Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Openness to life does not guarantee having children
A while ago, I attended a friend's bridal shower. We played that game where the shower planners ask the groom a series of questions about the bride beforehand, and then at the shower the bride is asked the same questions to see if their answers match or (usually for a laugh) don't. Questions like, "What is the bride's least favorite chore?" and "What was the bride's first pet?" and so on.
One of the questions was, "How many children does the bride want to have?" At the shower, my friend answered without hesitation, "As many as God gives us." I think the groom's answer was a specific number, (maybe four?) so that got a laugh.
Fast forward: nine months after my friend got married, they welcomed their son into the world. A big Catholic family was in the making.
The funny (ironic? sad? devastating?) thing is, that when I was getting married almost four years ago, I answered that question exactly the same way: "as many as God gives us." In fact, on one of the first dates with my future husband, he asked me, "How many kids do you want?" and I replied (blushing, and feeling slightly giddy at the thought of us having kids together), "Enough to fill a church pew!"
And yet here we are, still childless. A family of two. I am conscious of that heavy label every single day: infertile. Or, more biblically, barren.
|"relax baby" by Janine is licensed under C.C. by 2.0.|
We have been open to life our entire marriage, and so far the number of children God wants to give us appears to be a big fat zero. (And by "open to life," I mean what the Church means: that each and every marital act is open to the possibility of conception and not closed off to that possibility by means of contraception or sterilization, cf. Humanae Vitae, no. 11.)
I could fill several books with moody, macabre reflections about the experience of being infertile, about what it's like when children don't come despite your strong desire and best efforts. But I'll spare you that (for now).
What I'd like to share here is one truth that infertility has hammered home for me, the title of this post: openness to life does not guarantee having children.
Perhaps that seems so obvious as to be banal. Of course not every procreative act results in actual procreation; basic biology tells us that. And yet there are many days when it seems to me like this fact is not obvious at all.
For example: at large Catholic events when a speaker is introduced and the crowd gasps and cheers at the fact that he has ten children. Of course we should celebrate the gift of life and the generosity of large families. But would people cheer for us, just as open to life, although with nothing (visible) to show for it?
Or another example: I have read articles or been part of conversations that implicitly, or quite explicitly, blame everything from demographic winter to the closing of Catholic schools to the growing use of immoral reproductive technology on childless couples or small families, without the qualification that not all of them chose not to have a(nother) child. I would very much like to bump up the birthrate!
In short, it seems from my (emotionally biased, yes) vantage point that even within the Church many forget that having children is not first something a couple wills or does, such that they can take credit for procreation or deserve blame for its absence. Having children is not, first, a choice, a box to check "yes" or "no". If only it were that simple! Rather, having children is something that a couple receives through no merit of their own but simply because our God is abundantly generous and has inscribed in our bodies the awesome power to participate in the very act of creation.
In other words, children are a gift. They are gratuitously, mysteriously given, and sometimes, even more mysteriously, not given.
Only God knows whether my friend and her husband will conceive easily again (and again); only God knows whether my husband and I will live our entire marriage as a family or two, or whether we will be blessed with children through conception or adoption. But what I do know, what the experience of infertility has taught me through an often painful valley of tears, is that life is not at our command nor something we can take credit for. We will remain open to life in obedience to God and the truth of our bodies and marriage. As for having a church pew full of children, well, we'll welcome as many as God gives us.
The author is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute.