I Feel Sorry for Small Families

health, wealth, reputation

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.

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26 thoughts on “I Feel Sorry for Small Families”

  1. Peter, Sometimes I don’t crystalize my thoughts very well, but your inability to capture my thoughts on this reply is astounding. My concern for the environment mirrors Pope Francis’ statement. I used to be a tree hugger, then I advanced to a forest hugger and now I am a planet hugger. Just take some of the catastrophic events that are happening now… especially the massive number of tornadoes hitting our heartland causing massive flooding. The ice caps on mount Kilimanjaro are gone. Polar bears can no longer hunt for seals because they need ice shelves and cannot catch the seals in the water. We recently observed the dismissal of EPA’s Scott Pruitt who was not a match for the job. Then we have our president trashing global warming by a terse denial “hoax”.
    If that isn’t enough read National Geographic.
    The best!

  2. God said… “fill the earth and subdue it”. He didn’t say how many children a family should have. Even Pope Francis said to an audience of Catholics “be good stewards of mother earth and stop having babies like rabbits”. There many reasons to control the family size… one is financial. Many Catholics are on or below the poverty line and are forced to limit. Then there is one’s conscience. and reality. The earth, which is mostly water has less than 1% of that water being drinkable. I’m beginning to sound like a tree hugger, but once reality struck I became a forest hugger.

    May God save our only place to live.

    1. Actually, God said, “be fertile and multiply” before he said, “fill the earth and subdue it,” but I find it hard to base an argument against fertility on either of these passages!!! The rest of your logic is just lost on me here. If you read Humanae Vitae’s description of “responsible parenthood” I think you will be enlightened. All the best.

  3. Pingback: I Feel Sorry for Small Families « Peter Darcy

  4. I’ve unfortunately seen the coin from both sides: I’ve heard people complain about large families, how parents with a few kids more than average consume too many of the world’s resources, while some of us who don’t have children yet, are constantly asked by Christians, “when are you going to have children?!” – as if we aren’t serving our parish by leading the weekly Bible Study (which we wouldn’t be able to do with children in tow). It doesn’t matter which perspective you come from, someone is going to have an issue with your family’s size, including from other Catholics.

    1. Hello Sarah, I tend to agree. People are immersed in their own issues. I guess the question is this: What does God want for my life and marriage? That was one of the main points of the article, particularly in citing the “be fruitful and multiply” commandment. The problem with childbearing issues is that people RARELY ask what God wants of them.

  5. Pingback: NEW DRAFT – Big Pulpit

  6. Thank you Peter for writing this. We are expecting our fourth child and are HARD PRESSED to find any support, even among some Catholics. It is encouraging to see large families praised, even if it is a super, super sensitive subject. Having kids is hard and for me it seems to get scarier each time. I’ve come to the conclusion that a baby is never convenient and we are naturally designed to get pregnant easily otherwise I would probably not have the courage. This article helps with motivation.

    1. Dear Julie and Daddy of Julie’s children, “Courage” is spot on; and now you have support daily from Texas. We try to go to daily mass and remember many, many families at the offertory. Now not only will your family be added to the list, by name (“Mucho Machado Family” OK?), but we will kick you up to the top of the list for a few weeks. That glow you might feel around 1225pm every day is the prayers going heavenward. Guy McClung, Texas

      ps: below I mentioned my over 150 nieces and nephews. Most of their parents got an offer of $100 if they named a child after me – Boy-Guy; Girl-Guyena. I still have that $100 if you want it – send me a pic of little Guy or sweet Guyena.

    2. All the money in the world cannot compare with holding a baby or toddler in your arms, seeing them grow, and knowing you are involved in the most important vocation in the world! My wife and I now have three grandchildren and they are the most enjoyable and important people in our lives.

    3. Kids are the greatest gift God has ever given us. I have five siblings and 34 nieces and nephews and 12 grand nieces and nephew. Seeing groups of us together one can truly see God’s presence.

  7. I have only one child, but not by choice. Fertility issues prevented me from having more and I want to a Prolife doctor for help, too! In the end, God decided what our fate would be. I still feel bad I have just one, but that’s the way it is sometimes.

    1. I can perfectly sympathize with you and my prayers go with you. I do believe you put the matter in the clearest perspective: God is Lord of our families and it is His will that we seek to follow in all matters, especially fertility. Thanks for the witness.

    2. I too was able to have my MIRACLE daughter–she was born right after I turned 41 years old! She was my father’s dying wish, for me to have a child. Of course many many families would love to have more than one child, however, it’s up to God our heavenly father to decide on that. We certainly don’t need articles like this to make us feel bad or guilty. I would have reevaluated writing this article for the sake of sensitivity.

  8. I think you just need a new title for your article.
    Anyone who has a small family , for whatever reason, is immediately
    going to feel a little defensive from the start. Judging from your responses to your readers you may be a tad insensitive.
    Why not ” I’m Blessed To Be From a Big Family”
    Empathy is always in style.

    1. Hi Mary, I appreciate what you are saying, but it’s a losing proposition either way. In an insanely oversensitive culture I would have people telling me I was judgmental if I used a title like you suggest. You can’t celebrate anything good nowadays without someone saying, “How dare you judge me and my small family…” etc. In any case, the title was chosen for two reasons: 1/ It is a feeling title, which usually gets more people to read beyond the headline; and 2/ The article is really not a celebration of large families but a challenge to the deliberate decision to limit family size. I truly want people to read this message. I want to challenge the contraceptive mentality – come what may. I hope that helps explain the title a little better.

  9. How very arrogant of the author to express that people with small families are limited in their spiritual development and integrity. “… 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.” Are you kidding? Good Christians can be part of families of any size and, unfortunately, so can bad ones. To equate a person’s “goodness” with the size of his or her family is ludicrous. Shame on the website editors for publishing these biased views in anything other than a clearly marked “op-ed” section. Because that is all this is… the opinion of a very narrow-minded, self-righteous, and judgemental writer who feels entitled to “educate” complete strangers — whether in-person at a bagel shop or virtually through his writing — on his skewed views of Christianity. People with few or no children do not need the author’s pity. On the contrary, it is he should be pitied for his overblown sense of self-importance and lack of insight.

    1. Hi CM, my article obviously struck a nerve for you. Did I lose my right to free speech because I have views you disagree with?

  10. As someone with Fertility issues it hurts, a lot. We want kids, have not been able to adopt, and there are a lot if fears we have for the future because our family is so limited. I have been badgered by individuals within and without my church and community about the choices that have been placed on my shoulders.

    My very wise spiritual director often reminds me that this is not punishment, this is not a failure to be open to life, that I am not less of a Catholic because my family is me, my spouse, and our dog.

    Please don’t feel sorry for small families, please have compassion. Some families are that way because they must, others by choice, but compassion at least may open the door that some small families can become larger.

    1. Hi Amanda, yes, my prayers go with you. I have known many couples who struggle with infertility and it’s a cross to carry. Human Life International has a wonderful CD about infertility by Marie Meaney which you can access on their website. A careful read of the article will exonerate me here I’m sure. I recognized the numerous legitimate reasons why people may have smaller families. My goal was to challenge those who deliberate limit the size of their families (with the subtext of challenging the contraceptive mentality.) Thankfully, you and your husband are not in that crowd.

  11. With all due respect, I think it’s pretty brazen to confront women you don’t even know in public about the choices they make about their fertility. I agree with you that we should be open to life, as the Church teaches, but it’s literally none of your business. I’ve been on the receiving end of being pressured with constant questions of “no baby yet? why not!” when it is up to a husband and wife to discern that themselves, whether you agree with it or not.

    Secondly, it’s also a little haughty to pity small families. Small families can be just as joyous and loving as large ones. There are many reasons that a husband and wife may discern a small family that are completely in line with the Church. Not everyone is called to have 6+ children or as many as is humanly possible to produce.

    1. Hi Sarah. You’re definitely welcome to have your own opinion on this, but kindly represent the matter correctly as I have stated things. The young woman in the story initiated the fertility conversation by announcing publicly that she was pregnant. How you can characterize this as “confronting” her is beyond me. Also, Do I lose my right to free speech if someone brings up a subject you don’t like? Also in the above section “The central issue of fertility” i clearly stated that there were legitimate reasons for small families. Nothing in my article demeans small families as such, just the choice to deliberately limit the family size, which is a moral issue. That’s a challenge isn’t it?

  12. Peter much of what you say re the “good” of families is interpreted by democrats and other totalitarians as “power”- power which they do not yet (in their view) have. So they go about trying to annihilate the institution of the family, replacing themselves, aka “the State,” in the place of family. It never works for some reason. There is something natural about families, ie “nature” as in God made it this way and it is good. No need here to go inot the details of how democrats et al have and continue to seek the destruction of the family. Silly fools – nature wins, God wins. And you get to laugh and cry and support and love all that family. Guy McClung, Texas

    ps: re large family; me too; I have over 150 nieces and nephews. One thing you failed to mention re large families: at reunions, you can always find some folks you like,

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