Since my reversion 21 years ago, I have been surrounded by my Catholic friends in an amazing Catholic diocese and community. The norm in my circles is openness to life in one's marriage. Those of my friends who have small families, or no children at all, are usually suffering from infertility.
But when I am in the broader culture, a culture I used to fit within quite comfortably, I recognize that large families are an anomaly. Sometimes, the realization can be jarring. A couple of my younger kids now go to a public charter school down the street, which is a change from the small Catholic school and homeschooling that had been the norm for us for decades. Almost all of my boys' classmates come from families with one or two children.
On my block, almost every other family has two children. Over the 15 years we've lived here, a strange thing has happened. A bunch of us had small kids/toddlers/babies at the time. As the years passed, the neighbors' kids grew into teens and even adults. No more babies or little kids in the neighborhood -- except for our house, which continued to contain young kids, toddlers, babies. It is sometimes just a little eerie, honestly.
Families that welcome many children are not the norm. In the past, big families were seen as a blessing, as natural, as routine, but the culture has changed completely, as evidenced by a comment I received just the other day from a reader named Amy:
Leila: I would rather like to know what made you have eight children and expect your husband to provide for all of them, unless he is quite wealthy.
I don't want to assume snarkiness (though it sure seems a little snippy), but I do assume that Amy has a general unfamiliarity with large families. She simply cannot imagine why a regular married couple would welcome many children. It makes no sense to her at all, and she sees it as even a terrible imposition on the marriage itself, unless it's the luxury, whim, and frivolity of a "quite wealthy" family.
Which brings me to the thoughts I've been having lately, when I see just how different my family and my friends' families really are in today's America. When I first discovered the truth of Catholicism and the beauty of God's design for human sexuality and marriage, I was exploding with joy! Everything made sense, it was so stunning, so lovely, so profound!
New converts or reverts have a tendency to get zealous very quickly, due to that blush of "new love" that comes with the embrace of Christ and His Church, and that zeal I felt, combined with spiritual immaturity, led me to so many rookie mistakes. I made assumptions that were unfounded, including the assumption that "people in this culture only have one or two children because they are selfish!" I was just sure of it.
And then I began to mature, and I began to think. While it is true that some couples close their marriage to any or more children due to selfishness, materialism, and a desire for the "finer things and the good life" (I have had people admit this to me with great honesty), I can't assume that for the majority.
In fact, I started to look at my own pre-faithful life. When my husband and I were married, I was on the Pill. We had talked about having two kids, maybe three at the most (especially if the first two kids were the same sex). That was how it was, and there was no big controversy or angst.
But interestingly, that was not my heart's desire at all. I actually always thought that big families, when I had seen them or read about them, were amazing, wonderful, fascinating! In my heart of hearts, I would have loved to have a "big family" -- four kids, maybe even five!
Of course, that was just a dream (and one barely thought of), like saying that it would be amazing to weave my own clothes on a loom, or travel the world on a yacht. I mean, some people did that sort of thing -- the eccentrics, the uber-religious, the uber-rich -- but not normal folks.
It wasn't that I was being selfish or stingy in fully intending to limit our family to two children (three being possible, but not probable), it was that I was doing what was done. The cultural norm of two children was and is the very air that we breathe in regular America. There is no thought about it, no deeper questions to be asked, none of that. We do what our neighbors do. We do what the culture says. I would no more have thought about actually having a large family than I would have thought about going barefoot on a trip to the mall or joining a circus as a trapeze artist. I mean, who does that? A very odd few.
Selfishness, like love, requires willful thought and action.
And so, in looking back, I was not selfish in my decision. It was simply not a decision that I even knew could be made. It was not a question on the radar at all. When I look around at the majority of my neighbors and fellow parents, I cannot assume that they are being selfish in deliberately limiting their family size. They are just being 21st century Americans. It's just what we do. We have very small families and we do it reflexively. It's no more complicated than that.
Which brings me to the freedom. When the glorious moment hits, when the awesome realization strikes, "I don't have to follow the American norm; I am a Catholic and I follow the Lord", oh the freedom! Oh, the joy! It's as if the sealed box we've been living in has been burst open and we can jump out into the sunlight! Everything is different, new, bright, fresh, and colorful -- teeming with life and abundance! Oh, the possibilities!
My heart's hidden desire, to have more children and have my house full of life and my children lush with siblings and exponential extended family potential, was now unleashed! No one and nothing, not even a mindless and powerful cultural norm, could bind me again.
I pray that we Catholics would understand that those who deliberately have small families are not necessarily being selfish; they simply don't know a higher authority than the cultural norm. When they question or act shocked by our big families, it may well be that they are, as I once was, truly curious at the "eccentrics" in their midst.
May we Catholics never take our freedom for granted, nor judge as selfish those who don't yet know that they are still bound. Our job is to love them, and to lead them to the freedom that is meant for all.