At the pool last summer, I met a mother of a three-year-old and a five-year-old. She started talking to me about my two youngest girls. Slowly, she realized that the four-year-old boy bobbing up and down with great delight in the three-foot end was also mine. When my seven-year-old came swimming up, I could see the fear in the woman's face. "Four!" she gasped, then repeated, "Four." Then Michael came back from the diving board. "Good heavens!" she exclaimed. "You have five?" I replied, "Well, actually, I have six. Christopher is not here. He's at a friend's house today."
She was stunned. I tried to help her out: "Really, it's not so bad. We have a lot of fun, especially at the pool in the summer." Six. She was still stuck on the number. When she came to, she told me that she and her husband were "thinking about having another child," but they were not yet sure if they would. When I told my husband about the incident, he joked, "Did you tell her you have to do more than just think about it?"
This is only one of the many run-ins I have had with the people I call the fertility police. Over time, I have become accustomed to the rude comments, "the glare," "the stare," and the "How could you possibly take up my airspace?" attitude from people with no more than two kids. Any mother with more than two, or with children close in age, knows exactly to what I am referring: that look of condescension that says, "Don't you know what causes that?"
Being open to new life and not cooperating with the contraceptive mentality of today's culture makes a Catholic parent a walking sign of contradiction. Apparently, seeing a family with more than two children causes a searing jab in the consciences of some people who had considered the issue of whether to have more children moot. Why else would complete strangers tell me their darkest secrets about using birth control, along with their reasons for avoiding having another child, some even graphically describing "cutting and burning those tubes"?
One of my favorite movie scenes is in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), when the father of the twelve-child Gilbreth family refers to those "piddly little families with five or six children." (In another great scene in that movie, the local Planned Parenthood representative flees the Gilbreth house in shock.) I guess that with six, I have one of those piddly little families, though most people I meet do not seem to think so. It is no secret that most people today think that managing more than a couple of children is darn near impossible. Contemporary culture often forgets that "with God, all things are possible."
My sister has a friend in Pennsylvania who is a mother of five. When her husband announced to his coworkers that he and his wife, both Catholics, were expecting their fifth child, the fertility cops started trailing into his office to read him the riot act. He responded with, "Hey, man, I get my marching orders from Rome." They didn't bother him again.
My sister's mother-in-law, Martha, would probably have been classified as certifiable today. She and her husband were married at age 35 and subsequently blessed with five daughters and four sons in ten years.
Last year, I clicked on an MSN.com article about the biggest financial mistakes people make. The venomous words "having too many children" jumped off the screen at me. The article said that one or two children were bad enough; that children are extremely expensive and time-consuming; that the problem with having a third child is that the parents often want to have a fourth; and that four children are just too many. Children, one of the greatest joys of married life, the symbol of love between a husband and wife, were summarily dumped into the bin of financial mistakes.
Unless an expectant mother is lucky enough to have a pro-life doctor, the joy of finding out that another child is on the way is usually tempered by the flak she encounters at the obstetrician's office. "Oh, boy," she thinks. "Here comes another lecture from Dr. Fertility-Is-a-Disease." Thankfully, there are some wonderful pro-life doctors, but their offices can be few and far between. Those of us who do not relish the thought of delivering a baby in a car prefer to stick closer to home. Sometimes the comments of doctors and nurses are unreal. "Do you want your tubes tied before I take out the epidural?" "Is this one it?" "We need an adult activity center in the county, so adults will have something to do at night."
Luckily, my doctor has gotten used to the idea that my Catholic faith actually means I will not use contraception. I am sure he is puzzled, but at least I do not have to deal with his lectures. Obstetrical staff, however, is often worse than the doctor. The "look" alone is enough to wither healthy houseplants.
The contraceptive mentality of our culture has trickled down even to our children. A fourth-grader in the CCD class I teach asked me when I was pregnant with my daughter Maggie if I was "going to keep it." "You already have two," she said. This little girl was ten years old, and she already thought two children was enough. How sad it is that many children today see love limited in this way.
My children are always so thrilled to find out that a new baby is on the way that they can hardly stand to wait. Seven months (we break the news when I'm about two months pregnant) is just too long. Their anticipation of visiting Mommy and the new baby in the hospital fills them with joy and excitement. When the baby comes home, we have a "zero party" to celebrate his or her original birthday.
Cultural opposition to large families, while nothing new, is especially intense today. Even when I was growing up, the neighbors teased my mother, calling her "Mrs. Rabbit" because she gave birth to the five of us in seven years. Though we have had our share of spats like any other family, we are tightly knit. I thank God for the gift of my big family.
Sometimes the flak large families receive comes from grandparents. Some mothers and fathers are actually afraid to tell their own parents that another baby is on the way. For heaven's sake, it is not as if they were unwed teenagers. Responsible sex used to mean being married; now it means using a pill or a condom.
Flak can even come from Catholic natural family planning (NFP) advocates. For example, my friends Adele and Ryan were on vacation with their seven children. At Mass on Father's Day, as they left the pew, a man shoved an NFP brochure into Ryan's hand. Which one of their beautiful children did this man think should not exist? Was it any of his business to suggest that there was something wrong with their style of "family planning"?
In our society, if a woman chooses to abort her baby, the pregnancy and fetal destruction are private matters between only the "woman and her doctor." If she has the baby, her decision becomes public property: How closely are your children spaced? Do you intend on having more of them? Are you going to have your tubes tied?
One of the reasons for this hostility toward large families is a failure to trust in divine providence and the graces of the sacrament of matrimony. Even many Catholic NFP-users are so caught up in managing every temperature and trace of mucus that the big picture becomes lost in a blur: Every child, "planned" or not, comes into the world through the grace of God and is part of His plan. God will not give you more than you can handle, and He will always be there with abundant graces to help you.
It often appears that people who accept children lovingly from God are a few cards short of a full deck. But large families know they have something of great value. Remember the parable: A man buys a field for an outrageous price, and everyone thinks he is crazy. But in fact, he knows there is treasure buried on the land. The world may not understand the value of every human child God sends to us, but we do if we are willing to open our hearts and minds to trust completely in Him.