car window at me "birth control!" My husband returned from the conference, and within a few days we happened to conceive our fifth baby! God had the last laugh.


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