It began when our second child was born—a girl who followed her older brother by two years. “You’ve got your boy and your girl now,” an amazing assortment of people would say. “Now your family is complete.” Sez who? I would think, at first too taken aback and later too irritated to make a forceful and convincing reply. What I should have said then, what I would say another two babies later, is “God will let us know when our family is complete.”
And that is what I would sincerely, passionately ask young Catholic husbands and wives to consider thinking and saying. Their neighbors and co-workers, many of their friends and fellow parishioners, even many of their relatives will not help them to say this or to live up to it. But opening themselves up to each other and to the new life God chooses to send will make such a difference to their marriage and to their own lives.
Our third child was conceived during a time of financial and emotional strain. It was not a prudent or “responsible” pregnancy, as the modern secular world views these things. But David became a heaven-sent comforter to our family. He was endowed with an innate joy and cheerfulness, an unquenchable bounce and optimism that seemingly bypassed all the rest of us. He is not a calm, quiet, “easy” child, but an exuberant, belly-laughing, non-stop-talking one. Has life been in some ways tougher with him, more draining, more demanding? Certainly. But if a quiet undemanding life were all that mattered, we would never have formed a family at all.
Since then, God has given us another child to enchant and exhaust us. Catherine was born over three years after her brother. Each child has made us wait longer than the previous one, and this month-by-month waiting has kept us from taking our growing family for granted, or deceiving ourselves that we are in ultimate control of size or spacing.
This brings us to the second great advantage of an openness to new life, and that is a proper appreciation of life itself. You might imagine that a child would feel more secure if he knew his parents had carefully weighed the pros and cons of his birth and scrupulously prepared for his advent. I do not think so, for it makes the child’s birth too contingent on what should be subsidiary matters. Certainly, for example, a husband and wife starving in a city under siege would be justified, for everyone’s sake, in postponing the start of their family. And so would many spouses in less extreme circumstances. But I think we must be very careful when we draw conclusions like these from external circumstances.
First, human nature being what it is, we will be tempted to make things easier rather than harder on ourselves. Second, this habit of weighing whether we are ready in the Planned Parenthood sense to have a responsible birth may make us anxious or responsible in the wrong sense for the child’s birth. Our ability to pay a college tuition should not be the critical criterion for parenthood. And even if it were, our present ability would not guarantee the ability to do so in the future. Our financial circumstances may deteriorate, our country may experience catastrophic inflation, a family member may suffer a physically and financially crippling disability. These are not exercises in alarmism but examples of human limitations in planning and prognosticating.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, a prudent parent in Sarajevo might have thought he had made responsible provisions for his children. Today, he might recoil from siring a child into such a sorry world. And yet, as unlikely as it seems to us, even Bosnia’s horrible situation might improve beyond imagining, or that family’s situation might improve through emigration. The point is not that we are absolved from the responsibility of preparing for our children, nor that we must always and everywhere mindlessly attempt to have as many children as possible. Rather, it is that for our own good and that of whatever children we do have, we must get out of the habit of justifying their existence as IBM or Chrysler might justify the introduction of a new product line.
We are stewards of life, but not the originators of it. We see a little of the present and almost nothing of the future. If we feel responsible for guaranteeing that future to our children, our resolution will repeatedly fail us. Our doubts and fears and the darkness of our vision, our knowledge of our limitations and our boundless hopes and desires for our children, will conspire to stop up the generous outpouring of our love and our life.
Similar reasoning leads me to argue against deciding whether or not to have a baby on the basis of “macro” issues like global overpopulation or the overtaxing of the environment. I have heard cogent arguments against alarmism on both these issues, but even if the alarmists are on the right track,
I don’t think a couple’s decision to open themselves to new life can be made with such considerations in the forefront. Human life is such a great good, the sacrament of marriage is such a hallowed sign of the total union of Christ and His Church, our own projections about the future so famously faulty, that we should base the procreation of new life on a sacred foundation—the sacredness of new life, the sacredness of the marital bond—rather than on public manifestoes, current bestsellers or weekly bulletins from the New York Times “Science” section.
To take this attitude of respecting the sacred seriously is to demonstrate a humbling kind of faith that might also be called faithfulness. Unlike some of those around us, we will not always appear on top of things or in control; we will not be seeming Masters of our Fate; we risk the appearance of fecklessness or unconcern for the common good.
Yet this attitude of openness to God through openness to our spouse is truer and more realistic than the modern secular attitude of cost-counting at every turn. Did God draw back from creating us when He realized that the price He would pay was the suffering and death of His Son? At times our limited vision will be able to focus only on the burdens of a new life. The solution is to pray to see as God sees, for His is the vision of love and generosity and fruitfulness that inspires all loving and life-affirming unions.