Doing errands the other day, I pulled up at a red light behind an expensive SUV with a rear window sticker proudly displaying cartoon figures of the driver’s family. You know the kind – a line-up of white stick figures: mom, dad, kids, dogs, cats, soccer balls, baseball bats, kites, etc. against a black tinted window. At first I could not understand my depressed reaction to the sticker because I love families, but then I realized my feeling of sadness was precisely because I love families. This sticker displayed a mom and a dad, three dogs – and one little girl. I felt sad.
An autobiographical point is in line here. I am one of seven children, the dead-center middle child. I had brothers and sisters on either side of me growing up and an incredible, loving, intact “parental unit” as we jokingly called Mom and Dad. My dear mother passed away three months short of their sixtieth wedding anniversary last year.
I could not have been better situated in the birth order to experience the full mystery of the large family experience, for good and for ill. One of our brothers died as an infant and has no doubt preceded us into Heaven, so the rest of us grew up in an evenly-spaced arrangement of three boy/girl pairs down the line. (Did I mention my family suffers from congenital hyper-organization, a genetic affliction stemming from strong German ancestry?)
Today we are each living out our adult vocations and doing our best at remaining intact as a family despite the ferocious centrifugal forces affecting family life in today’s world. That is more a testimony to God’s grace operating through our Catholic faith than to our family’s virtue. All families of any size have problems and suffer divisions. Large families usually have numerically more problems than small families, but they also have more resources to deal with them because there is strength in numbers as well.
The central issue of fertility
Back to the bumper sticker. What was eating at me? Surely I could not know – and therefore could not judge – the couple’s reasons for having only one child. I can think of at least three good reasons why a family might be small. Perhaps I was just seeing a snapshot of their family at an early stage of development; they may plan to have more children. (I’m told that takes some time!) They could also be suffering from fertility issues beyond their control that have limited their family size to one child. And then again, perhaps they have been unable to have any children at all and have gone the generous route of adopting a child who needs a home. All of these are entirely plausible explanations for small families and no reason for reproach.
But what happens when people choose not to have larger families for reasons that are entirely within their control. That is, in my opinion, a vital issue for our modern world in general and for each parent in particular. So my sadness touches on something broader and deeper than the window sticker family.
A question of biblical proportions
God’s first commandment to the human race was fertility-related: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). We got the “subdue the earth” part down pretty quickly, but if I read history correctly, fertility has been a continuous challenge for humanity since Cain decided to reduce the world’s population of four by 25% east of Eden. The Egyptians then took the lead in the population control business with their baby-drowning scheme (Exodus 1) and every generation from then to now has seen some fanatical dictator who tries to wipe out another race through genocide, “ethnic cleansing” (think Hitler), or outright population control directed at the hated race’s children (think Herod).
The past half century, in particular, due in large part to contraception and abortion, has witnessed a greater rejection of fertility and childbearing than any other era of human history.
Now I am fully aware that children can be expensive and messy and dampening to a person’s career ambitions, but just when did children jump onto the liability side of the ledger? When did they become exclusively costs and burdens?
You will search in vain to find a negative word about children in the Bible. They are understood throughout the whole of God’s Word as His choicest earthly blessings (see Psalm 127 as most representative of this divine attitude). Of course they bring a burden of responsibility with them, but what precious gift or thing of value comes without that? To avoid having children (when you are able to do so) because they make demands on you is like refusing to buy a car because it will need regular oil changes and maintenance. Does this anti-car logic work for the busy professional? Hardly. It does not work for childbearing either.
The benefits of large families
For the sake of discussion, let’s leave aside both the perceived burdens as well as the tremendous joys that little kids bring into a couple’s life. Let’s focus instead on the other tangible benefits that accrue to parents who raise a large family.
The process of shepherding numerous children through the stages of childhood through adolescence to adulthood is challenging for parents. But it is not a one-way talent-and-resource drain. It also has reverse-positive effects that generally make the parents themselves better people. Parents mature in virtues like prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude by exercising them in challenging circumstances like childrearing. Yes, one can learn virtue in all walks of life, but parenting is a pretty effective school for most.
At the risk of drawing too broad a conclusion, it is often the case that raising many children gives parents the chance to develop greater virtue and a magnanimous soul that could not otherwise have been gained by raising a small family, or none at all. A greater sacrifice often produces more abundant fruits.
Does looking at spreadsheets in an office of catty co-workers give a young woman a better chance at human and spiritual growth than bearing a child? I do not think so. And what better force motivates a man to grow in integrity than by having to model virtue for his kids and provide for their needs? Sitting around watching football with his buddies will not give him that.
Looking to the future
There are also long-term benefits to having many children.
A young woman who took my order in a local bagel shop the other day announced happily that she was pregnant with her first baby. “Oh, I hope this will be the first of many,” I responded – rabble-rouser that I am. “We’re only gonna have one,” she said (giving me the hoped-for opening to raise the fertility issue.)
I looked her in the eye and said, “I’d like you to re-evaluate that.” Then I told her about two of my sisters (and their kids) who, though they live out-of-state, had just spent the past week with our 91-year-old Dad. I recounted how my three other brothers and sisters are also frequent visitors, checking on him regularly, sending him gifts, giving lots of interesting news about grandkids, and attending to all his needs. Not a single one of them neglects their father or only conducts “drive-by visits” when they “get around to it.” I guess lovingly raising six kids when you are young pays you back in spades when you are old. Funny how that is.
Kids need siblings
“And why shouldn’t children have siblings to grow up with?” I added. (I did not raise the issue of the “Little Tyrant Prince” syndrome that has been generated by China’s one-child policy, but it often applies to one-child families in our culture, as everyone is well aware.) As if on cue, another worker overhearing our conversation chimed in, “I only have one sister. She’s a pain. That’s enough. Haha.”
“You’re actually making my point!” I said, perhaps a little too emphatically. Then I pressed the issue. “So, let’s go there. What happens if you are stuck for the rest of your life with just one annoying sibling that you do not want around your kids and who leaves you with all the responsibilities of caring for your aging parents because she’s off in Alaska pursuing her dreams? You think raising kids is hard? Try raising kids and taking care of elderly parents at the same time.” Then, just for good measure, I added: “And who’s gonna take care of you when you get older? Oh wait, the government, right?” My overflowing righteousness seemed to spend itself with that last bit of sarcasm.
“Never thought of that,” she said (with a somewhat annoyed glance at me for talking about fertility in the middle of a busy restaurant). In my defense, she started it. I only wish the window sticker people could have been there to hear it.
Think about it
Unfortunately, many young people do not think of these things either – until it is too late (which is why I have these conversations whenever I can, even in restaurants). Fertility is a diminishing asset. It’s not a bank account that grows with interest just by sitting there. After a certain window of opportunity in a young life, the immense power of human fertility declines naturally.
Having a large family is more like a long-term life insurance plan. Once you buy into the plan, it pays you back when you need it. And like all insurance plans, the time to “think of that” is sooner rather than later.