At the pool last summer I met a mother of a three-year-old and a five-year-old. She started talking to me about my two youngest girls, Patricia and Kathleen. Slowly, she realized that Brian, the four-year-old boy bobbing up and down with great delight in the three-foot end, was also mine. When Maggie, my seven-year-old, came swimming up, I could see the fear in the woman’s face. “Four!” she gasped, then repeated, “Four.” Then Michael came back from the diving board. “Good heavens!” she exclaimed. “You have five?” I replied, “Well, actually, I have six. Christopher is not here. He’s at a friend’s house today.”
Six. She was stunned. I tried to help her out: “Really, it’s not so bad. We have a lot of fun, especially at the pool in the summer.” Six. She was still stuck on the number. When she came to, she told me that she and her husband were “thinking about having another child,” but they were not yet sure if they would. When I told my husband about the incident, he joked, “Did you tell her you have to do more than just think about it?”
This is only one of the many run-ins I have had with the people I call the “fertility police.” Okay, so I admit it: I am jaded. Over time, I have become accustomed to the rude comments, “the glare,” “the stare,” and the “how could you possibly take up my airspace?” attitude from people with no more than two kids. Any mother with more than two, or with children close in age, knows exactly to what I am referring: that look of condescension that says, “don’t you know what causes that?”
My first two children, Michael and Christopher, were each born in May, Christopher on our second wedding anniversary. Need-less to say, encounters with the fertility police were frequent. The fertility police can be either well-meaning or downright rude. An encounter with them can be as simple as a shake of the head or as complex as lengthy inquiries about the proximity of the children’s birthdays or unsolicited advice about the most effective methods of contraception.
Lectures at the grocery store
One place where I frequently run into the fertility police is the grocery store. There, one woman called me crazy. Another nearly fainted in the soup aisle while I was shopping with my daughter Kathleen, then a month old. This distraught woman insisted on telling me what it was like to be the mother of not only a newborn but also of a three-year-old boy (the “curse” of the human race, as she put it). When I told her I also had a three-year-old son and six children in all, she started muttering to herself, “Six children, six children, six children…,” and made a beeline away from me. She did not utter a peep to me in the cereal aisle.
Being open to new life and not cooperating with the contraceptive mentality of today’s culture makes a Catholic parent a walking sign of contradiction. Apparently, seeing a family with more than two children causes a searing jab in the consciences of some people who had considered the issue of whether to have more children moot. Why else would complete strangers tell me their darkest secrets about using birth control, along with their reasons for avoiding having another child, some even graphically describing “cutting and burning those tubes”?
My sister’s mother-in-law, Martha, would probably have been classified as certifiable today. She and her husband married at age 35 and were subsequently blessed with five daughters and four sons in ten years. Martha’s husband, a World War II veteran, probably never imagined that God had this in store for his life in December 1941, when he was sent out of Pearl Harbor on a submarine the day before the Japanese bombed it.
The contraceptive mentality of our culture has trickled down even to our children. A fourth-grader in the CCD class I taught asked me when I was pregnant with my daughter Maggie if I was “going to keep it.” “You already have two,” she said. This little girl was ten years old, and she already thought two children was enough. How sad it is that many children today see love limited in this way. Children learn most of what they know from their parents; thus, it is vitally important for parents to give their children a proper upbringing in the Culture of Life.
Cultural opposition to large families, while nothing new, is especially intense today. Even when I was growing up, the neighbors teased my mother, calling her “Mrs. Rabbit” because she gave birth to the five of us in seven years. Though we have had our share of spats like any other family, we are tightly knit. Family closeness is not something that can be bought or sold, but it is one of the most precious gifts you can have. I thank God for the gift of my big family.
Sometimes the flak large families receive comes from those who should know better: grandparents. Some mothers and fathers are actually afraid to tell their own parents that another baby is on the way. For Heaven’s sake, it is not as if they were unwed teenagers. Responsible sex used to mean being married; now it means using a pill or a condom.
Flak can even come from Catholic Natural Family Planning advocates. For example, my friends Adele and Ryan were on vacation with their seven children. At Mass on Father’s Day, as they left the pew, a man shoved an NFP brochure into Ryan’s hand. Which one of their beautiful children did this man think should not exist? Was it any of his business to suggest that there was something wrong with their style of “family planning”?
One of the reasons for this hostility toward large families is a failure to trust in Divine Providence and the graces of the Sacrament of Matrimony. Even many Catholic NFP-users are so caught up in managing every temperature and trace of mucus that the big picture becomes lost in a blur: every child, “planned” or not, comes into the world through the grace of God and is part of His plan. God will not give you more than you can handle, and He will always be there with abundant graces to help you.
One of the questions that newlyweds most often hear is: “Will you have children, and if so, how many?” I used to say that I wanted six because I figured it would keep the fertility police at bay for a while. Now my husband and I are expecting our seventh child in November. How many children will we have in all? Only God knows the perfect number for us.
Post Script: Sean Brendan Walsh made his debut on November 13, 2001. The woman at the pool had a third child the following spring.