One question that frequently comes up in parenting circles is ‘how many children is the right number?’ I’ve always thought it is an odd that in a pluralistic world, people would think there would be a one size fits all family.
There is a lot of advice on the subject, and for those of us with more than three children, a lot of unwanted comments too. I should have seen it coming when our third child was born, and one of the first comments was, ‘Wow, you have a large family now’. We didn’t stop at three, and the comments didn’t stop either. After our fifth, I started getting less comments, with most people sighing and shaking their heads. I think they had given up on me as a lost cause. My wife’s experience was significantly different. The comments and odd looks haven’t stopped.
These comments on family size are one of the few personal criticisms that is still socially acceptable. If you comment negatively about someone’s sexual orientation, you will be shunned from polite society. Similarly for commenting on someone moving in with a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage. And yet making humiliating and hurting comments about the number of children good parents have is fair game. ‘She’s too young’, ‘She’s too old’, or ‘Are you addicted to babies?’ Most mums of large families could easily fill a book with the comments that they have received.
And governments get in on the act too. Some countries have decided the ideal family size, and either encourage through public policy, or legislate their ideal number. Generally this number is one or two. A number is set under the influence of the population control lobby. There is a terrible toll on human life due to forced or coerced abortion.
But here in New Zealand, the decision is the parent’s, but there is certainly social pressure. Back when I was at school, there was great concern about overpopulation. When I grew up I was going to be stepping over bodies wherever I went, and it was certain that there was going to be widespread starvation. We now recognise that famine is caused by distribution problems, generally due to wars. And as for stepping over people to get anywhere, our biggest population problems include widespread loneliness, and the coming demographic winter.
So the academic reasons for limiting family size never really existed. What is left is social and economic.
Housing a family is expensive, and there is a growing expectation that all children should have their own room. The expectations for what a child should own are getting unrealistic. Some schools dictate each child should own a tablet or laptop computer. Every teenager expects to have a cell phone, and usually a smartphone. Even state schools have suggested donations and all manner of activity fees.
So the faithful Catholic couple has to live in a world that is hostile to the idea of being generous with the size of their family. Here the Church makes the most modest demands, and these are for the benefit of the couple and their family.
The Church asks for generosity, and what newly married person does not want to be generous with their love for their spouse? The church asks that their loving gift of self to each other is complete, and does not selfishly hold back fertility. What newly married couple plans selfish motives in their love? Here the Church goes even further to help the couple. She encourages natural fertility regulation as a means, for serious reasons, to avoid pregnancy for a time. So the Church proposes means to avoid pregnancy without entering into a contradictory act. That is where they appear to giving themselves fully, but at the same time they limit their gift of self by withholding the very part of that gift that takes love beyond the couple. That being their fertility. And it’s children that take the loving gift of self between loving spouses, and multiply that gift beyond the couple.
And finally the Church trusts the married couple to make decisions about when they are ready for each child. The guidance she gives in no way determines a one size fits all number of children a family should have. They are free to decide, based on their circumstances, whether to, as one Catholic women described to me, “Just plan our family naturally”. Or alternatively wait until circumstances have improved.
In no way does the Church impose on the married couple, rather she gently proposes her teachings for the good of the spouses. If they both choose to follow the advice, marriage is elevated to a state of living a poetry of love. This is in profound contrast to the selfish and utilitarian motives of the world around us.