"How many kids do they have??" asked the bemused co-worker upon hearing that someone is having a fifth child. I am similarly bemused why so many people seem to feel negatively towards those with large families. I guess that people may not really think about it or, if they do, maybe they really don't know why anyone living in the 21st century would want to have more than the popularly accepted family size of two, maybe three. The best I can do is offer why my wife and I are choosing to have a large family.
You see, I did not grow up in a large family. I have one brother and for most of my childhood, my mom was single. Nor did any of my immediate family or even my friends have large families; I think the largest family had three kids. I recall it as being a mostly happy childhood--I'm not complaining. I only mention it to say I did not inherit or learn by example how or why to have a large family; it didn't come naturally.
For my wife, Christiane, and I, it wasn't a decision to say "we want N number of kids" at some point or other. Early on in our engagement, we did toss around the idea of four. Christiane grew up in a family of six (that's four kids for those counting), my mom has three siblings, and so it seemed like a good number somewhere between two and some unthinkable number beyond four. :)
But as we progressed in our philosophical and spiritual journey, we became convinced that setting some artificial limit up front just didn't make sense. Yes, we became Catholic in this time period, and yes, Catholicism has a rather radical teaching on this matter. The essence of the Catholic perspective on children is that they are a blessing, a gift from God, and that we should remain truly open to these wonderful gifts.
Despite some Catholic caricatures, this does not equate to being irresponsible and just having as many children as you possibly can. For example, the most recent authoritative Catholic teaching on the subject, Humanae Vitae, specifically speaks to the issue of responsible parenthood, saying that couples can decide to avoid conceiving "for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts."1 And in doing so, we're supposed to use the most effective, safe, mutually respectful, character-building, and morally commendable means when doing so--abstinence during fertility.2
There's obviously no one-size-fits-all family size. Some couples are infertile. Some couples find the wherewithal to have a dozen or more children, even while relying on remarkably limited income. In considering the question of how many children to have, there are a number of common concerns that need to be addressed. Since this is a short piece, I can only touch on some of them, particularly those that seem to be the most common, and offer some positive reasons to have children.
What Do We Value?
For us, the question is not so much how many kids we should have. I think the question is rather what do we really value in life? Some time ago, Saturday Night Live had this series of crazy fake commercial where this couple were blatant cheapskates when it came to their children but would lavish luxury on themselves, advertising a fictitious online store for such parents--cheapkids.net. It was ludicrous, but it is poignant. I think this caricature speaks to those who, by their choice, remain infertile and yet enjoy a lavish or even just a very comfortable life as a married couple. This satire portrayed a couple who at least had kids, even if they were cheap with them, but it seems to me that those who refuse children or limit them artificially and frivolously might want to ask themselves if they are denying life to potential human beings in order to live in relative luxury. Are those things more valuable than human life?
Of course, I do not speak here of those who live in poverty or who truly would endanger the lives of their family by having more children. I speak here of those who, like me, live in relative luxury compared to most of the humans in this world. People who are not hardened have their guts wrenched by the poverty of many in this world (and rightly so), but there is another kind of poverty that goes unnoticed--the poverty of life, the poverty of being denied even the opportunity to exist solely so that another can live in ease and comfort.4
From this consideration, it seems that the original perspective (of bemusement or even distaste or disgust at having many children) should be turned on its head. The question becomes, instead, how can so many otherwise nice, well-meaning people deny so many more the chance to exist? Perhaps folks should not respond with puzzlement or condescension to those who remain open to life but rather respond with admiration and respect. We all know that kids, though they are indeed the most amazing and wonderful blessings we can naturally receive, are a handful to say the least, and so I think people should be a tad more reticent when criticizing those who have many.
Why Limit Family Size?
Are there good reasons for regulating birth? Obviously. Even beyond the grave economic reasons, I think there are others. Perhaps there is real psychological concern for the mother or father. Perhaps there is a physical or mental condition that a parent or child has that would make further growth of the family unwise. Perhaps there is a real threat to the mother's health. I'm not writing to address every conceivable circumstance; I'm writing to address popular notions concerning children that my wife and I have had to think about (and are often confronted with) in our own working out of how we live out what it means to be responsible parents wanting to live in the best way possible, trying to have the most perfect family we can.
Before moving on considering the common reasons given to limit family size, it is worth noting that the decision to have children should flow from a lifelong commitment.5 Just like there are not so good reasons to limit family size, there are not so good reasons to have children. Having babies seems to be a pastime for celebrities these days. It should be obvious that getting more attention/publicity, trying to save a marriage, keeping up with the Joneses, extending the family tree, etc. are not so great reasons. Children are human beings, having the full dignity of human beings, to be treated and loved as such; they are not accessories, trophies, or any other means to an end--they are end in themselves, and we should be just as careful about our motivations for having them as we are in our motivations for not having them.
The most common concerns we hear are monetary, the top being about the rising cost of sending kids to college. I, for one, did not get a dime from my mom to send me to college--she didn't have it to give. I made good enough grades in school and fared well on the ACT, getting a decent scholarship to a private school, and then worked for and borrowed the rest. I have known many others, many of them my friends, who have similar stories.
We all want the best for our children, but is the "best" sending them to a good college? I think that a good, liberal arts education is deeply valuable in itself. I have a degree in history and humanities, but I worked my way into software. I am glad of my education even though its credentials don't mean a lot in my occupation; I value it more highly than had I spent the same effort on a technical degree.
But a degree, even from a good university, only goes so far in life. Ultimately, it comes down to an individual applying himself or herself with the talents and desires he or she has. You can teach a child a good work ethic for free at home that will do more for them in the long run than any degree would. And I'd suggest you can teach such an ethic more easily in large families where mutual help from all members is a necessity.
You can teach a child to be a lifelong student, to enjoy learning and to think critically, for free at home, and that, too, goes further than any degree. You can teach a child values of honesty, integrity, commitment, kindness, charity, compassion, and other virtues for free at home that simply are not taught at university, and these as well far exceed the long-term value of any degree. And I'm not talking about home schooling; I'm simply talking about setting an example, teaching, and encouraging your children in addition to any regular, formal schooling.
I'm certainly not opposed to college or formal education in general, but its value has been way overemphasized in our culture. The purveyors of formal education have much to gain from this, as do lenders and investment companies who help you invest to save for your child's education. I think we need to be careful not to be blinded to the economic realities involved in all of the marketing about education and simply recognize formal education for the value it does have. It shouldn't be the ultimate deciding factor and choice in parenting.6
There are affordable alternatives for higher education, and if it is important to the child, he or she can make an effort to realize such goals. Furthermore, I have no doubt that a large majority of parents who at some point use this reasoning actually end up not saving or investing properly or find themselves in a situation later where the investment was truly needed for other reasons. In short, I tend to think that a vague concern about "sending my kid to a good school" is not a viable reason to limit family size.
Apart from higher education, there seems to be a general consensus that children "are expensive." I'd like to suggest an alternative to this maxim. Children can be expensive. Just as with higher education, you can choose to spend more money than you need to on each child, but it is a choice, not a given. And it is on this point, more than any other, that we see the rubber meet the road in terms of a challenge of values.
If we are given over to our contemporary culture, children are indeed expensive. If each child needs his or her own expansive room, if each child needs new, brand-name clothes on a monthly basis, if each child needs more toys than he or she could possibly enjoy, if each child needs his or her own car, then yeah, they can be very expensive. But lets not stop with the kids. If mom and dad need a brand-new car every few years; if they have to have new clothes every month, new jewelry, new perfume, new golf clubs, new computer, Playstation, or Xbox games, if they need to go to plays or other high-culture events regularly, and if the family has to eat out every day, then definitely, a large family is "too expensive."
Put simply, if one is a purebred consumer, yeah, a large family costs too much. Doesn't it speak volumes that our primary concern and objection about large families is economical? Doesn't it drive to the very heart of the matter if that is the chief concern? Ultimately, doesn't it say that we truly do value things, comfort, and luxury more than we value people? In short, doesn't it imply that we're just plain selfish?
What's truly sad about this is that we are deceiving ourselves. I can attest from experience that all of these things don't really last--the return on investment just isn't there. In fact, all these things actually "increase our sorrow" because they increase our worries and consume our mental and physical energies (in working for, acquiring, securing, insuring, storing, moving, caring for, and maintaining them). Not only do we tend to get bored with new things; they tend to have a net negative effect on our lives that we've become blind to. No, we're not really blind--we recognize the deficit they produce, but like a dog returning to its vomit, we try to ladle on the salve of more things, which only exacerbates the problem. We're blind to the remedy; we're not blind to the effects of the problem.
The Common Good
There is another common concern that is not economical (at least on the individual scale), and it seems to be less pronounced these days than it was for the previous generation--that of the concern about overpopulation. For Christiane and I, this has always seemed to be more of an excuse than a reason. It seems that an uncertain, future concern about one day overpopulating the world is not a compelling reason to overcome the more sure, immediate positive reasons to have children. Even so, it is a common enough concern to warrant addressing.
A good deacon friend of mine put it another way that gives this concern a bit more weight. If everybody in the world decided to have ten children, what would that mean for the common good? He suggested that we may just be lacking in imagination to think how we'd address such a situation, and maybe so--we humans tend to get pretty inventive when we need to. No doubt we'd figure something out. But I have to say I am not suggesting that everyone have ten children. I don't think that would be responsible for many, perhaps most of us. Being truly and actually open to children does not necessarily equate to having ten.
On the other hand, I tend to think the larger problem, as it is with most of these life issues, is our generally selfish culture. We're so busy looking out for number one that we accumulate for ourselves far more than we need in order to have a good and happy life. I'm not advocating socialism or any kind of enforced equal distribution of goods; I am advocating charity as a core cultural value. If we, the human race, shared this core cultural value, I tend to think that concern about overpopulation would be a moot point. And in any case, it remains that it seems to be a rather vague, unsubstantiated reason to limit family size.
The Gift That Keeps On Giving
It seems to me that people, especially children, are truly a gift that keeps on giving. If we lavish our care on them, they tend to give back in equal, if not greater, measure. That's the funny thing about authentic love. It's like investing in a sure thing--you give and you'll get back, well-measured, shaken and packed down, and running over. It may not even be the recipient giving back. That's another odd thing about authentic love; it tends to be its own reward--there is joy in the act of loving itself.
We often think that children are just a big hassle. In Stumbling on Happiness, the author suggests, based on subjective surveys, that children do not in fact make us happy, that it is, rather, a big, consensual lie that we tell each other. It is claimed that the people interviewed said they were happier after their children grew up and out of the house than they were when they were in the house. Despite the author's disclaimers, I think this really takes a shallow view of happiness and does not account for the deeper happiness that is satisfaction, which results from seeing effort come to fruition. These parents experience, naturally, a certain happiness and lessening of difficulty at having reclaimed time for themselves once children are out of the house, but they also share in the abiding joy of having their children "all growed up"--their investment, as it were, has come to completeness.
The survey also does not, I think, account for the consideration that perception is a large part of reality. Because our culture sells us a bill of superficial bull about what makes us happy (i.e., things, comfort, entertainment, and luxury), our perception is deeply skewed and we see children as detracting from our attainment of these things (taking us back the the monetary objections discussed above).
Indeed, it makes perfect sense, and I've seen it in my own life, that when my children cause me the most "trouble" and frustration is when I am turned in on myself (being selfish in some way). They are taking me away from what I want to do or they prevent me from getting something I want, so I perceive them as a nuisance. Usually, though, when I am in the right frame of mind, I see their activity for what it is--exploring the world, learning to function according to all life's little rules, or maybe simply just wanting to spend time with you because they are infatuated with you. This latter dies away as they age I suppose, but wouldn't you agree, if you're being honest with yourself, that a large bit of the friction between parents and kids comes in the first two?
The point is that it is generally those times that we are most frustrated that we are being the most selfish. In other words, it is not that the kids are the problem--we selfish parents are the problem. If we change our perspective (which takes practice, I can promise--I'm still working on it), and learn to not fight for our selfish impulses against our children but instead indulge in authentic love (self-giving) towards them, we will find one of the greatest joys in life--shared, familial love.
Once Christiane and I recognized this, it seemed almost a no-brainer that we'd want to increase this joy as much as we can. We saw that instead of thinking how few children can we have, we think how many children can we responsibly have? This way of thinking is, we think, the best not only for us but especially for our family as a whole.
When we are considering when to have our next child, we do try to be responsible. We think about how this new person will fit in our home both logistically and socially, and we consider the psychological impact on the other members of the family. In the end, we try our best to err on the side of openness and only choose to delay for what seem to be good, unselfish reasons. We're not perfect by any means, but this seems to us to be a big step on the the path toward a more perfect family life.7
Given on the Feast of the Holy Family in the Year of Our Lord 2007
1. At this point, my darling 1-year-old, Brendan Patrick Irenaeus, toddled over to me with one of my house shoes. Thanks, Brendan! My feet are freezing... now where's the other one?
2. Without digressing too much, let me briefly touch on this subject which is so awesomely opposed to our popular culture these days. My wife and I practice what is called Natural Family Planning (NFP). You can read about all the details elsewhere; let me just add my own personal testimony.3 For a brief time early in our marriage, we did use artificial birth control, but for the vast majority of our 8.5 years together, we've practiced NFP. I can honestly say that you don't die by not doing it; you can be just as happy and fulfilled. (And trust me, this is coming from a very red-blooded, American male, if you get my drift.)
Based on our experience, I do feel that mutual abstinence does indeed build character, build mutual self respect for each other, increase understanding of the way God's made us, increase affection for each other, and help you appreciate even more the times when you don't abstain. Plus, not using artificial birth control (or rather, being truly and actually, not just hypothetically, open to the creation of life) does enhance our relationship and our intimate time together. In short, we find the practice of natural family planning to be a significant positive influence on our marriage. And it does work!
3. Now John, my three-year-old son, is yanking at my arm and climbing on me (took a while to type this); ah, tickling is a good deterrent.. now the other two are attacking.. :) Bridget, my six-year-old daughter, is dancing around and tweetling (best onomatopoeia I could come up with for it).
4. This touches, of course, on the sensitive topic of abortion (and indeed the desire to have few to no children is directly related to abortion), but that's not the focus here. Here I'm speaking in a more generous sense of even those who would otherwise never consider abortion, and yet make the regular, conscious choice to refuse the potential life of another human being for less than serious reasons.
5. This comes from the understanding of the true good and beauty of marriage discussed in "On the Good and 'Right' of Marriage." See particularly the section entitled "The True Good."
6. Besides, we've all seen and heard stories of parents' painstaking planning being tossed to the wind by children who have other plans for their lives. There's no guarantee that even those who save and have money for their children's education will see that money go to good use.
7. And thus we see that the teaching of the Catholic Church (as is actually true of all Catholic doctrine when you truly understand it in all its beauty and truth) is a positive prescription on how to live the good life to its fullest, that is, how to have abundant life. And I have to admit, we've inherited this from our Jewish siblings. Scripture, especially the Psalms, regularly laud the blessing that children are, and it is not talking about them being a help on the farm, i.e., large families are not only good in agricultural societies!