Our daughter and two sons were very excited about the little baby in mommy’s tummy and hoped it was a girl. I guess because getting tackled from behind by a rough boy can take a toll on anyone after a couple hundred hits. My wife and I returned after the ultrasound.
“Guess what?” we both smiled, “IT’S-A-BOY!!!”
Blank stares. Furrowed eye-brows. Then, “what?” followed by, “No, we want it to be a girl.” We couldn’t help but laugh.
“Sorry. We don’t get to pick,” we explained. Eventually they warmed up and are pumped once again about their baby brother. They already have a pretty good relationship with him because they sit on his head and he kicks them. So, as far as I can tell, sibling relations are really not much different inside or outside of the womb.
While having an ongoing family discussion for our new baby’s name, we were yet to establish a middle name. First thing one morning, our son climbed in our bed and said, “I want his middle name him Dominic after my big brother Dominic.” You see, our first baby, Dominic, died before he was born. Our children know about their older brother and visit his grave. They often discuss what he is doing in heaven, count him when figuring chairs for dinner or rosaries for prayer. Our son named his younger brother after his older brother. It was perfect.
Others have a different idea of perfect. I recall a time with two small kids in tow, a Starbucks barista greeted me with, “You must be so happy.” She continued, “You got your boy and your girl.” I was confused, so my wife explained to me in the car, that for many, there’s an ideal family size with one boy and one girl. Oh?
If you are doing the math, this may bring up a question I am regularly asked,
“So how many kids do you want?”
It’s difficult to respond because this is the wrong question. It assumes that when it comes to having children, you should want a set number. My kids are not pets, a hobby, or my latest collection. They are humans. Even in the womb, they have feelings – physical and emotional. They have little minds, wills, and souls. From their first moment of existence, they posses intrinsic dignity. My relationship with them is unique in that I get to participate in bringing them into existence – whoa!!! If that fact has never made you fall out of your chair, just stop and think about this incredible reality: A parent gives the gift of life by co-creating an unrepeatable human, who will exist for all eternity.
Little bro contemplates his smiling family.
Will determining and achieving a set number make you happy?
Yes, welcoming a child into this world brings joy. But if my desire for happiness does not mature beyond my wants, it will ironically lead to unhappiness. As with marriage, recognizing the value of the other helps me remember parenting shouldn’t be about me.
I’ve found that marital happiness depends on putting my wife first. I know when I first met her, I very much wanted to be around her for selfish reasons – she was incredibly attractive (ow! ow!), she made me laugh, and I felt good when I was near her. But if I want to say that I came to love her, that must mean that I at least learned to strive to put her happiness before mine. If I haven’t progressed beyond that initial selfishness, then I only love myself (or at least I love myself more) and I use her to make me feel good. If we both act that way, we might end up at mutual use, but it wouldn’t be love and we wouldn’t be happy. Similarly, I may initially welcome a child because I recognize all the joy that little person will bring me, but if I can’t stop focusing on my self, I’ll view children as a burden and won’t be happy.
I think God uses children to uproot selfishness. Once that little zygote appears, you are in a relationship that requires effort. You’ll have to feed him, change diapers when you’d rather sleep, and get thrown-up on at the library and Whole Foods in the same week. No one wants to smell like baby vomit, but love requires it (you read that right). These are individual manifestations of the general opportunity openness to life affords – a chance to love. Children are an extension of the love (and thus sacrifice) between spouses.
Adventure please, not expertise
I am open to life because giving a kid his own supreme adventure is the greatest possible gift. “It’s more blessed to give than receive,” not because its easy or always feels good, but because when we give a gift of time, effort, or material support, we discover a deeper satisfaction than with a selfish choice. (BTW, I’m pro-choice…on joyful matters, that is. I advocate for people to choose to be open to new life, to build up families, to welcome, include and invite. I oppose choices that are closed to, degrade, or destroy life. So, I am not pro-choice on slavery, trafficking, or abortion. Choosing to give the gift of life is a beautiful choice; choosing to deny the dignity of life is a terrible choice).
Children provide an opportunity for love. Focusing on how they make me feel (or smell) may result in the decision, “We’re done having kids.” Sometimes the drain of raising children smothers our desire to love. I know this feeling and can empathize with parents who are struggling (missing my old friend, Sleep). But I have found a stronger motivator than the fear of sleep depravation, stepping on sharp toys in the night, and cleaning up unknown bodily liquids: Love conquers fear.
Note – I do not judge anyone for their family size. Some cannot conceive, some have lost children, some have seriously difficult circumstances. Fertility is a wonderful gift. There is a huge difference between these situations and a common, “We’re done.” What if the sacrifice of not being done is worth the value and love it adds to your family?
Say yes to the mess
Our family size isn’t a result of ease. As I am writing this, I have to cover up my ears because the loudness of my kids is distracting me from writing about the difficulty of having kids. Having a family is hard! Marriage, pregnancy, and raising kids are not a walk in the park. Why then bother? Are we masochists? Instead of focusing on the difficulty of having kids, I can see that each of my children has increased the amount of love in my marriage and in my home.
Difficult things are worth doing. Consider winning a championship, excelling in business, or mastering a musical instrument: are these worth the effort? We may instinctively avoid a situation that requires sacrifice, but when it comes to the challenges of relationships, the path of least resistance is a lonely place. What’s the alternative? Sure, playing video games in your parents’ basement is easier than the daily sacrifice of marriage, but is it more fulfilling?
Relationship Math: Easy + Selfish = Lonely, Sacrifice + Selfless = Fulfilling
We are not having another kid because we easily excelled through the level and are thus ready for a harder round. Every child (whether 1st, 2nd, or 9th) is a challenge. Nowadays, we tend to avoid anything hard and we are perplexed when we see other people take on challenging tasks that we avoid. Such is motivated by fear, not the heart or mind.
Have you ever experienced the feeling of accomplishment after a workout? The joy of parenthood can be like the joy of an early morning run. Before the sun rises I have been meeting some people to run. The initial exchanges typically include, “What the hell are we doing here?” and, “I can’t believe I made it out of bed.” As hard as it is, we know deep down why we are there. And as we run, we discover a real sense of power, strength, and self-motivation as we complete a lap – we feel like we are doing something great and will accomplish much that day beyond physical exercise. We weren’t deterred by fear of the challenge.
But, sometimes I don’t make it out of bed. Me and my temper do a lot of failing. This is why I am an advocate of irresponsible and for that matter, unplanned parenthood. Happy parenthood depends on the degree of love, not the degree a plan is formulated and executed.
Should you seek to avoid or achieve pregnancy? What determines your disposition toward new life? Beyond the logic with which we weigh these decisions, we find a deeper pull. Maybe it’s like the unreasonable love for soccer that keeps many returning to the field. I played in a league this summer and we did not win a single game! Yes, I scored goals, won some headers, and danced around the ball once or twice. But our team failed and kept coming back for more. I still want to play again.
It’s that kind of failure that underlies Catholic parenting: It’s the joy inherent in the adventure. As long as you are on the field, you experience the joy of the game. We don’t welcome additional kids because we envisioned a specific number that we are working towards or because we feel compelled by some archaic manipulative religion. We welcome new life because through all the challenges and failures, we discover a joy that is greater than our personal desires.
We view family life qualitatively, not quantitatively. That quality depends on the degree to which we live in the present moment. We are open to new life because we know love multiplies, even in the face of failure.
Openness doesn’t imply expertise, just a recognition that more life invites more love. Unrestrained love between spouses cannot be contained – it overflows into a new existence. Is there a greater force than love?